What is grandma pizza? These Long Island restaurants invented it
This weekend, why not dig into the history of what may be Long Island’s greatest contribution to Italian American cuisine: grandma pizza. There’s no question that the thin-crusted, sparsely topped pie was born in western Nassau County. But who, exactly, invented it?
In 2003, I wrote a story that attempted to answer this burning question and it became the primary source for all subsequent investigations — it’s the earliest reference cited in the Wikipedia article on grandma pizza.
Here’s everything you’ll need to make your own grandma pizza crawl.
633 Jericho Tpke., New Hyde Park
Our story starts at Umberto’s in the early 1970s. Founded in 1965 by Umberto Corteo, Umberto's now is a vast operation encompassing a pizzeria, restaurant and catering hall as well as locations in Bellmore, Lake Grove, Manhasset, Massapequa Park, Oyster Bay and Plainview. But back then it was a simple, 60-seat pizza parlor that served two types of pizza, big round Neapolitan pies, and thick, square Sicilians. But Umberto and his brother Carlo sometimes enjoyed a third type, then nameless, that was made in a Sicilian pan but was even thinner than a Neapolitan. Sometimes it was shared with favored customers, but it was never on the menu. At least two of Umberto’s pizzaioli specialized in making the pie: Ciro Cesarano and Angelo Giangrande.
Today, Umberto's has taken over its New Hyde Park block. You can still grab a slice in the bustling pizzeria, or take advantage of a vast Italian American menu in one of several dining rooms or in a tent surrounded by Umberto's own garden of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, celery and more.
More info: 516-437-7698, umbertosfamily.com
1343 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont
Here the story moves about two miles south, to Elmont. The Corteos had opened a satellite pizzeria, King Umberto, but in 1976, it was sold to two Umberto's employees, brothers Rosario and Sal Fuschetto. During the '80s, they hired those two Umberto’s pizzaioli, Ciro Cesarano and Angelo Giangrande, and, for the first time, put the thin, square pizza on the menu. It was a King Umberto customer, Anthony "Tippy" Nocella, who came up with the name "grandma" a few years later. Now, back in the day, pizzas destined to be sold by the slice sat on high counters above the eye level of many customers, but in 1994, King Umberto undertook a renovation: the installation of a glass-enclosed showcase, much like a jeweler's display, that displaced the posted menu as the focal point of customers' deliberations. "When we put it in the showcase," said Rosario, "people saw the grandma pie and asked 'What's that thin one? Let me have one of those.'"
At the current King Umberto, Rosario's partners are his cousin, Sal Fuschetto, and Ciro Cesarano's sons, John and Ciro, Jr. Sal runs the kitchen (and makes King Umberto's famous capellini balls); John has emerged as one of Long Island's most talented neo-Neapolitan pizza makers (don't miss his artisanal "metro pie"); Rosario and Ciro, Jr. preside over the dining rooms (which now include a vast glass pavilion and patio) as well as one of Long Island's best Italian wine lists.
More info: 516-352-8391, kingumberto.com
815 Willis Ave., Albertson
In 1989, when he was working at King Umberto, Angelo Giangrande took his grandma to a pizza-making contest in Farmingdale sponsored by a local restaurant wholesaler. The pie was a huge hit, inspiring everyone who tried it to put it on their menus. But the primary mechanism for the spread of this new variety was the migration of pizza makers from spots that made grandma pizza to spots that didn’t. In 1991, Giangrande and his cousin Antonio Franzella opened Cugini's in Mineola and, in 2000, Cugini Due in Albertson. Giangrande’s grandma was a headliner at both places. The Albertson store was re-christened Da Angelo in 2003 and is now owned by Giangrande and his son, Steven, who is carrying the tradition into the next generation.
A renovation has elevated the décor to match the menu which extends far beyond pizza, calzones and heroes to include a full roster of Parms, Franceses, Marsalas, Milaneses, piccatas and paillards and more than a dozen pastas.
More info: 516-741-8694, daangelopizza.com