After Sandy, Pilgrimages To 'Church Of N.Y. Pizza' On Hold | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

After Sandy, Pilgrimages To 'Church Of N.Y. Pizza' On Hold

Play associated audio

It's been more than three months since Hurricane Sandy crashed ashore, and many family-owned businesses in New York and New Jersey are still struggling to get back on their feet.

One of those businesses is Totonno's in Coney Island, where generations of pizza lovers have made the pilgrimage for a slice of New York City history.

Before the storm, you could literally see that history on the walls in the yellowed newspaper clippings and framed photographs of the politicians and celebrities who've eaten there. For now, those photographs are piled on tables in the middle of the restaurant to keep them out of harm's way during construction.

"It's one family, 89 years," says Antoinette Balzano, part of the third generation to own and run Totonno's since it opened in 1924. "It's the oldest pizzeria in the U.S. continuously run by the same family."

The place hasn't changed much; it's got the same tin ceiling and the same nine tables. The restaurant is on Neptune Avenue, a few blocks away from the beach. In all that time, Balzano says, it had never flooded until Sandy, when 4 feet of water rushed in and out. With no flood insurance, Balzano says, it was a struggle to find a contractor she could afford.

"I've had mold company on top of mold company come in, take half the walls out and tell me the job is done," she says.

Eventually, Balzano found a contractor she could trust. He's spent weeks ripping out drywall and installing new electrical wiring. Balzano says the restaurant had barely recovered from the last disaster — a major fire in 2009 that forced Totonno's to close for months. But she says the restaurant is determined to bounce back, to the delight of pizza fanatics like Ed Levine.

"There's something about the Totonno's experience that can't be replicated anywhere," Levine says. "Not just in New York, but anywhere in the world."

Levine wrote a book about pizza and is also the founder of the website SeriousEats.com, which has been following Totonno's struggles closely. Levine says it's easy to forget there was a time when pizza was not ubiquitous in America.

"If you go back 100 years, it was still the province of Italian-American immigrants," he says.

Immigrants like Anthony "Totonno" Pero, who was born in Naples, Italy. Pero got his start making pizzas at Lombardi's — the famous grocery store-turned-restaurant in Manhattan's Little Italy — before leaving to start his own place on Coney Island. Totonno's is one of the restaurants that taught America what pizza should be.

For Balzano, it's more than just the family business.

"He brought a culture here," she says. "Pizza is now part of the American culture, and that was all because of my grandfather."

Balzano's sister, Louise Ciminieri, known as Cookie, is still in charge of the pizza at Totonno's. Levine says that pizza is worth riding the subway all the way to the end of the line.

"Everyone I've sent there has said the same thing," he says. "They feel it; they feel the vibe of that place, and it is the combination of the place, the experience and the pizza.

These days, it seems like you can't throw a rock in New York without hitting a new wood-fired, artisanal, locavore pizza joint. But Balzano doesn't sound concerned about the competition.

"Look, there's wonderful pizza, I'm sure," she says, "but nobody has the name Totonno's. So we'll come back. We'll come back because we have to continue what Grandpa came out here to do."

Balzano hopes Totonno's will reopen in February, and when it does, she says it'll look exactly like it did before the storm. Right down to the pictures on the walls.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Telling Crimea's Story Through Children's Books

Blending history, myth and geopolitics, Lily Hyde uses fairy tales to teach children and young adults about Eastern European history. To cover the current unrest, though, she's put fiction on hold.
NPR

How Foster Farms Is Solving The Case Of The Mystery Salmonella

Foster Farms has been accused of poisoning its customers with salmonella bacteria. But in recent months, the company has become a leader in the poultry industry's fight against the foodborne pathogen.
WAMU 88.5

Former Head Of INS Weighs In On White House Immigration Policy

Doris Meissner was the head of Immigration and Naturalization Services under President Bill Clinton, and she speaks with Armando Trull about the constraints on the current president as he seeks to handle the immigration crisis.

NPR

Science Crowns Mozzarella The King Of Pizza Cheese

Why do some cheeses melt and caramelize better than others? Researchers used high-tech cameras and special software to figure it out.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.