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Grandma Pizza: The full story
In May 2003, I began researching a story on the origins of Grandma pizza. I started a thread on grandma pizza on Chowhound's Tristate message board looking for advice. For some reason, the discussion has resumed after five years and poster Richarmstrong asked if I ever did the article. I did; it was published Oct. 8, 2003, and I reprint it here:
PIZZA ALLA GRANDMA
Local pizzerias popularize a simple, home-style pie. Now, word of this Island specialty is spreading
American pizza falls into two basic categories: thin and round, thick and square. But in many Long Island pizzerias, regular and Sicilian pies are joined by a third: Grandma.
A starting player in the local pizza lineup for the past decade, grandma pie is virtually unknown west of Queens. “I’ve never heard of it,” said Jeremy White, executive editor of Pizza Monthly, the nation’s leading pizza industry magazine.
Pizza Monthly, it should be noted, is headquartered in Louisville, Ky. But even closer to home, grandma pie flies well below the radar. Michele Scicolone, Manhattan resident, Italian food expert and co-author of “Pizza: Any Way You Slice It” (Broadway Books) hadn’t heard of it, either. “What is grandma pizza?” she asked.
Variations abound, but the basic outlines are as follows: a thin layer of dough is stretched into an oiled, square “Sicilian” pan, topped sparingly with shredded mozzarella, crushed uncooked canned tomatoes, chopped garlic and olive oil, and baked until the top bubbles and the bottom is crisp.
Scicolone observed that grandma pie sounded a lot like “pizza alla casalinga” (housewife-style pizza), “the kind of pizzas you’d get in Italy if you were invited to someone’s home.”
And indeed, among the men who left Southern Italy to find their fortunes making pizza on Long Island, many cherished childhood memories of a pizza made at home by mama or grandma. This pizza was modest, thin-crusted, strewn sparingly with chopped tomatoes from the garden and just a little cheese (because it was expensive), then baked in a pan (mama had no pizza oven).
For such a recent culinary phenomenon, grandma pie’s origin is curiously cloudy. Interviews with many area pizza makers yielded only a vague sense that it started popping up during the ‘90s. A break came from Emilio Branchanelli, owner of Emilio’s in Commack and Pasta-eria in Hicksville. “It started at Umberto’s in New Hyde Park,” he said. “A guy who worked for Umberto made it.”
After a few phone calls, Branchanelli came up with a name: Angelo Giangrande, now of Cugini Due in Albertson. With the help of Giangrande and the principals at Umberto’s and King Umberto’s in Elmont, we pieced together at least one version of the history of this Long Island specialty:
In the early 1970s, a home-style pan pizza surfaced at Umberto’s of New Hyde Park. Founded in 1965 by Umberto Corteo, who came from Monte di Procida near Naples, Umberto’s now is a vast operation encompassing a pizzeria, restaurant and catering hall. But when Carlo Corteo arrived in 1970 to work with his older brother, it was a simple 60-seat pizza parlor. “Back then,” Carlo said, “we used to make the pizza for ourselves. Umberto would say to me, ‘Make me that pizza that Mama used to make.’”
Umberto served the pizza to friends who urged him to put it on the menu, but he resisted. “In the old days,” Carlo said, “there weren’t so many pizza places and there were lines out the door at night. Umberto said, ‘How are we going to put another pizza on the menu? It will slow us down.’”
Here the story moves about two miles south, to Elmont. The Corteos had opened a satellite pizzeria, King
Umberto’s, that was the domain of another Corteo brother, Joe. In 1976, after Joe moved to Florida, the restaurant was sold to two Umberto’s employees, brothers Rosario and Sal Fuschetto. During the ‘80s, they in turn hired two other pizza makers - first Ciro Cesarano, then Angelo Giangrande - who got their start at Umberto’s.
“Umberto still wasn’t selling [grandma pie] to customers,” Rosario said, “but Ciro and Angelo saw its potential.” So when they arrived in Elmont, they put the still-nameless pizza on the menu.
Some time between 1986 and 1989, a conversation occurred at King Umberto’s that would change the course of this very narrow slice of pizza history. Cesarano and Giangrande were chatting with a customer, Anthony “Tippy” Nocella, about what to call the pie. Cesarano recalled that the word “grandpa” came up, “but Tippy said ‘No, it’s really more grandma. You want to call it grandma.’”
Another milestone in the spread of grandma pie: In 1989, Nocella (who died in 1999) accompanied Giangrande and Sal Fuschetto to a pizza-making contest in Farmingdale sponsored by Delicato Foods, a wholesaler. Giangrande recalled that, over Fuschetto’s objections (like Umberto, he was a bit of a traditionalist), he took the grandma pie. It was a hit. “All the pizza guys loved it; everybody ate it,” Giangrande said. “My pizza was gone before the competition even started.”
By this time, other pizzerias, including Umberto’s, had put grandma pizza on the menu. But it really took off about 10 years ago, a chronology that dovetails with the evolution of grandma pie sales at King Umberto’s. From the beginning, pizzas destined to be sold by the slice sat on high counters above the eye level of many customers, but in 1994, King Umberto’s undertook a renovation: the installation of a glass-enclosed showcase, much like a jeweler’s display, that displaced the posted menu as the focal point of customers’ deliberations.
“When we put in the showcase,” said King Umberto’s co-owner, Rosario Fuschetto, “people saw the grandma pie and asked ‘What’s that thin one? Let me have one of those.’”
(Fuschetto regrets never having trademarked the name “grandma pizza,” but was determined not to make the same mistake twice. One of the most popular items at his restaurant are fritter-like morsels fried to a golden brown and filled, improbably, with a creamy amalgam of capellini and white sauce. In 1995, Fuschetto secured a trademark for “fried capellini balls,” which now appear on the menu bearing a government-certified “TM.”)
As with books and knock-knock jokes, pizza popularity is transmitted by word of mouth. Unaware of the origins of grandma pizza, local pizza makers put it on their menus in response to customer demand.
Natale Tartamella first heard of grandma pie during the ‘90s at a pizzeria he owned in Valley Stream, adjacent to Elmont. “People used to say ‘Why don’t you make grandma pizza?’ I didn’t know what the heck it was.” But he’s a quick study. Since he took over Vinnie’s of Mulberry Street in Hicksville two years ago, Tartamella has been making a grandma pie that was voted Long Island’s best in a 2002 longisland.com contest.
Another mechanism for the dissemination of pizza varieties is the migration of pizza makers. Just as Cesarano and Giangrande moved from Umberto’s to King Umberto’s, so dozens of pizza makers moved from the grandma-nexus of central-western Nassau west to Queens, south to the Five Towns, and even east into Suffolk County. And these pizza-pollinators took grandma with them.
In 1991, Angelo Giangrande and his cousin Antonio Franzella opened Cugini’s in Mineola and, in 2000, Cugini Due [now called Da-Angelo Pizzeria & Ristorante] in Albertson. Giangrande developed a grandma pie that was thicker than the one he had left at King Umberto’s, but still thinner than Umberto’s. It was this pie, he said, that his brother Mario took with him when he got a job at Gino’s in Long Beach, now a prime purveyor of grandma pie.
Branchanelli said grandma pie arrived at Emilio’s in Commack via his partner’s father-in-law, who was friends with Umberto Corteo. At Emilio’s, Branchanelli took the heretical step of substituting a smooth tomato sauce for the uncooked chopped tomatoes that are grandma’s hallmark. “I defied their recipe, yes,” he said, “but sales have quadrupled.”
Peter Cinelli, scion of the family that owns Cinelli’s pizzerias in Franklin Square and Williston Park, said, “We started making it 10, 12 years ago in the Franklin Square store.” Three years ago, Cinelli, who refers to Umberto Corteo as “the pope of pizza,” moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line and opened up a Cinelli’s pizzeria in Cary, N.C., where grandma pie now outsells regular.
And remember the Corteo brother Joe, who moved to Florida? He presides over Umberto’s of Long Island, a restaurant in Pompano Beach that serves grandma pie to former Long Islanders and native Floridians. Corteo also is part-owner of Pizzeria da Enzo in Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel. Now that’s taking grandma pizza to the big time.
Even in Brooklyn, grandma pie is making inroads. Tommy Napoli, at 25, a pizza-making tenderfoot, opened Papa’s Pizza on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge a year ago. “We put this menu together with stuff from all over,” he said. “And where I come from - Franklin Square - they make grandma pie.”
Initially, Brooklynites were wary of the alien pizza. “But every week we sell more and more,” Napoli said. “The people, they love it.”
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
ANGELO GIANGRANDE OF CUGINI DUE
Giangrande’s pie is thicker than Cesarano’s, but thinner than Corteo’s. He uses whole-milk and part-skim mozzarella, and his tomato topping is made from crushed canned tomatoes that have been drained to eliminate excess moisture.
CIRO CESARANO OF KING UMBERTO’S
Cesarano’s pie is the thinnest of the three, and the most sparsely topped. He uses whole-milk and part-skim mozzarella and a combination of crushed canned tomatoes with canned, unpeeled cherry tomatoes.
UMBERTO CORTEO OF UMBERTO’S
Corteo pinches a narrow rim around the dough’s edge, then sprinkles on whole-milk mozzarella. His tomato topping is made from crushed canned tomatoes and chopped fresh plum tomatoes.
WHERE TO BUY IT
This is only a smattering of pizzerias that serve grandma pie.
Carlino’s, 204 Jericho Tpke., Mineola; 516-747-6616.
Cinelli’s, 1195 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square; 516-352-2204; and 346 Hillside Ave., Williston Park; 516-742-8989.
Cugini Due, 815 Willis Ave., Albertson; 516-741-8694.
Cugini’s, 432 Jericho Tpke., Mineola; 516-248-7770.
Gino’s, 16 West Park Ave., Long Beach; 516-432-8193.
King Umberto’s, 1343 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont; 516-352-8391.
Pasta-eria, 440 South Oyster Bay Rd., Hicksville; 516-938-1555.
Umbertino’s, 2054 Lakeville Rd., New Hyde Park; 516-326-2953.
Umberto’s, 633 Jericho Tpke., New Hyde Park; 516-437-7698; 361 Nassau Blvd., Garden City South; 516-481-1279; and 420 Newbridge Rd., Hicksville; 516-433-7575.
Village Pizzeria, 169 Tulip Ave., Floral Park; 516-775-0612.
Vinnie’s of Mulberry Street, 287 N. Broadway, Jericho; 516-933-7974.
Emilio’s, 2201 Jericho Tpke., Commack; 631-462-6267.
Villa Michelangelo, Eastport-Manorville Road, Manorville; 631-878-1555.
Our Little Italy, 636 Union Blvd., West Islip; 631-661-6246.
Mamma Lombardi’s, 400 Furrows Rd., Holbrook; 631-737-0774.
Carlo’s Pizza, 74-02 Metropolitan Ave., Middle Village; 718-894-7915.
Gino’s, 158-46 Cross Bay Blvd., Howard Beach; 718-738-4113.
Papa’s Pizza, Fifth Ave., Bay Ridge; 718-630-5593.
Chef Ciro Cesarano of King Umberto's with his grandma pizza, Sept. 23, 2003 (Newsday photo / Michael E. Ach)