Andrew Bellucci, the famed pizza chef who helped reopen Lombardi’s, died overnight. Bellucci collapsed while working at his Astoria restaurant, Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, on Wednesday evening and was later pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was 59.
Few pizza makers made an impression on this city like Bellucci. Born in New Jersey, the chef is best known for helping Gennaro Lombardi and Joan Volpe reopen Lombardi’s in 1994, a landmark in Nolita that closed in the 1980s. It claims to be the country’s first pizzeria. Like at the original Lombardi’s, which opened in 1905, his pies were prepared in a coal oven, a rarity among modern pizzerias that some argue produces a better crust.
Bellucci’s sudden death sent a jolt through New York’s pizza community. “RIP my friend,” Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana wrote on Instagram. “An inspiration to so many pizza makers around the globe.”
“We lost a fucking legend tonight,” wrote Chris Hansell, the chef behind the popular pop-up Chrissy’s Pizza, who previously worked under Bellucci. “You’ll never meet another pizza maker like Andrew Bellucci and I feel sorry to everyone that didn’t get to experience this lovely psycho.”
In his quest to be recognized as one of the city’s great pizza makers, he attracted the attention of the feds. In 1995, the year after Lombardi’s reopened on Spring Street, federal agents visited the pizzeria, ordered a pie, and arrested Bellucci for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the New York law firm Newman Schlau Fitch and Lau, where he worked in the 1980s.
“They didn’t pay for [the pizza] either,” Bellucci once told the New York Post. “They owe me 20 bucks plus interest.” He pled guilty to 54 counts of fraud and began a 13-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, the following year.
Once out of jail, Bellucci drove cabs around the city for a handful of years, before teaming up with a partner who he helped open restaurants in Malaysia. From there he returned to New York, with stints in Bangkok, Hawaii, and other cities.
He opened Bellucci Pizza in February 2021, a slice shop in Astoria that sold a version of the coal-oven clam pie he had on the menu at Lombardi’s. The restaurant was well-received, but Bellucci walked away less than a year later, writing in a social media post at the time that he and his former partner Leo Dakmak had “different visions for the future.”
Following the split, he opened Bellucci’s Pizza seven blocks away, causing confusion among fans. In December, a legal settlement forced him to reopen the restaurant under the name Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria.
“He lived a really complicated life,” says Ed Levine, founder of Serious Eats and author of Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption. “He wanted to be the public face of Lombardi’s, which was really interesting considering he had been on the lam. He was clearly conflicted.”
Bellucci was featured in the cult film, Untitled Pizza Movie, filmmaker Dave Shapiro’s seven-part series showing through Lower East Side’s Metrograph in 2021. It chronicled his career and jail stint, up to the opening of Bellucci Pizza in Astoria, which led to a push of customers making the trip to his shop and occasionally asking him to sign their pizza boxes.
As to how his pizza compared to his Lombardi’s pies from 20 years ago, he said, “I knew nothing then.” But his passion for pizza remained, with his most recent pizza style reflecting “a little bit of experience from all over the place.”
Additional reporting by Melissa McCart.