75 years of John’s pizza and the Village: That’s amore


By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

Since the early 1900s at 278 Bleecker St., workers have hauled buckets of coal from the building’s basement each morning to feed the shop’s cavernous brick oven, which every day still bronzes a few hundred savory pizza pies topped with mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage and peppers.

In 1929, John Sasso, an immigrant from Naples, Italy, opened a small pizza shop on Bleecker between Sixth and Seventh Aves. — John’s Brick Oven Pizzeria. Years later, celebrities, sports stars, tourists and a group of devoted local pizza aficionados still flock to the restaurant, still at its original spot, where they squeeze into rickety high-back wooden benches for the steaming thin-crust pies. Described as the best pizza place in the city by some, the renowned eatery will celebrate its 75th birthday in mid-August.

“To go through the Great Depression and still stay in business is amazing,” said John’s owner, Bob Vittoria, a relative of the original owner. One of Vittoria’s uncles, who also once owned the restaurant, was Sasso’s son-in-law. “What a time to open a business. We’re still here though.”

Sasso sold the restaurant to relatives Augustine and Joe Vesce — Vittoria’s uncles — in 1953. Vittoria spent his teenage years in the restaurant helping his uncles and in the early 1970s took over the shop with business partner Peter Castellotti. In the early 1980s, Vittoria and Castellotti formally bought the business. Seventy-five years later, John’s is still a family business — both Vittoria and Castellotti’s grown sons work in the restaurant, and Vittoria’s grandchildren often visit John’s to sample the different pies.

To celebrate the restaurant’s rich history, after the summer influx of tourists dies down, Vittoria plans to hold a special “1929 night,” during which he will sell soda and pizza for the same prices that customers paid when the restaurant first opened. “I’ll take a beating, but what are you going to do?” he said. “I’ll do it for one day.”

Over the years John’s has received rave reviews from such publications as Zagat’s and Time Out New York and won awards, such as City Search’s 2001 best pizza audience winner. Celebrity photos line the walls — from Mary Tyler Moore to New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith, who signed his picture, “To John, the best from the best!” Rapper Vanilla Ice called John’s pies “dope pizza.”

“The difference between this pizza and other pizza is like the difference between a hamburger you make at home in a frying pan, and one you make outside on a barbeque,” Vittoria said. “There’s a big difference.”

Movie stars like Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman and David Faustino, from “Married with Children,” stop by for a pie when in the neighborhood, as do a group of devoted local residents and sports stars from the Giants, Jets and Yankees. “I’m a Yankees fan,” Vittoria said with a smile. “So when Mets players come in I try to give them hot peppers.”

The names and initials etched in the restaurant’s dark wooden benches tell the stories of both regulars and one-time visitors — “Stevie + Marla” encircled in a heart, Tito, Emir and Matt Maloney — the often quirky customers who have helped to make John’s a New York institution. Years ago, when one customer’s pizza arrived, he pulled out a box of Cheerios to sprinkle over the top, Vittoria said; another group of eccentric pizza patrons used to devour their pie from the inside out. One regular, Jimmy, has been eating at John’s for the last 35 years.

“We come back for the pizza, it’s an old-fashioned tomato pie,” said customer Mike Brennan, who with his father, Bob, has been coming to John’s for the past 10 years. “Other new pizza places have chewy crusts.” The Brennans have owned a general contractor’s office in Soho for the past 18 years and, along with co-worker Doug Patino, visit John’s for business lunches. Their typical order — one sausage pie, one plain cheese pie and a pitcher of Diet Coke.

Vittoria attributes the restaurant’s steadfast popularity to the special brick oven that reaches over 800 degrees and crisps the homemade crust to perfection, and the fresh, high-quality meats, produce and cheese. He buys his meat from down the street at Faicco’s Pork Store, open since 1927 at 260 Bleecker St.

“I pay more than the average pizza place because of the quality of the product,” said Vittoria. “I don’t skimp when buying the food. I guess that’s why all these people come back and see us.”

Pizzas at John’s range from #1 on the menu — the basic cheese and tomato sauce — to the all-topping #54, a pie layered with cheese, tomato sauce, anchovies, sausage, peppers, meatballs, onion, mushroom, pepperoni and black olives. But customers can also create their own pies; they just should not expect any froufrou pizza ingredients like fresh basil, artichokes or pineapple.

“It’s not New York if you do pineapple pizza,” Vittoria said. “New York is sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms. I’m not saying it’s bad, pineapple is just more California.”

A small, 14” pizza can feed three people and costs anywhere from $12-$21, depending on toppings. A large, 16” pie ranges in price from $14-$23. These days the most popular pies are the veggie pizza — mushroom, onion, pepper, fresh garlic — and the sausage and mushroom with fresh garlic, Vittoria said. Customers can also order soda, as well as wine and beer by the glass, or bottle and pitcher.

“This place is recession-proof,” said waiter Lester Fernandez, whose favorite pie is topped with garlic and onion and light on the cheese. “You and I come here and can eat and drink for less than $20. The place is always full.”

In addition to pizza, John’s offers homemade pasta dishes, such as ravioli and manicotti, each $8, a sausage or meatball sandwich, $6.50, and calzoni, $16, which the menu promises is large enough for three.

Vittoria remembers Bleecker St. from the 1950s and 1960s, when vendors selling vegetables, fruits and eggs from pushcarts lined the street. Now, designer boutiques like Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren have moved in and real estate prices have skyrocketed. But Vittoria has no plans to leave the neighborhood.

“The rents went up like everything else, but we’re still here,” he said. “I love being on Bleecker St. I think it’s one of the nicer areas next to Soho and Little Italy.” In his opinion, it’s also the location of the best pizza in the city. “I don’t knock anyone’s pizza, but I do hear a lot of people like ours.”

John’s Pizzeria is open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to midnight and Saturday and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. No slices, no credit cards; whole pies and cash or personal checks only.

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