NEW YORK (AFP) ― The world of pizza in New York is in meltdown over who will be the big cheese on one of the Big Apple’s hottest slices of pizza real estate.
At stake is a corner of Brooklyn under the end of the Brooklyn Bridge that has been ruled for more than a decade by Grimaldi’s, an old-world pizzeria with crusts as thin as the line of tourists is long, an almost unique oven, and now a feud that could bring it down.
On Wednesday, newly delivered flour sacks were shot down a sidewalk slide into Grimaldi’s basement. Inside, a hefty fellow expertly tossed dough. A Babel of languages could be heard as clients tucked in at tables covered in red-and-white tablecloths under walls lined with faded pictures of Frank Sinatra.
Following their guidebooks, many of the diners had just walked in via the Brooklyn Bridge to enjoy a quintessential New York experience.
Yet bubbling under the surface was real New York of another kind: rival pizza royalty, an angry landlord, stern officials, true tragedy, and a spat that within days will upend a city institution.
Or more than a spat, as Ellen Freudenheim, a guidebook writer who covers Brooklyn for about.com, told AFP. “It’s closer to a feud.”
Grimaldi’s troubles began, as they often do in New York, with disputes between the restaurant owners, the Ciolli family, and their landlord over rental payments and taxes. This year the landlord refused to renew the lease.
Then in what some see as revenge, he invited in as replacement another famous New York pizza family ― in fact none other than the original Grimaldi family who had started the restaurant before selling it, name and all, to the soon-to-be ousted Ciollis.
The Ciollis, a hard driving clan that has expanded across the country from its Brooklyn base, found the perfect riposte, leasing bigger premises literally next door that they will call Grimaldi’s. Pizza war loomed.
But the real Grimaldis ― the actual Grimaldi family that is ― inherit a secret weapon with their move into their old establishment, to be named Juliana’s after the owner’s mother: the coal-fired oven.
Coal ovens burn more intensely than gas furnaces, pizza makers say, cooking pies quickly and adding that perfect burnt-around-the-edges flavor. And the real sting is that only the existing handful of New York coal ovens are legal, while it’s almost impossible to get permission for new ones to be installed.
Unaware, or in an old New York-style attempt to bypass pesky officials, the Ciollis tried to install one of these mythical ovens into their new premises, a handsome 19th century bank building.
But when an unbending city inspector realized, not only the oven, but the entire project was ordered suspended.
Now instead of a sign announcing the reincarnation of Grimaldi’s, the front doors have pinned on them a city document emblazoned: STOP WORK ORDER. The fine print cites an “illegally installed coal burning oven” posing “imminent danger to life or public safety.”
For the Ciollis things only seem to get worse. Owner Frank Ciolli’s 39-year-old son died suddenly over the weekend.
The family got a small break when the landlord allowed a two-week extension on vacating the restaurant, which had been due Wednesday.
But staff, who wear black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “coal brick-oven pizzeria” and “I’m gonna make you a pizza you can’t refuse” were uncharacteristically glum, clearly fed up with pestering journalists, while mourning for their boss’s son and worrying about the future.
Gina Peluso, the manager and daughter of Frank Ciolli, brushed off the oven problems at the new premises as “just paperwork.”
“You can have the ovens. It’s just now they’ve put a lot of rules and regulations,” she told AFP, asserting defiantly: “This is a coal brick-oven pizzeria.”
Freudenheim says the tumult over this formerly bleak, but now changing Brooklyn neighborhood reflects the passion for pizza in a city with a huge Italian-immigrant population.
“Historically there’s been a lot of drama about pizzas in Brooklyn,” she said. “A person could write a comedy skit about it.”
Local residents say they share tourists’ love for the current, world-famous Grimaldi’s, although in typical opinionated New York fashion they immediately name lesser-known establishments as far superior.
“Tourists like this dump because it has the Sinatra shit,” said set designer Mary Cooper, 40, immediately offering to take an AFP reporter to what she said was an even tastier Brooklyn pizza maker with an oven “imported right from Italy.”
But Cooper too joined the crush and sat down to eat at one of Grimaldi’s red-and-white tables.
In a city used to seeing beloved institutions killed off by gentrification, this particular upheaval might even get a happy ending, with Juliana’s, the relocated Grimaldi’s, and ― who knows? ― perhaps other handmade pizza kings rubbing shoulders.
“I’d love to see a sort of pizza row,” dreamed Freudenheim.