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New York City's in the Midst of a Pizza War, and Not for the First Time

Jan. 10, 2019
7 min read
Close-up of Pizza Pies at Lombardi's Pizza Restaurant
New York City's in the Midst of a Pizza War, and Not for the First Time
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Pizza is, we all know, the world’s most perfect food. But in New York City — where pizza is both an everyday, anytime snack and an object of obsession and veneration — perfection is a double-edged sword, as the owner of one Manhattan pizzeria recently discovered in what's turned into a full-fledged pizza war.

If you’re ready to take sides and bite off a slice as a pizza warrior, of course, you could hop on a plane to New York and get on the front lines now. But before you tuck in your napkin, you should know what you’re fighting for.

Located in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood, Prince Street Pizza rose to fame over the last seven years for its signature Spicy Spring Pie: a square slice with crisp crust, garlicky sauce and enough curly-edged little discs of pepperoni to give a trypophobe a panic attack. Not only is it tasty, it's eminently Instagrammable.

Now, however, a former Prince Street chef has opened his own pizzeria, Made in New York, on the Upper West Side, and it features a pie nearly identical to the Spicy Spring. (It’s called the Spicy Pepperoni.) In response, Prince Street owner Frank Morano says he's pursuing legal action against the former employee, Frank Badali, a Made in New York partner who is credited with creating some of the original Prince Street recipes and who, Morano claims, broke a confidentiality agreement by taking his recipes elsewhere.

The dispute — which is fresh and therefore painful — is hardly the first pizza-related copycat battle in New York. For decades, New York pizzaioli have been innovating new flavors, styles and formulas, and for just as long, enterprising competitors have been cloning them.

The quintessential battle, in fact, began with a pizzeria at 27 Prince St., precisely where Prince Street Pizza now operates today. But back in 1959, it was Ray’s Pizza, started by 22-year-old Ralph Cuomo, according to a thorough page-one New York Times investigation. A few years later, Cuomo started another Ray’s, in East Midtown, then sold it to Rosolino Mangano, a Sicilian immigrant, who’d go on to have a dozen Famous Original Ray’s pizzerias by 1991. But Mangano, too, sold some of his shops, including to another non-Ray, Gary Esposito, who opened Original Ray’s pizzerias in Long Island and New Jersey.

Soon, Ray’s-themed pizzerias had proliferated so broadly that few New Yorkers even had any idea who or where the original Original Ray's actually was. (“I have never said that I am Ray,” Esposito told the Times. “That’s my claim to originality.”) In 1991, Cuomo, Mangano and Esposito even banded together to form a company, register a federal trademark and sue other businesses using the Ray’s name.

The funny thing is that Ray’s, Original Ray’s and Famous Original Ray’s were never really regarded as very good. [Editor's note: The plain slice at the Prince Street Ray's could be perceived as a thing of beauty.] By the late 1990s, you’d go to a Ray’s not because you particularly liked Ray’s pizza but because, more often than not, the pizza place closest to you was a Ray’s. What Ray’s had was ubiquity and branding.

Today, thanks to a pizza renaissance that started in the early 2000s, Ray’s has been superseded by dozens of other pizzerias — and by several other copycat battles. Last year saw Famous Joe’s Pizza and Famous Joe’s Pizza of the Village wrapped in a trademark fight. Back in 2006, Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, a Midtown place that opened in 1944, sued Patsy’s Pizzeria, which opened in East Harlem in 1933, over “a host of trademark and unfair competition claims.” (A federal court in 2011 decided neither owned the name.) And to make things more confusing, that’s only one of the Patsy’s-related pizza battles that has engulfed the city.

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Pizza cooked in a brick oven at Lombardi's pizza restaurant in New York City. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Lombardi's Pizza, on Spring Street, was America's first pizzeria. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The other one involves Patsy Grimaldi, who opened a pizzeria called Patsy’s at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo. Grimaldi’s uncle had worked at Lombardi’s, founded in 1905 as the first pizzeria in the US, and had actually started the East Harlem Patsy’s Pizzeria, but that uncle had died, and in 1995 Grimaldi found himself sued by the restaurant’s new owners. So he changed the restaurant’s name to Grimaldi’s, and it won acclaim for its coal-fired pies. In 1998, however, Grimaldi sold the business to a regular named Frank Ciolli, who by 2012 had turned Grimaldi’s into a 36-outlet national chain.

Alas, relations soon soured between Grimaldi and Ciolli, according to an extensive New York Magazine story. Ciolli’s cooks began to alter the pizza recipe, and when Grimaldi complained, he was dismissed and disrespected — this was not a pie that should bear his name! In 2011, when Ciolli decided to move the original Grimaldi’s just around the corner following a dispute with his landlord, Grimaldi seized his opportunity for revenge. He launched a new pizzeria — Juliana’s, named for his mother — right in the old Grimaldi’s spot, about a 60-second walk from the new Grimaldi’s. Ciolli was not pleased. Weeks before Juliana’s opened, he filed a court motion to block it; the motion failed.

Today you’ll find very long lines outside Grimaldi’s and often no lines outside Juliana’s — which says nothing, of course, about the quality of the pizza.

The dispute over names and, more importantly, reputations, is old-school, a relic of the families who over the last century made pizza a New York thing.

“I don’t eat anyone’s pizza,” Louise “Cookie” Ciminieri, who runs Totonno’s in Coney Island, told New York Magazine. “Because then they turn around and say, 'Totonno’s eats my pizza!'”

Still, according to Scott Wiener, who started Scott’s Pizza Tours in 2008, the New York pizza scene has historically been pretty chill.

“People like to manufacture rivalry,” he told TPG. “We see that, ‘Oh, there’s seven or eight of these coal-fired places around today. They all must have been enemies.’ But it’s just not true.”

Today, he said, “most pizzerias in New York are actually quite friendly to one another — it doesn’t make the news as much.” Mark Iacono of Lucali and Frank Pinello of Best Pizza are buddies, for example. “They’ll hang together. It’s way more helpful than it is detrimental.”

Even the efforts of Vera Pizza Napoletana to certify only those restaurants that make what it considers a true Neapolitan-style pizza have not caused much strife in New York. If that’s what you want, you can get it. If you want a Sicilian grandma slice or a Detroit-style pie, you can get those, too. (But if you want a Chicago pie, you'd better head west.)

And should pizza eaters even care about originality?

“Well,” Wiener said, “people love to visit an original, and of course there's a whole lot of history to going to one of the oldest places, but if your priority is about flavor, then it all doesn’t matter too much.”

For pizza makers, too, originality may be overrated. Consider Dom DeMarco, the 81-year-old proprietor of the legendary Di Fara, where until 2017 he was also the sole pizzaiolo.

“Putting basil on top of pizza when it comes out of an oven and putting olive oil and Grana Padano or some other hard cheese — that's not a real innovation,” Wiener said.

What people come for is a pizza made by DeMarco himself. You can’t copy that.

Nor, says Wiener, would you want to: “If somebody opens a pizzeria that [like Di Fara] had an oven on one side and a table on the other and then they would walk back and forth between the oven and the table — a distance that was so long it was unnecessary — and the cheese was on a different shelf and the tomatoes — like, the logistics of that place are so bad, if somebody copied that, God bless them.”

Featured image by Corbis via Getty Images