Cool video about the Brooklyn Brainery, an amazing place where you can go to learn about interesting things from people who love to talk about them! I did a 3-part class about the history of pizza last October for National Pizza Month and this camera crew from Mailchimp just happened to be there. SWEET!
Most of my Ray’s menu collection.
At the end of the day today, a pizzeria will close in New York City. This kind of thing happens all the time, but today’s closing is a bit more significant than most others. It isn’t one of the ancient brick oven joints or a stand-on-line-for-six-hours kind of place, but a slice shop with a very familiar name. To anyone who has lived in New York or expressed any curiosity in the pizza landscape of this fine city, today’s closing will elicit both sadness and confusion. For today marks the closing of New York’s oldest Ray’s Pizzeria.
I knew I would get questions about Ray’s from day one of running tours of significant New York pizzerias, so I made it my mission to learn as much as possible about the history of Ray. Plenty has already been written about the confusing ownership of the various Ray’s locations, so I’m going to give as quick a summary as possible by tracing the lineage through a collection of business licenses and phone books I have collected over the years.
First Ray’s in 1960 Manhattan phone book.
Ralph Cuomo and his partners opened Ray’s Pizzeria on Prince Street in 1959. Not only does the restaurant’s awning say so, but so do the phone book and original business license. At this time, there was no other pizzeria in Manhattan with the name Ray. When asked why not call his restaurant Ralph’s, he is said to have replied that the name Ralph was too feminine. (Yeah, I don’t exactly get it either.) Considering a future where Ray would appear on pizzeria awnings all over the city, it’s truly ironic that Cuomo may have avoided using his own name because there was already a place in Manhattan called Ralph’s Pizzeria Restaurant (862 9th Ave). And so, the restaurant at 27 Prince Street was simply called Ray’s.
After just five years, Ralph Cuomo and his partners opened a second Ray’s Pizza location at 1073 First Ave, which they quickly sold to Frances Giaimo. Cuomo continued to run the Prince Street location, cutting any connection to the First Ave store, which Giaimo sold to Rosolino Mangano in 1968. With the entrance of Rosolino Mangano, Ray’s jumps into the forefront with an explosion of pizzerias across town. He gave ambitious family members and immigrants the opportunity to run his stores, resulting in the creation of a mini-chain.
Name recognition grew for Ray’s, which some former employees used to their advantage. Mario and Lamberto Di Rienzo formed a partnership in 1973 to open a pizzeria called The Famous Ray’s Pizza at the corner of 6th Ave and 11th Street. In response, Mangano changed the name on his restaurants to Original Ray’s Pizza in 1976 (this may have happened sooner, but the earliest “Original” business license I have is from 1976). Meanwhile, the pizzeria at 27 Prince Street was still just called Ray’s.
Tensions escalated as more pizzerias started calling themselves Ray’s. It’s a common name, easy to fit on signage, and cheap to write in neon. In fact, Ralph Cuomo was getting so miffed by the hullabaloo over his name that he added a comment on a 1982 business certificate that states, “Ray is my nickname.” By this point, every Ray’s pizzeria was either “famous,” “original,” “real” or “world famous,” so Rosolino Mangano upped the ante when he combined the most popular adjectives and renamed his location at 204 Ninth Ave "Famous Original Ray’s". He registered for a trademarked two years later and started bringing on the lawsuits. To this day, more unaffiliated Ray’s pizzerias open every year in New York, Arizona, California, London, Australia and beyond. The grand sum of these pizzerias does not constitute a single chain or franchise. It’s a real mess for pizza lovers and lawyers alike.
It’s very likely that other pizzerias used the name Ray before Ralph Cuomo (I found evidence of at least two), but none lasted long enough to be affiliated with the current situation. The pizzeria at 27 Prince Street truly is Patient Zero for the Ray’s epidemic. After Cuomo passed away in 2008, the business fell into disarray. The family’s internal battle over the building’s ownership led to last week’s announcement to either close or relocate the pizzeria.
My friends and family know how interested I am in the whole Ray’s story, so I got quite a few calls and emails when the news hit last week. It seemed like everybody had heard about it, even if they didn’t know what it meant. But one person hadn’t heard the news until I told him a few days ago. Frank Spatola made pizza at Ray’s on Prince Street for 32 years before exiting three months ago. Perhaps he just needed a change of scenery, or maybe he saw the writing on the wall. But fear not, Spatola hasn’t retired. You can find him slinging pies above the West 4th Street subway station at Cafe Amore’s Pizza (6th Ave and West 3rd Street). The pizza may not be identical to that of Ray’s on Prince Street, but at least you know there’s a qualified pair of hands behind the counter.
Like Ray’s, Amore’s is a slice shop. In fact, Amore’s was once a Ray’s! Slice shops entered the scene as a way for young entrepreneurs to enter the food business without spending much on rent, equipment or personnel. In the late 1950’s, one could purchase all the necessary equipment for a few thousand dollars. A small place like Ray’s could serve just as many take-out customers as any dine-in restaurant with a fraction of the space. Few slice shops of that age remain, leaving just a handful to carry the torch.
It will be a real shame if the legacy of Ray’s on Prince Street is in name alone. The Ray’s name is so garbled at this point that most people will likely think of the controversy before considering the food. I had a pretty killer square there last month and I hope folks get a chance to stop by before the final slice is served. This pizzeria floats alone in a sea of confusion, as it isn’t part of a chain or franchise. It stood before all the others and will remain independent until the final day. The awning doesn’t need to make bold claims; this place has true fame and originality in a way few eateries will ever attain.
Just after the 27 Prince St announcement came, The Famous Ray’s Pizza on the corner of Sixth Ave and 11th Street mysteriously shuttered. The windows are covered up, a FOR RENT sign hangs on the door and every instance of the letters R, A and Y are missing from the store’s signage. I personally didn’t like their pizza very much over the past few years, but this Ray’s is said to have been the shining beacon among NYC pizzerias. It was sort of a landmark, even if it clearly wasn’t the first of the bunch.
** A version of this piece originally appeared on the pizza blog Slice.
My three-part class on the history of pizza starts tonight at the Brooklyn Brainery and I couldn’t possibly be more excited. The course will cover the evolution of pizza from pre-origin to futuristic pizza machines via a cultural, economic, scientific, historical and gastronomic perspective. I’m splitting the course into three parts, beginning with tonight’s What is Pizza? class. There are just a couple spots left so grab them while they’re hot.
I should also mention that we’ll have FREE pizza at each session donated by local pizzerias whose products are historically appropriate for the evening’s class. Tonight’s featured pizzeria is Sottocasa, Atlantic Ave’s newest Neapolitan pizza purveyor.
515 Court Street
$50 (pizza included)
Three Wednesdays, October 12, 19 + 26
I’m sure you’re already planning on getting some pizza this weekend, but history may be of some assistance in guiding your decision. This Saturday, June 11, marks the 122nd birthday of the Pizza Margherita.
Let’s back up the truck and discuss what constitutes a Pizza Margherita in the first place. All it means is crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. Those three ingredients baked on a simple dough constitute the origin point of all pizza as we know it today. Over time, cooked tomato sauces became more prevalent than crushed tomatoes because the cheap product being imported lacked strong flavor and needed to be doctored up. Longer shelf life and lower cost resulted in low moisture mozzarella taking the place of fresh cheeses. Year-round storage and better value kicked dried oregano into the spotlight and pushed fresh basil out. And thus, we have our modern Italian-American pizza.
But where does the Pizza Margherita begin? The combination of tomato and cheese gained popularity in the early 19th century as Europeans realized the tomato was not poisonous and cheese production became more affordable. However, the pizza didn’t have a special name until the summer of 1889. In June of that year, King Umberto I was visiting Naples to inspect a large road-building project he had begun four years earlier. The roads were meant to help organize the hectic, disease-ridden city. (For those who have been to Naples, you know those roads did squat.)
While Umberto was out looking at roads, his wife (and first cousin - eeewww!), Margherita, was doing her royal duty of schmoozing with the locals. At this time, pizza was still a regional specialty of Naples and had not yet spread throughout the newly unified country. The popular queen decided to play it cool and try the local specialty. She hired a local pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, to prepare her an assortment of pizza. Rumor has it she liked the pizza with crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil the most, and so Esposito dubbed it Pizza alla Margherita.
Some say Margherita liked this pizza because its tomato-mozzarella-basil combination is patriotic in its resemblance to the red-white-green of the Italian flag, but there is no evidence to support this claim. She probably liked those ingredients on her pie because they were in season. In fact, there isn’t any hard evidence to prove that she liked this particular pizza any more than the others she was served that day (one with whitefish, the other with salt and olive oil). A thank you note written by the royal taster says only that the pizzas prepared by Sig. Raffaele Esposito were all enjoyed by the queen. A copy of that letter, dated June 11, 1889, still hangs in the pizzeria once run by Esposito’s family, now called Pizzeria Brandi (Esposito’s wife’s family name).
The menu at Pizzeria Brandi is pretty neat, with the whole history written on the inside, but I noticed something funky on my last visit. The cover shot of Queen Margherita cowing down on her eponymous pie bears a striking resemblance to a large photo of the queen hanging on the wall. It looks like someone’s pretty handy with Photoshop. They even gave her a bottle of booze! AND WHAT’S THAT IN HER HAND? Why, I think it’s a fork and knife. Shocking!
Pizzeria Brandi, formerly known as Pietro e Basta Così (literally “Peter and That’s Enough”), may have been where Raffaele Esposito worked, but some stories claim that he was hired to travel to the Palace at Capodimonte to bring pizza directly to her majesty. It would have taken more than 30 minutes to get there from the pizzeria (4.2 km straight up Via Toledo) and it certainly would have cooled off by then, so it’s more probable that Esposito used an oven on-site to bake her a fresh pie. I haven’t checked the palace for hidden ovens but believe me when I say that mission is at the top of my list next time I’m in Naples. Unfortunately there aren’t any newspaper stories about the visit, so we have no concrete evidence to go by. If she ate her pizza at Capodimonte, it was most likely baked within the palace and not at Pizzeria Brandi.
The oven being used in this photo was built recently by Stefano Ferrara, whose grandfather began building ovens in Naples in 1920.
Regardless of why Margherita liked her namesake pizza, what she looked like when she ate it, or where it was made, the fact remains that her endorsement of the Neapolitan specialty helped inspire its spread throughout the Italian peninsula and across the ocean, where it morphed into something entirely new in the United States before being re-exported around the rest of the world. If it wasn’t for her husband’s road inspection in the summer of 1889, we could be all be eating whitefish on our pizza.