Totonno’s Pizzeria Seeks New Owner

It just may be the end of an era for Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano on Coney Island. As reported by The New York Times, the century-old pizzeria has decided to open their doors to investors or new owners. Ever since opening in 1924, the pizzeria has been operated by four different generations of the same family. It’s an incredible story of immigration, family lore, hardship, and of course delicious pizza.

We’ve taken a few very lucky groups to visit Totonno’s on our Sunday Pizza Bus Tour over the past 16 years. They’ve all experienced a truly special New York restaurant. Even though the iconic Coney Island pizzeria isn’t exactly closing, this is a big change that will change the place forever.

Totonno’s History

Antonio “Totonno” Pero first came to the United States on June 9, 1903. Just like his brother (who arrived six years earlier), Antonio identified himself on his ship manifest as a “baker.” The most striking detail about Antonio’s manifest is his destination: 53 Spring Street. Pizza nerds probably recognize this address as the original location of Lombardi’s Pizzeria. What most don’t realize is that in 1903 the pizzeria at 53 Spring Street was owned by Giovanni Santillo. This name appears on Antonio’s ship manifest as both the person who paid for his trip across the Atlantic and as the host at his destination address.

That means Totonno almost certainly came to the US as a pizza maker. Even though Lombardi eventually purchased the business (then sold it, then bought it back a decade later), Antonio Pero was a pizza maker there from 1903 at least through 1908. He was an important enough figure to appear as one of two main subjects of this famous photo taken of the pizzeria in 1908, with Totonno on the left and Lombardi on the right.

Photo of 53 1/2 Spring Street (Manhattan) taken in 1908 by Maurice Levin. Totonno (left) and Lombardi (right).

By the 1910 census Antonio Pero was in Coney Island, where he lived with and worked for his brother Gennaro. Remember him, the guy who arrived as a baker in 1897? As it turns out, he owned a restaurant! (Was it a pizzeria? So far we’ve found no evidence to say it was but the search continues.) Antonio remained on Coney Island and eventually opened Pizzeria Napoletana in 1924. The family legend is that the building was originally across the street (possibly on W 15th Street, where they lived at the time) and they physically moved it into its current space. The current building has no foundation, so this story may be true!

Michael Gammone made pizza at Totonno’s from 2005 until 2020.

The Restaurant

One of the most notable aspects of Totonno’s Pizzeria is the fact that very little has changed over the years. They still cook their pizzas in an old Universal coal-fired oven and their sauce still goes on top of sliced mozzarella. The menu is as slim as ever, with only pizza and a few toppings. Inside the restaurant you’ll find one moderately-sized room with classic tin-lined walls and checkered flooring. It’s beautiful.

The pizzeria was originally helmed by Antonio, who passed the responsibility to his youngest son Jerry in the 1950s. The mantle then when to Antonio’s granddaughter Louise (whose mother was Antonio’s eldest daughter Aida) in the mid 1990s. Louise (or as most people know her, Cookie) ran the place with her husband Joel for many years. They even expanded by licensing the name to operators who expanded into Manhattan and Yonkers. Those stores closed in the early 2000s. When Joel passed in 2004, their son Lawrence took over pizza duties on Coney Island. Michael Gammone became a pizza maker in 2005, one of the very few non-family members to do so.

Why New Ownership?

While it’s not clear exactly what they’re looking for, sibling owners Louise, Antoinette, and Frank need help to keep the place alive. A pair of fires, a hurricane, and a global pandemic have made the past 25 years extremely challenging for the pizzeria. Ever since COVID, the place hasn’t reopened its dining room and has only opened for business on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It’s not enough to keep the place afloat. Totonno’s has a particularly difficult model because they sell only pizza and soft drinks, no salads or appetizers or wine or beer or anything. There are very few sit-down restaurants that survive on pizza alone and all of them are in much more active neighborhoods.

While Coney Island was a bustling seasonal neighborhood when it opened in the 1920s, the same cannot be said today. Totonno’s is on Neptune Ave, where it’s flanked by used tire stores and auto body shops. There’s essentially no foot traffic, which makes this a true destination pizzeria.

End of an Era

It feels so silly to get upset about an announcement like this. I can only imagine how difficult a decision it was for the family. And it isn’t like the place is closing, it’s just looking for a way to stay alive with new ownership. Its also worth saying that I’ve only been going there for less than 20 years, so the version I experienced wasn’t the same as the restaurant when Jerry was there or his father Antonio. Am I just saddened by the fact that my experience is becoming a relic of the past?

Is this the same as how I felt when Delorenzo’s in Trenton, NJ moved to a much bigger, nicer space in nearby Robbinsville just a few miles away from its previous location? The old place didn’t have a bathroom, so I should have been delighted about the upgrade! If the pizza’s just as good, what does it really matter?

I think it all comes down to the fact that change is scary. It reminds us that time keeps moving whether we notice or not. Special places like Totonno’s can’t last forever, so we need to enjoy them while we can. In a way, this announcement could be just the boost they need to stay alive a little bit longer while they find the perfect person or people to take over. I don’t envy them, because it’s a task that will carry the weight of multiple generations. But whoever ends up with the responsibility, I wish them luck and I look forward to supporting them.


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