If the Marx Brothers had staged "A Night at the Opera"’s most famous scene not in the stateroom of an ocean liner but the new Oyster Bay Umberto’s, five or six of Carla Loeven’s family members would likely tumble out at the end, along with dozens of Sicilian and grandma pizzas and an untold number of garlic knots. All of which is to say: it’s hard to believe that a thriving pizza business might be built out of a space not quite 700 square feet. But it’s been done before, and in the exact same OB location. For 47 years, three other (non-Marx) brothers — Nino, Sal and Mimmo Plaia — ran Nino’s Pizza there, becoming a local institution before retiring and shuttering the place last year.
"We have big shoes to fill in this location, which is the smallest Umberto's to date," said Loeven, a daughter of another local pizza legend, Carlo Corteo, the man often credited with creating the first grandma pizzas in the ’70s — based on his mother’s recipe back home in southern Italy — at the original Umberto’s of New Hyde Park. Loeven has big ambitions nonetheless for the new take-out-and-delivery-only spot, which opened in February and boasts four pizza ovens to Nino’s two.
"With the hours you have to put in for a business like this, my dad didn’t necessarily want that for his daughters," said Loeven, who runs the latest Umberto’s along with several family members. "Dad used to come home at 2 o’clock in the morning." Indeed, when Loeven was a child, "if you wanted to see him, you went to work. My first job was when I was 5 and I got a penny for making pizza boxes."
Growing up, Loeven performed every conceivable task at the family’s pizzerias, from washing dishes to answering phones to sweeping floors. Mindful of her father’s experience, however, she trained as an art teacher, and taught K-8 students until last year. "The business didn’t used to be conducive to having a family," she said, and while running a pizzeria remains one of the more demanding jobs in restaurant land, "I feel like I’m better able to balance it all now."
Despite the small space, the menu is nearly as big as some of the other 11 Umberto’s on the Island, as I discovered during a brief tour of the narrow space, passing lots of trays of in-progress grandma pies ($21.63 for a whole one, $3.08 for a slice), other Umberto’s specialties, and a few family members (Loeven’s brother, husband and cousins are all part of the Oyster Bay team). And there in the very back of the store, manning an enormous mixer full of pizza dough, was Corteo himself.
"If you’re going to write up anything, don’t do it right away," he pleaded. On the evidence of the frenzy at lunchtime, the village of Oyster Bay has clearly missed having a dedicated pizza parlor.
"He wants to keep it not too busy," laughed Loeven, relieved to see that things have taken off so quickly despite present challenges. "Pizza is a comfort food, people always want pizza."
Loeven turned to her dad. "Pop, how was the ’80s recession for pizza?"
"The pizza business never goes down," Corteo replied. "It’s not only a comfort food, it’s also affordable."
Umberto’s of Oyster Bay is at 25 E. Main St. in Oyster Bay, 516-922-0434, umbertosoysterbay.com. Opening hours are Wednesday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesday.