For four issues, many of you have followed me on my quest to locate the top 10 landmark and legendary pizzerias in New York. I think out of all the assignments I have taken on, this has been the most fun and educational.
I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with many of the guys who helped spawn the industry I love so much. I have eaten pizza with and talked to the owners of Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, John’s on Bleecker, RayBari, Di Fara’s, L&B Spumoni, Salvatore’s, Grimaldi’s and many others that I didn’t even get a chance to mention.
It has been a tough decision determining who these top ten are. There are so many places in New York that could have been included. Places like Two Boots Pizza, Gonzo’s, Nick’s Pizza, Franny’s, Nunzio’s, Louie & Ernie’s, Umberto’s or New Park Pizza, just to name a few. At times, I felt this project could be an exercise in futility. But with the help of many friends, I narrowed it down to ten. People like Chef Bruno and Rich Ferrara (Marsal & Sons), Gemma Schiano and Julie Gruber (Grande), Peter Reinhart (author/chef), Michael D'Agostino (Takeout Printing), Big Dave Ostrander, Rich Vetter (The Food Group), Steve Coomes, Anthony Vasaturo (Vesuvio Foods) and the countless others I harassed in my search (please forgive me if I left any key people out), were all very helpful.
In this search, I nearly froze to death…twice, learned the New York subway routes (or at least many of them), traveled through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Long Island, Staten Island, Harlem and many of the streets not traveled by most tourists. I visited the museums and was amazed, walked through Central Park and ate a hotdog, visited Ground Zero and cried, gazed down on the city from the top of the Empire State Building in amazement, had a beautiful canoli in Little Italy and watched the Mets play from right behind the dugout (sorry Yankees fans, didn’t make it to Yankee Stadium). I had the opportunity to really get to know New York.
What did I learn? I learned that New York is a beautiful place. I learned that New Yorkers are wonderful, passionate and colorful people. I realized that most everything I was told about the city isn’t true and some of it is. I was treated with nothing but kindness and hospitality. I laughed, learned, explored and experienced and this poor ol’ Southern boy fell in love with the city. I also ate some of the best pizza in the country, gained 15 pounds and found out about Patsy’s in Harlem and Arturo’s in SoHo.
It all started back in 1950. One of the Patrillo brothers of Frank’s Pizzeria saw a young guy leaning against a building. Frank was the son-in-law of John Sasso who opened John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street. “You wanna work for me as a waiter?” he asked the guy. “I don’t know anything about waiting no tables,” the guy responded. “I’ll teach ya. Come in tomorrow at five and wear a white shirt and black pants.” Six years later, this young guy opened Arturo’s Pizzeria.
I enter Arturo’s and I hear this unique voice ask if I am looking for Arturo come from a guy sitting at the end of the bar. “Yes I am,” I return. “Well, you got him,” Auturo says. I introduce myself and we begin the ritualistic chitchat. It doesn’t take long for Arturo to launch into one of his millions of stories. I can’t get my tape recorder out fast enough.
“I started at Frank’s Pizzeria. They gave me one table, and then they say ‘Okay, you got another table.’ I was on the floor for about two years, and then I got nosey. I said I wanted to work in the kitchen. Frank told me I wouldn’t make as much money, but I worked in the kitchen with a coal oven for two years. I didn’t make as much money, so I went back to waiting tables. After two more years working with Frank, I wanted to openmy own place. Where did I open? In the building where Frank first started,” he says with a laugh.
“When I decided to open my own place, I had no money,” Arturo says. “In 1957, I took $4,000 and started a business. I borrowed $1,000 from my mother-in-law, $1,000 from my aunt, $1,000 from my sister and I had $1,000.
“Once I got the spot, I would go to the place and make lists. I found a guy who had a warehouse full of second-hand furniture and equipment. He told me to get what I needed, and he would come by every Friday and I could pay him $50.
“I got some old ice cream parlor tables and chairs. The place had a patio and I hung lights in the trees and bought a statue…it was beautiful. I didn’t have anything for the walls so I went down to a travel agent and got some posters of Venice, Rome, Versuvio and other stuff and hung them on the wall crooked. I didn’t have any chandeliers so I got some of those bushel bean baskets. I painted them and hung them over the bare light bulbs. The place was like a Japanese flag…beautiful. A few years later I finally bought some real chandeliers. People didn’t like them, they liked the baskets more.”
Arturo’s is one of those places that seem to attract a unique blend of people. Adorning the walls are countless photos of people like Tony Bennett, mayors, actors and other celebrities. When you walk in, you are standing beside the bar and facing an old baby grand piano. “I’m into food and music,” Arturo says. “We have jazz every night…it’s unbelievable. I don’t know which attracts more people, the music or the food, but I think it’s about the same.”
I ask him about whom his favorite customer was out of all the stars he has seen come in. “Dizzy used to come in. He was nuts…he was a sweetheart. He used to come in the back door,” Arturo says with a long pause. “It was old habits I guess (laughs). He came in one night and the place was packed. There wasn’t even a place for him to sit. A pie comes out of the oven and he puts on a white apron and asks me what table it goes to. He walked out there, taking two steps forward and one step back. He puts the pie down and the guy looks up and says, ‘Aren’t you Dizzy Gillespie?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You hungry? Sit down and eat with us.’ Dizzy was a great guy.”
Arturo says he has seen many changes. The flower children came and went, the beatniks and the punks have all shared their time in Arturo’s. He has two children, Scott and Lisa, who have grown up in the pizzeria. They didn’t have much of a choice because Arturo lives above the restaurant.
“The place looks the same, but it’s much more organized in the back now,” Lisa says. She started working there 28 years ago. “I wanted to be with Daddy. He put up a sign that said, ‘If you need ice, ask for Lisa.’ Later, he bought Scott and I a peanut machine so we could learn a little about business. I started waiting tables. The first day of waiting, I had to wait on Gina Lollobrigida.
“We’ve never changed anything. Even our cooks have been here for 25 years. The pizza is the same, but now we have different kinds of pizza. People are eating a lot more vegetables. We have lobster, calamari and chicken on pizza. Before we add a new pizza we have to get a lot of feedback from our waiters. They tell us what people are requesting and then run it by the other waiters and see if they are getting the same requests.
“We have 13-inch and 16-inch pizzas, but no slices and no tap beer. We don’t sell slices or tap beer because we don’t want riff-raff in here. We have a unique product and a coal-fired oven. The music, food and location all come together. About the only marketing we have ever done was coming up with these menus that were printed the same color and size as parking tickets and placed them on car windows,” Lisa says.
What a great place to visit. Drop in, walk around and look at the hundreds of photos, listen to one of the piano players and eat some great food. You never know who will drop in while you’re there. If you can, grab Arturo and sit him down and let him tell you some stories. I recommend getting him to tell you about the night Stevie Wonder came in and played the piano or the night Tony Bennett sang. I could have stayed for days, just hanging out with Arturo. He’s definitely the King of his Corner.
Back in January I was interviewing Fred Lacagnina, owner of Salvatore’s and the great-nephew of Patsy Lanceri. Fred told stories about how his great-aunt, Carmella, used to sit at what was called the “family table” in the back of Patsy’s Pizza in Harlem and peel garlic and cut vegetables. No one but family sat there, and it was from this table that Patsy and Carmella built their legendary reputation. I walked in Patsy’s some 70 years after Patsy opened his business and took a seat and waited for John Brecevich, the current owner of Patsy’s to come out.
I am sitting at a round table in the back of the room and wondering if this is the family table. “Yes, this is table #1,” John says. “It was right here that Carmella would sit snapping beans and peeling garlic. She and Patsy married in 1932 and opened Patsy’s in 1933. She was a hard worker and worked here until she was 90 years old. If the truth is to be told, it was Carmella who held things together around here. After Patsy’s became famous, Patsy would come in in the evening. Carmella ran the restaurant and Patsy was the showman and personality everyone knew.
“The history of Patsy’s is the history of New York. Harlem was one of the largest Italian communities in the city, if not the country, at the time. The parish was the second largest diocese after St. Patrick’s in Mid-town. In 1933, Prohibition ended, and Patsy decided to open a bar/pizzeria/clam house. Carmella said “okay” and they rented the spot for $40 a month. I have the original lease. Patsy was originally a pastry chef. They put in a brick oven and as they purchased the adjacent buildings and expanded, they would cut a hole in the wall and move the oven. You can see right there where they cut a hole in that wall,” John says as he points to a spot in the wall.
“Everyone started coming in. Frank Sinatra would come in, and he and Patsy became good friends. It was a night place and was open until 4 a.m. There was a pizza maker named Pedro who worked here for 42 years. He just retired about a year ago. Patsy took him under his wing and taught him everything he knew. Pedro would work from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. Many of the celebrities that had been out all night partying would come in. When the place closed at 4 a.m., most of them would go into the back room. Pedro said he would be in here cooking breakfast for a room full of stars at seven in the morning.
“Patsy and Carmella lived upstairs until I bought the place. I bought it with a partner named Frank Brija, who worked here and also owned a couple of pizzerias. It was a natural marriage. I was able to buy a piece of history. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
Patsy passed away in 1974. “When he passed away, all of the carriages and casket came down the street and stopped in front of the restaurant to pay tribute and then went on to the cemetery. Then everyone came back to the restaurant. After everyone was there, the employees said goodbye to Carmella and said they would see her tomorrow,” John said. “She said ‘Tomorrow?
We’re opening the place right now.’ They opened that night. Even after I bought the place in 1990, Carmella would still come in every two weeks to make sure everything was being done the way she used to do it. She was very happy…it was still the same guys cooking in the kitchen. The guy back there now has been here for over 25 years.”
John said that when he bought Patsy’s he lived in their old apartment for a while. “How was that?’ I asked. “You bought a piece of pizza history and lived in the place where they started it all.” John said it was amazing. “If those walls could talk. It was really fun. If things got crazy down here, someone would tap on the pipes to let me know I needed to come down. I have tried to imagine how many times Carmella or Patsy was up there and got the same call.”
Patsy’s now has six franchises downtown. Only a couple have coal-fired ovens like the original. To get one, the building had to have had one at some point in the past.
The coal ovens in Patsy’s burn at about 1,000˚. “We can make our crusts really thin and crispy fast and not burn the cheese,” John says. “In most ovens, to get this type of crust, you’ll burn the cheese. The pizzas come out crispy and a little charred. We make our own cheese…and yes, the recipe is a secret.”
Carmella died about a year ago, but her and Patsy’s legend lives on. The pizza is the same pizza you could get back when Patsy and Carmella were there. The pizza is one of my favorites, if not THE favorite, I have eaten. From Patsy’s, many pizzerias have been born, including Salvatore’s in Post Washington and Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge. If you get the chance, drop in. If you do, try to sit at the round table in the back of the room and imagine Carmella running the show as she snapped beans and watched Patsy be the showman meeting and greeting all of the stars coming in.