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Lifelong Pizza Fans Chronicle Old-School Slice Joints in the City

By Katie Honan | December 23, 2015 11:19am
 The owners of Rizzo's Fine Pizza in Astoria pose behind the counter of their shop. They are featured along with other old-school pizza restaurants in
The owners of Rizzo's Fine Pizza in Astoria pose behind the counter of their shop. They are featured along with other old-school pizza restaurants in "The New York Pizza Project."
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

Inside the small storefront of Rizzo’s Fine Pizza on Steinway Street in Astoria are relics that mark the pizza place’s nearly 60-year history of selling thin-crust square pies.

There are photos of the original owner, Joseph Rizzo, and other workers, hanging on the wall in black and white. Wooden booths are nailed into the floor. RC Cola is on draft at the soda fountain.

It’s the type of old-school pizza joint that Gabe Zimmer and four friends had in mind when they began their book, “The New York Pizza Project.”

Rizzo’s “embodies everything that we love about a neighborhood pizzeria,” Zimmer said.

“It’s in the family for so long and has a unique slice,” he added.

It was a love of the pizza places they grew up with that brought the creators of the New York Pizza Project together, he said.

The team of five — Zimmer, Ian Manheimer, Nick Johnson, Tim Reitzes and Cory Mintz  — met up in 2010 and, putting their pizza minds together, mapped out their favorite slice places throughout the five boroughs.

Zimmer's local spot is Roma Pizza, at the corner of Union and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, where he grew up.

For a kid in Elmhurst, it’s John’s. In Fresh Meadows, it's Brothers. In Belmont, there’s Pugsley’s.

The pizza places “feel like home to us and we wanted to do a project where we paid homage to these places,” Zimmer said.

They’d show up to talk to owners, workers and eaters, hearing about everything from the tricks to making a perfect slice to what it takes to be the sexiest pizza guy in the city.

They took photos at each one, chronicling their importance to each neighborhood. While they were all distinct, most authentic places had a few things in common: they sold slices, not fancy brick-oven pies. They had to have been in place long enough to make an impact.

Another sign of an authentic slice spot is the pizza boxes, Zimmer said.

“You can always tell how well a place is doing by how much space they reserved for their boxes,” he said.

The conversations at the counter are key, too.

They are “cultural halls where people connect with each other,” he said.

As one of the many pizzerias featured in "The New York Pizza Project," the owners of Rizzo's — original owner’s son David Rizzo, Frank Taormina and former nightlife promoter Bugsy — say the key to their success is authenticity.

Joseph Rizzo, his brother Sal and brother-in-law Hugo opened Rizzo’s Fine Pizza in 1959, selling a thin-crust square slice that they’ve served up ever since.

"The New York Pizza Project" documents pizza spots around the city, including Rizzo's Fine Pizza in Astoria. 

The six Rizzo kids all worked inside, and David remembers cleaning trays for a nickel each as a kid. He came back at 24 to work full-time.

In 2010 they expanded with a shop on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. Two years ago they opened an Upper East Side restaurant.

Bugsy and Taormina came on to assist with the expansion, and they hope to bring their pizza style nationwide.

Rizzo believes in the product his dad and uncles have sold locally for decades.
“It’s the way pizza should be,” he said.

To order "The New York Pizza Project" and prints from the book, visit their website.