The hundred year history of pizza in New York City, and the nation, is very much alive (and kicking with drama) on the streets of Brooklyn. The latest chapter in the saga of coal-fired New York Neapolitan pizza was written this week, as the legendary Grimaldis, ousted from their current space under the Brooklyn Bridge in DUMBO after long-running skirmishes with their landlord, announced they’d be moving next door. Days later news broke that the real Patsy Grimaldi, who sold the pizzeria to the current owners in 1998, would be moving back into the original space, with the original coal brick oven, to start making pizza again in a restaurant to be called Juliana.
The lineages connecting some of our legendary coal-fired pies back to the first appearance of pizza in the nation over a century ago is an important chapter in the story of our city’s food culture. But the narrative is filled with so many twists and turns, accusations and acrimony that it can be hard to figure out who’s on first.
Lombardi’s Grocery sold the first pizza as we know it (or at least received the city’s first ever pizzeria license) in Little Italy in 1905, using a recipe supposedly passed down from owner Gennaro Lombardi’s father. Lombardi’s employee Antonio Totonno Pero made the pies in a coal oven and perfected the recipe, and in 1924 he left to open his own place in Coney Island, called Totonno’s (still operating today, still owned by the same family, still turning out exquisite pies.)
Pasquale ‘Patsy’ Lancieri also worked for Lombardi for many years, and in 1933 he and his wife Carmella left to open Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem. It was East Harlem’s first pizzeria, and according to some, the first pizzeria in New York to sell pizza by the slice.
(In 1944, a different family opened Patsy’s Restaurant in midtown, which did not sell pizza. While both Patsy’s were favorites of Frank Sinatra, they didn’t share a whole lot of love for each other – the two establishements were locked in an ‘oftentimes labrynthine course of litigation’ over many years.)
The last few decades are when things started getting tricky. Patsy Grimaldi, who is Patsy Lancieri’s nephew, learned his craft at his uncle’s pizzeria in East Harlem, where he began making pies and waiting tables in 1941 at the age of ten. In 1990 Grimaldi ventured forth to open his own coal oven pizza place in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. He also called his place Patsy’s Pizzeria, reportedly with permission from Lancieri’s widow.
In 1991, Grimaldi’s aunt, Carmela Lancieri, sold the East Harlem restaurant along with its naming and branding rights to I.O.B. Realty. By 1994, I.O.B had franchised the Patsy’s name to four other Manhattan restaurants. In 1995 they sued Patsy Grimaldi for calling his place Patsy’s Pizzeria. Accusing the realty company of selling out the brand associated with the sacred East Harlem joint but cowed by the threats of lawsuits, he changed the name of his restaurant to Patsy Grimaldi’s in 1996.
In 1998 Grimaldi sold his restaurant, along with the name, to Frank Ciolli. So if you’ve been to Grimaldi’s under the bridge in the past 13 years, it’s Ciolli’s Grimaldi’s you’ve been to, not Patsy’s. Not that that seemed to be a problem when it came to the pizza – Zagat rated Grimaldi’s the city’s best pizza every year from 1996 through 2002.
Still with us? Hang on, there’s more.
Over the years, Ciolli’s Grimaldi’s had a series of disagreements over rent with the landlord Dorothy Waxman and her son Mark, leading the Waxmans to attempt to evict Ciolli from the space last year. While a judge ruled that Grimaldi’s could stay in the space until the lease expired in November of 2011, the acrimony over the suit made headlines.
In August of 2010, The Brooklyn Paper reported:
Ciolli was calm during the hearing, but things got heated — and even physical — between him and Waxman during a recess. The two had given their cases, and Ciolli was livid, pointing a finger in Waxman’s face and yelling.
“This is a stab in the back — this is bulls—t!” Ciolli yelled, eye-to-eye with Waxman. “You don’t know who you’re dealin’ with. But you’ll find out soon enough. You’re buying yourself a lawsuit.”
Then Ciolli turned and ripped a camera — which was capturing the circus — out of a reporter’s hand before he went back into the courtroom as other reporters gasped at the brazen move.
Predictably, the Waxmans opted not to renew Ciolli’s lease when it expired this year. After much speculation about the fate of the legendary pizzeria, Ciolli announced over the holiday weekend that Grimaldis would be moving to a new location, right next door to the old one. So who swept in to take over the original spot, and its cherished coal brick oven? Yes…Patsy Grimaldi.
Patsy, back in his old space, once called Patsy’s and then called Grimaldi’s, will be calling the newest incarnation of the city’s coal brick oven pizza heritage Juliana - a tribute to his late mother. Juliana is set to open in March, 2012.
From the NY Post:
“’A year after I sold Grimaldi’s, I was very sorry,’ Grimaldi told The Post. ‘So when Mr. Waxman called me and asked if I wanted to come back, I thought I was dreaming. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.’”
So Patsy Grimaldi has his old space and his old oven back.
Things have been hard for Ciolli: the Buildings Department issued a stop work order at the new location because someone had apparently secretly installed a new coal-brick oven without the proper permitting. The city rarely approves the construction of new coal ovens because of pollution concerns. Ciolli blamed his architect for failing to secure the proper permits. The architect quit, claiming Ciolli had installed the coal oven rather than the gas-coal hybrid that had been planned after it was recommended by the city.
The coal oven is critical to the kind of pizza that made Grimaldi’s famous, and it’s hard to imagine them reopening without one. On top of everything else, their move has been delayed by the tragic, sudden death of one of Ciolli’s sons last week, a development which makes the rest of this pizza in-fighting seem not very important.
And so pizza history is alive in New York City. The drama makes for a compelling story, but according to this story’s leading men, it isn’t a war.
According to the Post:
Both Grimaldi and Ciolli say they don’t expect a pizza war, adding there is more than enough business for the two pizzerias to prosper.
“I have no animosity towards Patsy and his family. He gave me a wonderful opportunity selling me the place in 1998, and I wish him the best,” Ciolli said.
At the end of the day it’s the pizza that really matters. And when it comes to quality, competition is always a good thing, right? So we welcome Patsy Grimaldi back to the scene, and we wish Ciolli our condolences for his family’s tragic loss, and the best for the future of Grimaldi’s.
Who knows? Perhaps a friendly back-to-back duel between a couple of coal-oven pizza legends will push the classic New York Neapolitan pie to new heights. We’ll be watching.