Waitress Madison Deleon at Medford Pastaria.

Waitress Madison Deleon at Medford Pastaria. Credit: Brittainy Newman

There’s this place in your town, maybe, one that’s been there forever but you’ve never thought too hard about, but with a generational memory that stretches back before you were born—to when your parents sipped overfull glasses of Chianti and scooped hunks of lasagna out of a sizzling crock. Later, they brought you there, too, strapping you into a high chair for buttered noodles and later still, for sausage pies on dented tins or rolls you’d demolish before the eggplant Parm arrived. Red sauce always landed on someone’s shirt and the iceberg salad was so cold it induced brain freeze. Years later, now on your own or with your friends, you returned for slices folded lengthwise in two, the searing cheese washed down with sharp hits of Coke.

These places are baked into Long Island’s DNA, the pizzeria doing double duty as a sit-down restaurant, with a slice counter on one side and tables on the other—or lined up, front to back—primed and ready for Friday night with your family or your cousin’s graduation or a slice on the run or even a second date. As legion as bagel shops or delis, and just as low-key, neighborhood pizzeria-restaurants are all over the place, a tile-and-checkerboard kingdom of calzone and fried calamari and Bolognese hard-wired into our landscape. No matter how many there were, we always made room for another, learning with time that once we left greater New York, like bagel shops or delis, they pretty much disappeared.

The pizza counter at Medford Pastaria.

The pizza counter at Medford Pastaria. Credit: Brittainy Newman

John Giovanni Ficarra learned their ways early, too, as early as ninth grade, when he started working in a Bayside pizzeria. Born in Palermo, Ficarra had moved to Queens with his family at the age of two, and barely a dozen years later would spend his after-school hours washing dishes and cooking pies. Classes began to make him restless, and a dream took shape in his head. “I didn’t want to go there anymore, and I dropped out. I just wanted to open my own place,” said Ficarra. Which he did, at 23, when he leased a pizzeria in a brand-new Medford strip mall.

On one side was a counter, on the other side, a formal dining room for which Ficarra commissioned an ambitious mural of an Italian street scene, one with cobblestone streets and real pipes jutting into the dining room from faux balconies. Above one of the two-dimensional buildings, he had the words “Botega di Giovanni,” painted, though the place was actually named Medford Pastaria, a term that neatly melded “pasta” and “pizzeria” to capture the dual nature of the place.

“Pizza does a certain amount of money, and the restaurant does a certain amount of money, and together it’s powerful,” said Ficarra, who never looked back. As he built his cred as a pizzaiolo with the local community, they returned for pepperoni-topped “arrabbiata” pies to go or took seats beneath that mural for lingering dinners of pasta fagioli, fried calamari or a heaping frutti di mare, one of the kitchen’s specialties.

Waitress Madison Deleon at Medford Pastaria.

Waitress Madison Deleon at Medford Pastaria. Credit: Brittainy Newman

With the boundless energy of his 20s and 30s, Ficarra kept opening pastarias—in Miller Place, Setauket, Commack. Some of these he sold, but he kept Medford, the decades passing, the mural darkening with age, but the food staying so solid it continued to draw waves of regulars—as young parents, as retired couples, for communions and funerals and pasta nights. “This place was mobbed before COVID hit. Four years ago, you couldn’t get in here,” he said, sitting in the dining room with an espresso. Four years ago, when people didn’t bat an eye before gathering around a table with extended family—four years ago, which was another era as far as Ficarra could figure. During the earliest days of the pandemic, Ficarra was still in fighting form and turned the dining room into a staging area for a gangbusters takeout operation, sometimes on the scale of 2,000 meals a night (“it was insane,” he recalled), before so-called normal life began to return.

But even though the pizza oven stayed hot, the older customers were reticent to come back in person, and during one of the mid-pandemic waves, Ficarra caught COVID himself, which dented his energy for a time and left him with long-term complications and in a contemplative space about his life, the pizzeria-restaurant in general, and how it had and would continue to change.

“This is so old-school Italian,” he said, looking around the dining room with its burgundy leather chairs, ornate curtains and chandeliers. “We don’t get a lot of young people. [Long Island] is so congested with pizzerias—everyone has baked lasagna, chicken Parm. Maybe we do something different? Salmon with a Dijon sauce. We have a beautiful martini list.”

For a few months, Ficarra placed a bar near Medford Pastaria’s front window, but it didn’t quite work. He’s juggled the soaring prices of veal, cheese, and chicken by adjusting dishes—the osso buco here is now made from pork—but so far has resisted raising prices. (A large Neapolitan-style pie is $17, a hot antipasto for two, also $17.) Even with pressure from all sides, the kitchen stays on top of its game—cavatelli with velvety eggplant and snow-white burrata, for instance, is a textural party in a bowl. “The dining room used to be busier than the pizzeria,” Ficarra shrugged, but he understands why—the eat-at-home habits set during the pandemic, as well as the financial crunch. “I feel bad for people.”

Pizza also served as restaurant-business gateway for the Vetrano family—specifically, for Lucia and Pasquale Sr., who had both grown up in Naples but met and married in New York. In 1979, they opened a pizzeria-restaurant in New Hyde Park, Ciros 2, and enlisted sons Pasquale Jr. and Giuseppe to help in the restaurant. With values imported from southern Italy, the elder Vetranos instilled in their children the hidden mechanics of what kept customers returning again and again—ingredients. “We used top veal, the best mozzarella cheese,” said Giuseppe Vetrano, who is known as Joe. “My dad always said, ‘Never cut corners on quality with what you purchase.’ He said that people always want good quality, and don’t mind paying if the food is exceptional.”

Leo Mendez slices a pizza at Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria in...

Leo Mendez slices a pizza at Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria in Mineola. Credit: Brittainy Newman

Ciros 2 was eventually renamed Papa Ciro’s, and then the family sold it in 2011. Joe and his older brother, Pasquale Jr. (known as Pat) founded Skinnypizza, a health-conscious pizza company, but jumped back to the pizzeria-restaurant game in 2014 with Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria, barely a block from the Mineola Long Island Rail Road station. “We grew up here, and believed in this downtown,” said Joe Vetrano.

In the front was a busy slice counter warmed by a gas-fired stone oven, and commuters flowed in and out for Drunken Grandma slices (with vodka sauce) and heroes. Just beyond, a few tables lined an elegant dining room with a checkerboard floor, where chef Francesco Brunetti might be visible through the pass plating lamb chops, baked clams oreganata or spaghetti and meatballs.

The Spaghettini staff cooked trays of food for workers at nearby NYU Winthrop Hospital during the pandemic and were among the first restaurants in town to open outdoor dining, turning their rear parking lot into an enchanting space strung with lights. Yet the road back to normalcy was fraught; in 2021, longtime pizzamaker Ernesto Lemus and his wife, Sandra, succumbed to coronavirus, and the staff soldiered on in bittersweet fashion. Brunetti kept up his reign in the kitchen, with nearly faultless versions of linguine with clam sauce, chicken Francese and cloudlike tiramisu.

Waitresses Alyssa Grullon and Daniela Restivo at Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria in...

Waitresses Alyssa Grullon and Daniela Restivo at Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria in Mineola. Credit: Brittainy Newman

“The food is beyond your expectations, and I eat out all of the time,” said Gary Fox, a regular, as he made quick work of a grandma slice at the bar, one that draws an afternoon tide of regulars. “[Spaghettini] looks like an OK place from the outside, and then the food is way better than you think. The owners are shaky, but you can’t have everything.”

Joe Vetrano took the gentle ribbing in stride. “You used to see people come in two, three times a week, for five years. There’s that comfort level when people trust you,” he said. With the price of everything surging—pizza boxes are now $1, he said—he and his brother Pat, who manages the place, weather each twist with the Vetrano family ethos and grace. Like Ficarra, they have held prices steady. “We hope we can absorb the cost for now,” he said, a little bit nervous to rock a boat that is just starting to steady.

Our precepts about pizzeria-restaurants, and how much they should or shouldn’t cost, have likely been shaped by those earlier nights throughout our lives, the $15 pies we split with our family, the giant basket of garlic bread, the veal Parm we knew we could finish off for lunch tomorrow. “Can I wrap that for you to take home?” is music to many ears, and a question asked 100 times each Friday night inside Bigger Mama’s in Copiague, where portion sizes can easily eclipse the sun.

This is intentional, said owner Sammy Binlle, who knew that leftovers are as integral to a pizzeria-restaurant dinner as time-tested pomodoro when he bought the place, long known as Mama’s, two years ago. For five decades, it had been run by Gaetano and Grace Pinello, anchoring a Copiague strip mall with a faux-Tudor facade and a 200-seat dining room that is a constant cycle of life. The children eating buttered noodles become teenagers who drop in after school for slices; the teenagers become 20-somethings courting future mates who, in turn, become parents handing chicken fingers to their toddlers, and on and on it goes.

Customers order pizza at the counter at Bigger Mama’s in...

Customers order pizza at the counter at Bigger Mama’s in Copiague. Credit: Brittainy Newman

On Friday nights, a jubilant chaos dominates, the vestibule filled with families waiting for tables and the phone so constant the staff sometimes shuts it off to catch up with orders. “This place has always been busy. Sometimes you see regulars come in every day, twice a day,” said Binlle, who ran restaurants in Delaware and New Jersey before coming to Long Island.

Rather than wiping the slate clean, Binlle kept the same chocolate-brown booths and much of the staff, many of whom have worked here for decades and know the faces that walk through the door every week. “Part of the success is you have the right person in the right place—the same look, the same quality, the same consistency,” Binlle said. “It is the bigger places that are the ones who will survive.”

Behind the pizza counter, partitioned to one side off the dining room, slices disappear almost as fast as they land. Juan Rivera, who started at Mama’s as a dishwasher 28 years ago and is now in charge of pizzamaking, oversees the dozens of batches of dough that are kneaded each night, then left to rise before the following day’s crush. “We make a lot, a lot of pizza,” he said.

Margherita pizza at Bigger Mama’s in Copiague.

Margherita pizza at Bigger Mama’s in Copiague. Credit: Brittainy Newman

As he disappears back behind the counter, a young guy in a Carhartt cap grabs a piping-hot slice from its top and decamps to a booth. He positions his soda, folds the slice in two and tilts his head to capture the first sliding, searing bite of melted cheese.

Restaurant information

BIGGER MAMA’S (a.k.a Mama’s of Copiague): 922 Montauk Hwy., Copiague; 631-842-9889, biggermamas.com

MEDFORD PASTARIA: 3209 Horseblock Rd., Medford; 631-758-5252, medfordpastaria.com

SPAGHETTINI PIZZA TRATTORIA: 106 Mineola Blvd., Mineola; 516-750-8044, spaghettinipizza.com

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