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Harlem Brick-Oven Pizza Shop Thumbs Its Nose at Papa John's

By Gustavo Solis | July 17, 2015 3:15pm | Updated on July 19, 2015 11:14pm
 The new Italian restaurant on Lenox Avenue is serving up homemade pasta, wood-fried pizza and Italian happy hour.
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HARLEM — The neighborhood newest brick-oven pizza place is giving Papa John's the kiss-off.

Babbalucci, which opened July 1 in a storefront formerly occupied by the franchise, gave their pizza predecessor a unique shout out. 

"As an ode to Papa John's we named a pizza after them," said owner Andrew LoPresto. "We call it the 'Dear John.' It's our salami picante pizza, it is the closest thing we have to an American-style pepperoni pizza."

The new Italian restaurant hopes to last a little longer than the chain did.

To guarantee that they started doing and Italian version of happy hour called “aperitivo” on Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to make sure Harlem residents who work outside the neighborhood don’t miss out on happy hour, said LoPresto.

“This is really a working man’s neighborhood, it’s a family neighborhood,” said LoPresto, who has lived in Harlem for 7 years. “We wanted to give them a chance to enjoy happy hour.”

The specials include $4 Moretti beer and $6 fresh berry sangria. The food includes stuffed figs, homemade bread with tomato sauce, and other Italian snacks.

Babbalucci joins a growing number of Italian eateries and pizzerias opening in Uptown. Earlier this summer Bono Trattoria opened on 151st Street and Broadway and the eco-friendly pizza truck Neapolitan Express opened a brick and mortar location on 111th Street and Third Avenue in the winter.

Residents welcomed the wood-fried pizzeria, calling it an upgrade to the franchise it replaced.

"Anything that brings healthy food is a welcome addition to the neighborhood," said Jewel, 81, who declined to give her last name. "It's nice that there is a chance because the food here is killer — meaning it gives you a heart attack."

She was most excited to try some of the restaurant's salads, specifically the endive salad which comes with grilled shrimp, watermelon and avocado.

This is the first restaurant LoPresto has opened but it is not his first time in the kitchen.

Raised in Hell’s Kitchen, LoPresto grew up working in his father’s restaurants. He did everything from clean bathrooms to bus tables to prep for dinner service at pizzerias and Italian restaurants in the Upper West Side and later, The Bronx, he said.

Despite his experience, the challenge has been overwhelming at times. The opening was delayed a couple of months because of "nightmare" problems with the construction, he said.

“It’s the most stressful and most fun thing I’ve done in my life,” LoPresto said. “I come here every day and I am excited and happy to do it.”

Some of the most popular dishes so far include the “Thaitalian” pizza which comes with Thai basil, sausage, garlic, cherry peppers and mozzarella, and the short rib lasagna.

Entrees cost between $13 and $24 and pizzas range between $12 and $22, depending on the size.