Pizza the Way It Used to Be

Last year, there were more than 75,000 pizza restaurants in the United States. Some 35,000 were chains: Pizza Hut, Dominos, Little Caesars, Papa Johns, et al. They generally offer mediocre product supported by massive national advertising campaigns and often focus on gimmicks like stuffed crusts.

But 53% of the pizzerias in America are still independents. That number is even higher in the northeast. The town where I live in northern New Jersey has some 20 pizza places. Nineteen independents and one sorry-ass Dominos.

Most of these independents are one of a kind, small businesses that are family owned. Many have been in the same family for generations. In fact, some of America’s earliest pizzerias, founded more than a century ago, are still in business, and thriving. In last week’s post I highlighted three New York City establishments that were among the first: Lombardi’s and John’s of Bleecker Street in downtown Manhattan and Totonno’s in Coney Island.

Patsy's logo

There is another iconic New York pizzeria that deserves mentioning. Patsy’s was founded in 1933 in East Harlem by Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieiri. Patsy’s Web site claims they were the first to sell pizza by the slice and suggests that they were the ones who popularized New York style thin-crust pizza. The web site also says that they recently welcomed the fourth generation of pizza makers. What they don’t mention is that this Patsy’s is no longer owned by Lancieri’s descendents. After the original “Patsy” passed away his widow sold the store to Frank Brija in 1991. Brija expanded to other locations. His son, Adem Brija, is the current owner.

But the Lancieri clan was not done. Patsy Grimaldi, a nephew of Lancieri’s wife Carmella, opened another Patsy’s in Brooklyn in 1990. The name was later changed to Grimaldi’s, but this restaurant claims a more direct line of descent from the original Patsy’s than the actual Patsy’s. Are you still following? Well, to make things even more confusing, another pizza-making Patsy, Pasquale Scognamillo, opened a Patsy’s on 56th Street in Manhattan in 1944.

Baseball fans can enjoy a slice of Patsy’s pizza at Citi Field. But exactly which Patsy’s?

In New Jersey, we don’t talk much about “New York pizza.” The editors of Food & Wine recently acknowledged what we all know, that the best pizza state in America is New Jersey. We have our own Patsy’s.It’s in Paterson and has been there since 1931. But the epicenter of New Jersey’s pizza legacy is in the state capital, Trenton.

Trenton is famous for the “tomato pie.” This is a pizza made by putting the sauce on top of the cheese, rather than the other way around. Papa’s Tomato Pies bills itself as the oldest family owned and continuously run pizzeria in the U.S. Giuseppe “Joe” Papa, an immigrant from Naples, founded Papa’s in 1912 in Trenton.

Joe Papa
Joe Papa with his wife Adalene

When Papa passed in 1965, the business was taken over by Dominick “Abie” Azzaro and Theresa “Tessie” Papa. Azzaro had been a Papa’s employee and he married Joe Papa’s daughter. Abie and Tessie eventually passed the business on to their son Nick Azzaro, who has since moved the pizzeria to nearby Bedminster.

While New York has its multiple Patsy’s, Trenton is home to the DeLorenzo’s. There is both a DeLorenzo’s Pizza and a DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. Both trace their roots to a pair of southern Italian immigrants, Pasquale and Maria DeLorenzo. Pasquale worked at Papa’s initially, then struck out on his own, founding a tomato pie restaurant in Trenton in 1936. In addition to making pizza, the DeLorenzo’s had 12 children.

Manco & Manco pizza
A tomato pie

Here’s where it gets confusing. One of the DeLorenzo children, Chick, opened his own pizzeria in Trenton in 1947 with his wife Sophie. This is the current DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. They were succeeded by Chick’s daughter Eileen, her husband Gary Amico and their so Sam Amico. In 2007, Sam opened a second location in nearby Robbinsville, When Eileen and Gary retired, they closed the Trenton location, so the current DeLorenzo’s is in Robbinsville.

Delorenzo's Pizza logo

Now, back to DeLorenzo’s Pizza. This restaurant was run by a number of the DeLorenzo childen, including Rick, who is the father of the current owner Rick DeLorenzo Jr. At one time they had three locations in Trenton. Currently they are operating out of a single location in Hamilton.

These are only a few of America’s original pizzerias, still churning, and still related to the founders. Here are a few others:

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn., dates back to 1925. Pepe was an immigrant who originally started selling pizzas by walking the streets carrying several on his head. The business is now run by his children.

Boston’s Regina Pizzeria opened its doors in 1926. Originally founded in Boston’s North End it has expanded to 11 locations. Baseball fans can sample this pizza at Fenway.

Marra’s in Philadelphia started doing in business in 1929. If was, of course, started by immigrants from Naples, Salvadore and Chiarina. It is their grandhildren who are currently running the business.

In Perth Amboy, N.J., Scioritino’s is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. Paulo and Francis Scioritino got it going in 1934.

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10 Responses to Pizza the Way It Used to Be

  1. When made properly, pizza is a top-of-the-ladder dish. Thanks for your multiple articles about pizza. You did a hell of a lot of research.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. retrosimba says:

    Hooray for the independent pizza makers. May they always prevail. I enjoyed everything about this story, including the strong lede.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sportsdiva64 says:

    I lived in Boston for 13 years and have great memories of Regina Pizzeria. It was great for a new York pizza snob like me. When I go to New Jersey Devils games in Newark, my Devils posse and I usually go to Mercato’s Tomato Pie, which is across the street from Prudential Center. Wicked good pizza. You can see and taste the difference between pizza in New York and New Jersey. We can add the deep dish pizza from Chicago too. One of my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Loving this pizza series. My favorite pizza ever was from a little NJ joint that made a broccoli rabe and sausage pie!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Donna Janke says:

    Cool to hear about these pizza places still around and run by later generations of the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We love pizza here, have our own private pizzeria.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The Midwest Makes Pizza Its Own | off the leash

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