Churning out some of the best pizzas in New York is a family affair for John and Cosimo Tiso, the brothers behind legendary pizzeria Louie and Ernie’s in Pelham Bay. Not only have they been slinging pies together for 32 years, but they’ve kept the staff local too.
“We started with three people — me and my mother and my brother,” Cosimo, known as Cosmo, says. “Most of the people we hire come not just from our family but other people’s families. So in that sense it’s a family too.”
When John and Cosmo started at Louie and Ernie’s as teenagers, they were working for the original owner, Ernie Ottuso, who had opened the spot with his own brother in 1959. But health issues forced Ernie to sell, opening up an unexpected opportunity.
“I would never dream of doing this,” John says. “I was working at that time, doing odd jobs all over the place, from being a busboy and being the kitchen hand. I worked here as a kid and my brother came on later. When we took it over, my brother was still in high school.”
At the time, John, 20, and Cosmo, 16, were suddenly business partners, with a hefty loan to pay back and a clientele of locals demanding they keep the original menu unchanged.
“That was the lean times, because [Ernie] had this place for 26 years and he had a strong base of people, the old-school Italians, and they followed him,” Cosmo says. “So when we took over, they were like, ‘You’re not Ernie.’ We had people arguing all the time, ‘They make the same pizza, they don’t make the same pizza,’ so it took us two or three years of looking at each other like, this is what we’re doing?”
But sticking to the basics is what helped them stay afloat through the ups and downs over the years.
“In general, we just work, you know?” Cosmo says. “I never want to say I’m the best pizzeria in the world. I just show up to work, be humble, customers know what they’re getting and at the end of the night, we’re happy.”
John and Cosmo are committed to making the same pies and calzones they’ve always made, without falling victim to trends and the demands of newer customers. They know what they do well, and they’re happy to stick with it.
“I’m a firm believer that if you keep it simple, people will enjoy it. Show up to work and do what you do,” Cosmo says. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
The brothers says they don’t have aspirations of working into their 80s, like the original owner. They love the business, but decades of work have taken their toll.
“When you’re here so many hours, you can’t spend time with your family. You miss functions and stuff like that and it becomes a nuisance,” John says. “It takes up a lot of your time, and my hands hurt some days, my feet hurt some days and I’d like to lessen my load but it seems like it gets more and more [busy].”
Passing the business onto the next generation is not something they’re pressuring their family into either.
“Working with family is tough because you want them to be an extension of yourself, and they have their own minds and opinions,” John says. “But my daughter loves this place and she loves doing this. I always say the kids have to do what they want to do or they’re not going to be happy.”
Whatever happens in the future, the brothers are proud of what they’ve built, as the spot has grown more and more successful.
“This business, the way it runs now, it’s perfect. We make money, we have a lot of stuff that makes us happy,” Cosmo says. “Generally speaking, our day is pretty simple: we just make pizza.”
IF YOU GO: Louie and Ernie’s Pizza is located at 1300 Crosby Ave., the Bronx. It is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 718-829-6230 or visit their website for more information.