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, where generations of pizza lovers have made the pilgrimage to the Coney Island storefront 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.
Antoinette Balzano is part of the third generation to own and run Totonno’s since it opened in 1924.
“It’s one family, 89 years,” Balzano says. “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 four 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 again, 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 in Coney Island. Totonno’s is one of the restaurants that taught America what pizza should be.
For Antoinette Balzano, it’s more than just the family business.
“He brought a culture here,” Balzano 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. Food writer Ed Levine says that pizza — with its magical crust and perfectly balanced toppings — is still 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 Antoinette 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.