Then an unemployed business student, Christian DiRienzo, 27, learned the secret recipes for the sauce and dough used in the legendary slice shop his uncle first opened as Famous Ray's Pizza in 1973 and rejuvenated as Famous Roio's Pizza this April.
Christian DiRienzo wasn't sure that inheriting the family business — one of the first slice shops in the city to have the ubiquitous Ray's name — was for him, so he kept his distance from the shop.
"I wanted to try to do something on my own," he said.
But just months later, after Mario DiRienzo's death in September, Christian DiRienzo has found himself at the helm of the pizza shop, where he says he will try to continue the pizza baron's commitment to top-notch pies.
DiRienzo died Sept. 17 at age 71, leaving his nephew, two nieces and an employee of more than 20 years to keep the pizza ovens burning, Christian DiRienzo said Monday.
"When he died, I thought [running the business] would be the right thing to do," he said in between ringing up customers Monday in the busy shop. "He wanted to keep this place going and see it have a comeback."
After the business changed hands several times since the '80s, Mario DiRienzo told DNAinfo.com he was proud to reopen the slice shop with its original management and recipe.
"I'm coming back. New York needs me," he said in February before he took over the shop in April.
The 465 Sixth Ave. shop and dozens of other pizza places in the city named Ray's were targeted in a lawsuit last year by rival eatery Famous Original Ray's Pizza that challenged use of the moniker.
So, DiRienzo — who worked in embassy kitchens in Rome and as a chef for corporate executives in the city before opening his shop — renamed the restaurant in honor of his central Italy hometown, Roio del Sangro.
This fall, he was buried there, Christian DiRienzo said.
"He found out he had [lung cancer] and he went quickly," he said.
Christian DiRienzo and his sisters, 31 and 34, are still getting the hang of running the business and assembling the cheesy pies, he said, so they're leaving the dough-tossing to the more experienced employees.
"Everything I'm doing, I'm doing from scratch," he said.
The Madison, N.J. resident who now works at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, said he had not fully understood the legacy of his uncle's shop until the pizzaiolo died.
"After hearing stories from all the customers who come in, I have a different view of the importance of this place," he said.
Famous Roio's manager Samy Mahmud, an Egypt native and close friend of DiRienzo who said the owner helped bring him to the U.S. in 1988, said he wanted Village residents to remember DiRienzo not only for his pizza, but for his kindness.
"He had a good heart," said Mahmud, remembering that his boss gave free pizza to anyone who could not pay.
"I want people here to hear about Mario forever," he said.