New York's landmark pizzerias

As I made travel arrangements for another trip into New York to continue my research on the top 10 landmark pizzerias, the memory of zero-degree weather and Old Man Winter’s cruel joke on a poor Southern boy still lingered in the back of my mind… actually it shivered down my spine. I was all set to visit Grimaldi’s Under the Brooklyn Bridge and John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street.

As I checked in to the Hilton, I was quite surprised at the reception they had in store for me. No, Paris Hilton wasn’t there with video camera in hand to meet me, but there were velvet ropes with fans and cameras camped out in the lobby. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “Now this place knows how to treat a V.I.P. (Very Important Pizza writer).” I waved to my fans and offered an autograph, but the elevator door opened and I really wanted to get settled in from the trip. On the way up to my room, sadly I found out all the hoopla wasn’t for me. The Hilton was the host hotel for Wrestlemania. I’m used to my fans wearing WWF shirts, but this explained why no one seemed to care when I waved and offered autographed copies of PMQ. I would have to just settle for four days of eating great New York pizza and learning more about the history of pizza in America.

Built to Last Forever

As I sit and wait for a pizza, the place is bustling. There’s chatter everywhere, the pitter-pattering of two guys constantly slapping out pizza and Frank Sinatra is singing New York, New York in the background through the speakers.

The people keep filing in…one by one, two by two and in groups. The guy and his mom, who are sitting beside me, strike up a conversation. They see me taking pictures and taking notes. They tell me about growing up in Brooklyn. “You see that bridge over us…it was built to last forever,” the old woman says to me, and I believe her. New Yorkers have a bad reputation for being rude…it’s not true. Welcome to Grimaldi’s Under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Patsy Grimaldi started Grimaldi’s Pizza in 1990. While it may not seem like one of the landmark pizzerias by it’s age, its owner gives it its legendary status. Patsy Grimaldi, who is now 71, started making pies at his uncle Patsy Lancieri's restaurant in 1941 at the age of 10. Patsy’s (the original) was opened in Harlem in 1933 and is legendary in the pizza world. Patsy Grimaldi is still alive today and can occasionally be found sitting around Grimaldi’s.

“I worked in my uncle’s restaurant until about 1953, when I went into the service. I came out and went back to work for my uncle until about 1974, which is when he died. When that happened, I went to work at another restaurant right around the corner from where Grimaldi’s is now.

“I learned the right way to make pizza at my uncle’s,” Patsy says. “The correct way…the only way. Some of my most memorable experiences there were meeting all of the famous people who would come through. People like Joe DiMaggio, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. It was there I met Frank. Those were nice memories…good times.” The Frank he is speaking of is none other than Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.  “Back then, I was a waiter in Patsy’s. There was more money in waiting tables then and I met Frank. (Frank) was great and he loved his pizza.”

At the restaurant, I spoke with the current management, who knew Patsy when he first opened. They said Sinatra considered Patsy Grimaldi’s pizzeria the best and his favorite and Patsy a good friend.

In 1990, when Patsy Grimaldi was 58 years old, he decided it was time for him to open his own pizzeria. As mentioned, he worked right along the waterfront in Brooklyn. There was an empty hardware store that was available right around the corner. “The building was open and I said to myself, ‘Jesus, this would be a great location for a restaurant.’ I went home and told my wife and we took out a loan on the house, borrowed money and opened under the Brooklyn Bridge.

“I opened under the name Patsy’s, which was a mistake,” Patsy continued. “I should have registered the name, because in 1974 my uncle died and his pizzeria was taken over by his wife, my aunt Carmela Lancieri. In 1991, she sold the pizzeria and the trade name to someone outside the family. They started opening franchises and took me to court. They said if I wanted to keep using the name Patsy’s, I had to buy the product from them and tell everyone I was affiliated with them. I said, ‘No way.’ I gave up the name and started using my last name in 1996.

“I sold it when I was 65 years old, but I am still involved in the restaurant. I trained all of the guys there and still go in at least once a week to make sure the quality is the same. I make sure the new owners do everything the way I did. It’s my name up there and I don’t want anyone to embarrass me…and they don’t. The pizza served there now is very close to what you used to get in my uncle’s place.”

I asked Patsy if he missed the day-to-day in the pizzeria. “I was 65 when I sold it and we worked long hours and I had to take care of my son. Do I miss it? Oh, very much…very much. I miss the celebrities and the people. I loved the attention I got. It was a nice feeling.”

Not only does Grimaldi’s have a great pizza, it has one of the best views of Manhattan around. It’s located right under the Brooklyn Bridge and right across the street you get a magnificent view of lower Manhattan. On a typical Saturday, you will see 15 to 20 wedding parties getting pictures taken there. According to employees, it used to be better…when the Twin Towers were there. As we stood at the doors of the pizzeria looking across at the view, they told of the day it all happened. When the Towers fell, all of the soot and dust came right across to them. Grimaldi’s pitched in, like all of New York restaurant owners and the rest of the country, and fed the workers, police and firemen who walked back and forth across the bridge getting to Ground Zero. “I get so depressed looking over there now that they are gone,” Patsy says.

“Pizza actually started in Naples, but here it started in New York,” Patsy explained. “Then, nearly all ovens were coal, but they have long disappeared. I helped bring back the brick ovens. I only wished I knew then what I know now. Way back then, no one sold slices. If you wanted pizza, you had to go in to a place like my uncles, sit down and order a whole pie. The first two guys who started selling slices worked for my uncle…two Italian guys. They were ahead of me. They started selling slices in about 1949 or 1950. They started with one place, sold it, built another, sold it and kept going.”

Grimaldi’s has put all of its emphasis on producing a quality product at a good price. The price of pizza hasn’t changed in over nine years and the ingredients haven’t changed either. If you build a building and start to cut corners, will that building last forever? They built the Brooklyn Bridge to last forever and Patsy Grimaldi built a reputation that will do the same.

Grimaldi’s

Borkacki

Victor Borkacki (left) is Grimaldi’s day manager, and Chris Kierski (right) manages the waitstaff and works with customers.
Dinner

People come to Grimaldi’s not only for great food, but for a great price as well. You can get all of this for less than $30.
Frank

One of Patsy Grimaldi’s biggest fans and friends. According to the current management, who knew both of them, Frank and Patsy were “very, very good friends. They shared many moments.”
Menuboard

Nothing at Grimaldi’s has changed except time. Prices are the same as they were nine years ago, and there are no plans to do otherwise.
Ovencookin

In the old days, coal ovens were pretty much all there was to cook pizza. Grimaldi’s continues with the tradition and goes through about four tons of Pennsylvania coal each month.
Patsy

The man, the myth, Patsy Grimaldi

The Passing of the Torch

In the heart of Greenwich Village, between 6th and 7th Avenues, you’ll find Bleecker Street. Back in the 1920s and 1930s it was home for many Italian immigrants.

From 14th Street to the bridge, it was a family-oriented area. In 1929, John Sasso was working at Lombardi’s Pizza on Spring Street. Lombardi’s was the first pizzeria in the U.S. In 1929, John decided to strike out on his own and open his own place, which can still be found on Bleecker Street.          John’s was around from the beginning and the torch has been passed from one family member to another and now there is a new generation poised to take the reigns. I called and arranged to meet with the guys from John’s Pizza to continue my quest for the origins of American pizza.

I arrived at John’s with Jamie Swanson, who is co-owner of the Infinity Group, which is heading up PMQ’s New York Pizza Show that will take place in New York City in November. Jamie had been following the series on landmark pizzerias and was excited about meeting the guys there. We get there and take a seat in the back. We were told that Bob Vittoria, the current owner, had already stepped out for the day, but his stepson, Michael Frank was there. At first, I was a little disappointed because I wanted to go straight to the source for the history. I was wrong in that train of thought. What I was able to witness was the passing of the torch from one generation of pizza makers to the next.

Michael, who is 35, emerges from the office, where I spotted him on the phone as we came in and took a seat. I ask about the history of the place and the neighborhood. “My dad can tell you more details about growing up in the neighborhood from the 60’s, but at one point, it was the center of creativity. It was nothing to see Bob Dylan on the corner with a guitar here in the 60’s, but it’s been changing a lot in the past few years. A lot of places have gone out of business,” Michael explains. “We have never sold slices, which is not typical for a New York pizzeria. If they want a slice, I’ll send them to the place down the street. When you have two ovens, you can only keep up with so much and that’s not what we’re known for.”

Let’s talk about the two ovens…Michael tells me the oven in the front dining area is the original oven from when John Sasso opened the place. “Yeah, that oven is very old and we’re not exactly sure how old it is. The bakery that was here before John opened a pizzeria used it. We put another one in the back here about 20 years ago, but like an iron skillet, the ovens become seasoned over time. We have some customers who will come in and insist their pizza be cooked in the front oven. You can try to duplicate the one we have in the front, but it just can’t be done. We’ve tried wood-fired ovens and they can’t make pizza like these coal-fired ovens do. The heat and the speed in which they cook are the key. With them, you get the little spots of black charring, but that’s part of the flavor. Most don’t get it and you’ll get some who say, ‘Hey, it’s burned.’ That’s part of New York style pizza,” he says and begins to laugh.

 

Michael has worked at John’s for 10 years. I wanted to find out more about the history, so I called his stepfather, Bob Vittoria. Bobby begins to tell me the story. “What a time to open,” Bob says. “It was the middle of the Depression. John came here from Lombardi’s and ran the place until about 1953, when his nephews, Augustine (Chubby to everyone who knew him) Vesce and Joe Vesce purchased the restaurant from him. Chubby and Joe were my uncles. They got out about 1980 and Peter Castellotti, Sr. and Rose Vesce (Chubby’s wife) became the share holders. You see, this place has been in our family since 1929 and I’ve worked here since 1965. I became the majority owner in 1993.

 

“Back in those years, Bleecker Street was lined with vendors and their pushcarts. One sold eggs, one sold beans, one sold fruit…it was wall-to-wall carts and vendors. There was one who had a block of ice and would shave it into a cup and cover it with flavored syrups. That is probably where Rita’s got their idea for Rita’s Flavored Ices. We used to play stickball; we called it sewer ball, in the streets. It was a family place. Now that you have me thinking about it, I can almost smell what it was like there. It was a great thing and we still try to keep that same family-oriented atmosphere at John’s.

“When you go to John’s, it’s like stepping back in time…the wood tables, the 16-foot high tin ceiling, the checkered floors, everything is the same,” Bob says. “We are planning a 75-Year Anniversary and are looking at bringing back the 1929 prices for one day. It’ll be great. My partner’s son, Peter Jr., also works there with Michael. We’re trying to keep the business in the family. They both are doing a great job of taking the torch.”

Going back to the day I sat in John’s with Michael and Jamie, I asked Michael what it was that made John’s Pizza so special. “It’s the food and the ovens,” he says. “We use a whole-milk mozzarella, which gives the pizza more of a buttery taste than the fresh mozzarella a lot of other guys here in New York use. In my opinion, the fresh mozzarella is too watery. We pay more, but what are you gonna do…we’re famous for high-quality, fresh ingredients…we’re known for it. But, even the worst pizza here still blows most other places away.

“As far as the ovens, like I said, it’s the heat and the speed. It takes about an hour-and-a-half to get them up to temperature. We use wood to get the coal started and have to add more coal at the shift change, which is about four o’clock.”

There’s a lot to running a business in New York…a lot of money. Michael says he has to stay on top of things to keep the doors open. “Rent is high, plus food, insurance, payroll and constant repairs to an old building…you have to work hard and sell a lot just to stay in business. Some guys think you’re getting rich, but they don’t see what it costs just to keep the doors open.”

Michael says that January and February are slow months, but they probably sell about 2,000 pizzas a week. “The busy time is November and December,” he says. “During those months, based on take-out boxes, we send 1,500 take-out orders through the door. Pizza is about 90 percent of our sales and our customer base is about 55 percent locals.”

John Sasso died about 30 years ago, but his legend lives on at John’s on Bleecker Street. The torch has been passed on through the family ever since and now there is a new generation about to take over. Bob says he isn’t ready to retire. One thing is for sure, if he does, the place is in good hands. Stay tuned to PMQ for the next two pizzerias in my quest for the origins of American Pizza.

John's Pizzeria

  Coal Chamber

Coal for the ovens is stored in the basement. To get it up to the ovens, a bucket brigade is formed and coal shuttled upstairs one bucket at a time. It’s quite a task, but their results are worth it.
  Window View

Walking into John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street is like a trip back in time. Forty years ago this street would have been lined with local vendors with pushcarts filled with vegetables and other goods.