Susan Bagali is sitting at the counter of John’s Pizzeria, in Elmhurst, Queens, when the phone rings. On the line, a customer places an order for a plain cheese pie. “That’ll be 20 dollars, cash only,” Bagali says. She gingerly rises from the stool and makes her way behind the counter to roll out the dough, as she’s done thousands of times before. Bagali, who discloses her age as “39 and lots of change,” has been working in this shop with her 85-year-old mother, Rose, for decades.
Opened in 1965 by Bagali’s father, John’s Pizzeria is among the oldest slice shops in the city. It belongs to an endangered era of New York classics. Earlier this year, two Brooklyn neighborhood fixtures — Sal’s in Carroll Gardens (1957) and Lenny’s in Bensonhurst (1953) — closed for good.
At old-school slice shops like John’s that are still open today, the secret to longevity is a combination of tradition and reinvention. Regardless of how they made it this far, the future of these businesses hangs in the balance. Their fate lies not just in the skillful navigation of a changing industry, but in the willingness of the next generation to carry the torch, or, in this case, the Bakers Pride deck ovens. Every time a family calls it quits, the city loses more than a great slice of pizza: It cedes a living piece of its history to the vast, unknowable past.
“Old-school pizza places are a part of New York’s culinary history,” says Scott Wiener, a pizza historian. “When you talk about pizza as history, genealogy, immigration, economics, it gains a third dimension. We’re going to lose out on a big chunk of that story.”
The story of pizza in New York begins with immigration and assimilation. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants established the first generation of pizza shops. Names like Lombardi and Milone and Totonno are synonymous with the advent of pizza in America. The introduction of gas ovens in the 1930s made the business of pizza portable — no more built-in brick ovens — and lowered the cost of entry. Twenty years later, pizza was not just limited to Italian American enclaves. Pizza was primetime.
It’s here the New York slice story begins. Distinct from early pizzerias, the slice shop is a genre of its own, with its own set of rules. First, they sell slices, for cheap. “They’re egalitarian places,” says Liam Quigley, a freelance reporter who spent eight years documenting pizza prices across the five boroughs. A New York slice should be flexible enough that it folds easily. “It lends itself to walking and eating, which is important in New York,” Quigley adds. Above all, a good slice is served hot, with a thin, crispy crust.
Slice shops started opening in the late 1940s and continued through the 1980s, giving rise to the ubiquitous corner shop; there are, by some estimates, more than 4,500 slice shops in New York City. Over the last 20 years, dollar-slice shops and artisan pizza makers have changed the nature of pizza in New York. Places like 2 Bros. Pizza focused on cutting costs while shops like Paulie Gee’s and Best Pizza drove the quality (and price) to new heights. Old-school places like John’s in Elmhurst, which makes an excellent cheese slice for $3.50, are holding out somewhere in the middle.
For many classic pizza shops, consistency is key. “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” says Gio Lanzo, the owner of Luigi’s in Brooklyn, which opened in 1973. Lanzo’s father, Luigi, passed away two years ago, so Lanzo is the head pizzaman these days, tossing dough between two balled-up fists. Pizza at Luigi’s has been made the same way for the last 50 years. Stepping into the store is like entering a time capsule — TCM broadcasts movies from a bygone era; change is fished out of the ancient clanking register.
Lanzo and his sisters, who help run the shop, strive to maintain the sense of community their father created. Luigi’s is the neighborhood spot, where you can get a hot slice even if you’re a quarter short. It’s the place where everyone knows your name. “That’s the way it started and that’s the way it’s going to die,” Lanzo says.
In Manhattan, where customers are more transient and competition is stiffer, pizza shops can’t rely as much on tradition. Joe Riggio’s father opened NY Pizza Suprema in Midtown in 1965. For over 20 years, the cheese pizza, liberally seasoned with pecorino Romano, was the only option. Riggio convinced his father to introduce Sicilian pies and calzones in 1988. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but people enjoy variety,” he says. Today, Riggio sells more than 20 different pies, from vegan margarita to one topped with pineapple: “I don’t like Hawaiian pizza, but it’s not about me.”
Despite the ebb and flow of trends, quality still matters. NY Suprema’s cheese pizza is made the same way it was in 1965 and it remains the top-seller for a reason. “If you’re a bullshit place, people are gonna find out,” Riggio says.
Catering to customers’ evolving tastes is a small concession to continue a family business. At Elegante Pizzeria in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, sometime in the early 2000s, brothers Phillip and Tony Varvara noticed that a growing share of their customers was Muslim and that they didn’t eat pork. The Varvaras, who opened the shop in 1979, caught wind of the neighborhood’s shifting demographics and switched their pork sausage and pepperoni to beef. “You have to satisfy your customer so you can satisfy your bills,” says Tony.
Not everyone loves the changes they see. Lanzo laments the gentrification of Brooklyn’s South Slope. “Little by little, the character is going,” he says. “They call it progress.”
Hate it or love it, progress is a necessary part of running a food business, especially when it comes to joining the digital age. Most pizza shops have some kind of online presence, whether it’s a simple website or a social media account. Luigi’s has been on Instagram since 2013. At Elegante, Tony Varvara’s son, Gianni, set up a Shopify store to sell branded merch. Bagali’s 85-year-old mother, Rose, just joined TikTok as NYC_Pizza_Grandma. In one video, she nimbly stretches out pizza dough to the jaunty tune of “Che La Luna.”
“Technology can amplify customer relationships,” says Ilir Sela, the founder of Slice, a tech company that provides independent pizza operators with digital tools like website hosting and online ordering. Sela believes owners are too busy updating websites and chasing after delivery drivers and they’d rather spend time with customers. In fact, he watched firsthand as his own family members struggled with some of these very issues. Sela’s family migrated to New York from Albania in the 1990s, when Albanians were getting heavy into the pizza business. “They wanted to be able to control their own destiny,” he says, but along the way, “they inherited a million business problems that they had no experience solving.”
Today, the kinds of business problems pizza shops face resemble the issues plaguing the industry at large. To start, there’s a universal labor shortage, and concerns over cash flow. “It looked like we were doing better, but inflation ate us up badly,” says Riggio. Third-party delivery apps can bring in new customers but take a cut of profits. Luckily, many shops have weathered rent increases because the families own their buildings, a smart early investment.
Despite the importance of consistency, quality, and adaptability in running a slice shop, nothing has as much bearing on the future as the question of who will keep things going when it’s finally time to retire.
In 2022, after more than 40 years in business, and with growing numbers of aches, pains, and grandkids, the Varvaras were looking to sell Elegante. But rather than lose the family legacy, their sons expressed an interest in taking over. As of January 2023, Phillip’s son Anthony and Tony’s sons Gianni and Mike are co-running the shop. “There’s a lot of history here, we want to keep that alive,” Mike Varvara says.
The Varvaras were lucky their sons wanted to inherit the business. That’s not always the case. “A lot of the kids don’t want to take over today,” says Susan Bagali. As with any job in food service, the days manning a pizza shop are long, it’s physical work, doesn’t pay very well, and cultivating a relationship with customers isn’t as easy as it once was. “There are days when you don’t want to come in,” Bagali says.
Bagali’s son has a job in finance but he pitches in at the shop when his grandmother stays home. He is less than thrilled when the prospect of taking over the store comes up. “I appreciate the family business,” he says, “but I like finance more.”
The varying attitudes toward the future of the family business can be summed up by a shifting set of motivations. The first generation to open up slice shops in New York wasn’t in the business just to make great pizza, but to provide for their families. “We didn’t want to be pizzamen, we didn’t even know what that was,” says Tony Varvara. “Back then, it was about making money.”
Susan Bagali’s parents were looking to build a better future for their children. “They wanted the American dream,” she says.
Perhaps this explains the emotional charge that comes with the news of every lost pizza shop: The classics are the ultimate symbol of New York City. Just as the diner captures the American spirit, so too does the pizza shop embody New York. Spike Lee understood that when he used the fictional pizza shop Sal’s as the backdrop to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. John Badham, the director of Saturday Night Fever, invoked the New York hustle when John Travolta stopped by the now-closed Lenny’s Pizzeria for a quick double-decker slice.
Rather than dwell on loss, Ilir Sela wants to paint a more optimistic picture of the future. “There are always institutions that will go out of business,” he says, referencing the closing of Lenny’s. “But I can also point to new independent brands that will probably be the future of the industry.” An industry which, by the way, is doing just fine. In other words, New York may be at risk of losing a generation of pizza shops, but it’s not losing the entire genre.
A glimpse of that future might be Traditas, a new slice shop with two locations in Manhattan. At 27, owner Leo Krkuti is young, but he is no stranger to the pizza game. Krkuti’s family, also Albanian immigrants, opened the Brooklyn slice shop Not Ray’s in 1989 (amid countless Ray’s pizzerias opening at the time). Observing his family over the years, Krkuti had a list of things he would do differently if he became a pizzaman. “It’s a new age, we gotta stand out,” he says. To bring his vision to life, he would have to strike out on his own.
Krkuti studied marketing in college and he designed his pizza shops with the eye of a digitally native millennial. The branding is impeccable — a neat sans-serif logo is printed on the parchment under each slice. He has a slogan (“pizza with a Brooklyn accent”), a point-of-sale system, and is on every delivery app available. Krkuti also has a content strategy, an email marketing strategy, and loyalty programs. But there’s substance behind the flashy neon lights. Traditas pizza is built on the original Not Ray’s recipe, a crisp, cheesy slice. “They taught me everything,” he says, giving credit where it’s due.
For some, the loss of yet another classic New York slice shop would only reinforce the loss of a simpler time. In this city, pizza is nostalgic food, eaten at life’s formative moments. In David Shapiro’s 2020 documentary, Untitled Pizza Movie, pizza is the medium through which the filmmaker struggles to hold on to youth and make sense of the chaos that makes New York City so devastatingly beautiful. “Everybody has a pizza story,” says Liam Quigley, the freelance reporter.
On the other hand, what’s at stake isn’t just memories, but a family’s livelihood. Sometimes, livelihoods evolve, or they end. At John’s Pizzeria, when Susan Bagali stops to consider the future of the shop her parents opened over 50 years ago, all she can say is, “We’ll see.”