After 100 Years of Pizza, the Future of Totonno’s Is in Question

May 30, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Since it was founded in 1924 by a baker from Naples, Italy, named Antonio Pero, very little has changed at Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitana. The restaurant has operated in the same one-story building in Coney Island, burned coal in the same brick oven and followed the same recipe to make pizza that is widely held to be among New York City’s finest.

In all that time, Totonno’s has been continuously owned and operated by one family. Now it is on the brink of what could be the most consequential change in its history. The family is looking for an investor or buyer to take over. On Wednesday night, a note was added to Totonno’s website reading, “For business investment/purchase inquiries, please contact antoinette@totonnosconeyisland.com.”

Explaining the decision, Louise Ciminieri, who owns the pizzeria with her sister, Antoinette Balzano, and their brother, Frank Balzano, said, “We’re coming up in age and we don’t have the manpower to continue.”

The family is adamant that the ideal buyer will be excited about carrying on their century-old way of making pizza. The business methods are almost as old. Totonno’s accepted only cash until two years ago, when after a long pandemic pause it began taking credit cards.

Prospective buyers “can’t go by numbers,” said Ms. Ciminieri, known to everyone as Cookie. “They have to understand the potential, and they have to understand my blood, sweat and tears in that place for 45 years.”

She was a young mother when she started helping her aunt around the pizzeria. She would watch as her uncle, Jerry Pero, made pizza the way he had been taught by his father, Antonio, who had arrived in Manhattan in 1903 and began working at a coal-oven pizzeria on Spring Street, that would later be renamed Lombardi’s. The pizzas he baked were wrapped in paper and sold on the street to newly arrived Italian immigrants who lived in tenements nearby. Home ovens were rare, and family lore has it that customers would reheat their pies on cast-iron radiators.

This direct line of ancestry reaching back to the earliest American pizzerias puts Totonno’s in a class of its own, said Scott Wiener, a pizza historian and columnist for Pizza Today magazine.

“It’s the longest lineage I know of for any pizza-making family in the U.S.,” Mr. Wiener said.

Totonno’s resistance to such innovations as the aged pizza cheese known in the trade as low-moisture mozzarella is partly the result of continuous family rule, Mr. Wiener said. But he suspects that geographic isolation played a role, too.

“Coney Island is sort of the Galápagos,” he said. “Genetic mutations are not happening at the same frequency they are in Manhattan. That’s a pizza that’s probably in the style Antonio Pero was making on Spring Street in 1903.”

The Totonno’s method is not complicated. Slices of fresh, well-drained mozzarella are laid directly on the dough. Next, for a regular pizza, is a thin layer of pulped Italian tomatoes. White pies get a scattering of chopped garlic instead. Both varieties are finished with olive oil and grated pecorino. A short list of toppings, restricted to pepperoni, anchovies, red onions, garlic, fresh mushrooms and basil, can be added by request.

“Everything is exactly the same, the way our grandfather made it,” Ms. Ciminieri said. “People come in all the time and say, ‘I’ll give you a better price on cheese.’ No.”

When bricks in the oven are dislodged, they are replaced. When equipment breaks down, it is fixed, and when it is beyond repair it is simply set aside. A manual cash register, an antique counterweight scale once used to weigh dough and a hand-cranked cheese grater, were moved to the front window upon retirement. A refrigerator chest for Coca-Cola now sits in one of the two small back rooms where Antonio Pero and his wife lived and raised their four children.

The building, which could be part of any sale of the business, is a simple structure perched on bricks over the Coney Island sand. There is no cement under the floor, which helped the waters swept in from the Atlantic Ocean by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to drain away quickly, according to Ms. Balzano, though not before doing considerable damage to the dining room.

“They’ve faced almost biblical challenges,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn native who was an ardent Totonno’s fan long before he became majority leader. “They had a fire, they were flooded and then they had pestilence during the pandemic.”

Mr. Schumer has pedaled to Totonno’s on his bicycle, and has convened large family gatherings there to celebrate his birthday, even though there was a risk of being sent away without pizza.

“In the old days, you stood on line, and when Totonno’s ran out of dough they’d come outside and say, ‘You’ll have to come back another time,’” he said. “But it was worth waiting for every minute.”

No pizza was served at Totonno’s for nearly a year after a fire in 2009. Rebuilding after Sandy took five months. Bouncing back from the pandemic has been a much slower process. The pizzeria has not reopened for indoor dining yet. Pies for takeout and delivery are sold only on Saturday and Sunday, and even that is a strain for Ms. Ciminieri, the no-nonsense guardian of the dining room.

All this has caused grave concern among people who care about New York pizza traditions. Mr. Wiener, the pizza historian, said he worries about “the slimness of the possibility that the right person gets in there and preserves it.” If the new owner “has chicken wings on that menu, we will know that the sun has set.”

A date for a centennial celebration later this year has not been set as the family looks for someone who shares its vision.

“We’ve got to keep our grandfather’s name and his pizza alive,” Ms. Balzano said. “We can’t let it go.”

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