A tale of two New York City pizzerias (and a pandemic)

Pizza is NYC’s most communal meal; nothing brings folks collectively like sloppily tearing aside a heat pie alongside a West Village aspect avenue at 1 am. It’s an I Moved To NYC ceremony of passage. It’s additionally town’s most aggressive meal– that means, you possibly can (and can) get questioned, kindly however secretly judgmentally, about stated pizza. Earlier than you possibly can reply a suspecting interrogation, simply know you’re mistaken they usually’re proper. After I moved to the West Village, John and Joe grew to become greater than names, however slightly dialog starters (or enders), and the “right,” “wrong,” and “shameful” methods to eat (and fold) a slice of pizza grew to become second hand. 

However enter a international pandemic, condensing communities and eliminating alternatives for drunken escapades and communal meals. With COVID-19 ravaging the restaurant trade, how did the meal that we turned to through the pandemic survive the pandemic itself? John’s of Bleecker Road Pizzeria, struggling to adapt to an empty restaurant, made employees cuts and put in plexiglas between tables. Unregular Pizza, whose brick-and-mortar retailer opened in March, employed extra workers and reached extra prospects than ever earlier than.

A Transient Pizza Historical past

Scott Weiner is aware of every part about pizza– and he likes to unfold this data– which he is ready to do a number of occasions a week. The “pizza detective” has run “Scott’s Pizza Tours” since 2008.

“East Harlem became the first section for Southern Italians, which they called Little Italy… Mulberry Street became the ‘Italian colony’… that’s why downtown is the spot,” Weiner explains to me within the John’s eating room, concurrently making ready booklets for his 11:30 tour. 

“Do you want to see the files?” Weiner asks me, referring to the paperwork starting from marriage data and enterprise agreements, to censuses and cellphone e book pages. I believe my reply was implied, as Weiner, head-to-toe (masks included) in pizza merch, hurried to retrieve a binder: “John’s of Bleecker Street History.” 

Listed here are the cliff notes of Weiner’s analysis: In 1915, Filippo Malone of Naples opened Pizzeria Port’alba on Sullivan Road, named after the Italian pizzeria he labored in– which occurs to be the oldest on the earth. John Sasso comes alongside, marries Malone’s niece, and turns into a enterprise associate in 1925. Sasso bought the enterprise to the Vesce brothers in 1954, and in 1984, the Vesce household handed it on to supervisor Peter Castellotti Sr. His son, Peter Castellotti Jr., nonetheless owns the enterprise.  

John’s: The place Custom Triumphs

“Nothing has really changed,” supervisor David Frank tells me. Not like its complicated historical past, John’s menu is easy, succinct and, for essentially the most half, stationary. The restaurant nonetheless makes use of Sasso’s authentic recipe and coal-firing approach. The sauce nonetheless goes over the cheese. And nonetheless, no slices are allowed. Most workers have labored there for over 30 years. Frank describes it as a “continuous line”: all of the cooks discovered straight from their chef-predecessors. “It’s pretty simple. We don’t do anything extravagant,” Frank explains, stating the one main modifications have been in dish presentation… 

Till COVID-19 poisoned Johns’ ritualistic, communal attract. Following eating restrictions, John’s transitioned to delivery-only; for the primary time since 1938, John’s was empty. Not solely was John’s stripped of its neighborhood of beloved prospects, however the employees, or as Frank calls, “family,” started dwindling down as nicely. “It was tough making rent… we cut down to the minimum,” Frank remembers. Initially, “outdoor seating” was simply a few tables out entrance, however because of thoughtful neighbors, John’s was capable of construct an prolonged construction.

An eight-slice pie ranges from $22 for a conventional pie (“The Sasso”) to $48 for “The Fifty,” Johns’ most elaborate pie that consists of meatballs, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, peppers and olives. That is as elaborate because it will get, with a strict “no substitutions” rule and commonplace toppings; “the worst is when customers ask for ranch… John’s will never have ranch,” Frank says. 

Johns’ indoor eating room is open once more and, similar to pre-pandemic occasions, there’s usually a line of keen prospects and rarely an empty seat. But it surely nonetheless doesn’t really feel the identical; plexiglas posts bodily divide the John’s devoted prospects from the employees and one another. “It’s more than just a physical divide… There is a psychological divide. You feel less connected to people.”

“Unregular” Timing for Unregular Pizza

In 2008, Gabriele Lamonaca moved to NYC from his hometown of Rome, the place he attended St. Francis School and studied chemistry; he needed to be a physician. He now owns Unregular Pizza. Lamonaca is used to taking an unregular path. The pandemic was the proper unregular path. 

Lamonaca has labored in eating places all through town, but essentially the most pivotal second for the chef was getting laid off mid-pandemic. Lamonica might concentrate on his lifelong aim: to open a restaurant. He needed to carry Roman-style pizza to NYC; the dough takes 72 hours to stage, making the pizza gentle and simply digestible. 

He spent his time at dwelling experimenting with new recipes. In March 2020, his girlfriend and head of advertising, Paola Sinisgalli, launched an Instagram for Lamonaca’s “experiments”, calling it “Unregular Pizza.” The identify attracts focus to the variability of creations and toppings reminiscent of pistachio ricotta and fried hen. Each slice, averaging between six and 7 {dollars}, is customizable. 

“We were looking for a place to open before the pandemic and the deal didn’t go through… then the pandemic came and we thought ‘now it’s really the worst timing’… but it was a blessing,” Sinisgalli tells me. Unregular Pizza rapidly gained traction on social media, because the couple’s associates started reaching out to request pies. “But we didn’t want to charge them!” Sinisgalli explains; it was out of this dilemma that the barter system was born.

The primary official “barter” occurred in Might 2020. With no brick-and-mortar retailer, Lamonaca was cooking from his personal kitchen. “Everyone was cooking new things then, so I asked friends to give me something they made in return,” Lamonaca tells me, as a line of prospects grows behind him. Lamonaca and Sinisgallii biked to Harlem to ship their buddy pizzas, and in return, she despatched cocktails. 

Initially, the couple bartered solely with folks they knew, receiving dishes starting from home made Italian pastas to Asian-style fried hen. Sinisgalli explains that the bartering system will not be a completely trendy idea, however is one with historic roots. “I was reading a book that my dad wrote during the pandemic about my grandfather in southern Italy… and instead of accepting money for food, they would accept eggs, chickens, or sausage.” Lamonaca experimented with recipes based mostly on client suggestions, and ultimately solidified a slightly intensive menu, that includes their signature “Burrapizza”: a slice of pizza with a full burrata on prime.

In September 2020, Unregular Pizza lastly had a dwelling that wasn’t Lamonaca’s: 135 4th Ave. “It was a dream location… it would have never been possible without the pandemic,” Sinisgalli displays. 

December 2020 marked the primary barter-to-a-stranger. Sinisgalli describes what adopted to be a “media storm, and towards the end of 2020, Unregular Pizza began approaching coveted “virality.” Barters not solely expanded past the couple’s private community, but in addition past simply meals objects. Gives ranged from electrical toothbrushes and eclectic pottery, to resort stays, horseback driving classes, and ultimately, a billboard in Instances Sq.. “People started to offer what they were good at… they could show off their talent… it was special,” Lamonaca explains. 

In such remoted occasions, Unregular Pizza was capable of create neighborhood. “You weren’t just exchanging items… you were exchanging value,” Sinisgalli clarifies. Not solely had been private relationships fostered between people, however skilled relationships between small companies homeowners. 

Might 18, 2021, nearly a 12 months after their first barter, Unregular Pizza opened their doorways in Union Sq.. While you stroll in, the pizza is to your proper and a counter to take pleasure in stated pizza to your left. However you’re instantly drawn to not the pizza, however to the wall adjoining to the door, crammed with photographs and trinkets. Lamonaca and I spent fifteen minutes wanting on the wall as he confirmed me clay pots and painted pasta buildings, narrating the story behind every fascinating barter.  

What Now?

Although the plight of the pandemic stays unsure, each John’s and Unregular Pizza proceed to attach New Yorkers over their most favourite meal.

In the course of the pandemic, John’s was capable of strengthen our pre-existing communities by its dependable, conventional pizzas. I spoke to prospects outdoors the restaurant they usually praised John’s for “helping [them] through the pandemic,” citing ordering take-out from John’s with household as a spotlight of such a darkish time. Now again to a full capability eating room and their typical “family” of employees, John’s is turning into the pre-pandemic John’s all of us knew and beloved. David waits for the day the plexiglas could be taken down. 

Unregular Pizza turned a time of isolation into one of connection, bringing collectively folks from all professions and boroughs by town’s most beloved dish. Unregular Pizza continues to barter with prospects by social media as their reputation grows nationwide.

As I wrapped up my dialog with Weiner, he handed me a flyer for a charity occasion: Pizza on the Pier. “There will be a ton of pizzeria’s there… Unregular will be there, but John’s won’t because it’s a Sunday.” Possibly the pizza neighborhood is again to regular. 

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