STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — By happenstance this summer, I spent a lot of time around pizza people. From a Pizza Party at Snug Harbor to Facebook Lives from various parlor dining rooms, the experiences perhaps gave us all an education on the pizza industry with its laboriousness and long hours. So, what will be the future of pizza on Staten Island and beyond?
First, let’s address the pepperoni elephant in the room — pizzeria closures. Obviously, there’s 80-year old Nunzio’s now behind us and, equally as stunning, the 49-year old Pizzeria D’Oro of Travis, both exits heard around the food world. We’ve lost Staten Island Slice in Dongan Hills and Marianna’s in Castleton Corners. And in a true blow to the South Shore pizza-eating community, Villa Monte closed its Arden Avenue store after Easter this year.
Of further note, Casa Nino’s Pizza Bar has condensed two long-standing parlors into one in Arden Heights — blending together the former Casa Nino’s and Pizza House. Without cannibalizing itself, the brand new iteration pushes aside the classic slice shop in favor of a family-friendly, sit-down format with flatscreens plus beer and wine in the beverage options.
With 39 years in the pizza industry, Casa Nino’s Pizza Bar owner Anthony Mentesana said, “Pizza shops with pickup and delivery will always exist. However, only the strong — and when I say strong, I mean the owners that know how to market and understand the generations to come with online ordering.”
He thinks pizza and beer will always go together — and that pizza will never go away. He says the future might birth more gourmet brands with specialty Neapolitan flours now available in the United States. These are ideal for wood-burning and coal-fired concepts that take a pie to another level.
“But unfortunately the frozen pizza is hurting the slice shops tremendously,” he said.
On that note, Advance readers have shared their excitement over pies produced at home from scratch or with store-bought dough. The amateur enthusiast’s endeavors on the backyard grill or pizza oven is one less pie purchased from a professional.
HIGH COSTS, SCARCE LABOR AND DOWNRIGHT RUDENESS
In interviews with expert crust-creators this summer, biggest gripes of doing business in 2022 include shortages of workers (specifically diligent ones who come to the table with good skill sets) and crippling costs on staple items. Each reported at least 20% to 30% increases on paper goods and food product across the board. Additionally, owners find themselves taken aback by the general impatience of customers, some saying the phenomenon came with COVID.
“People have become very demanding,” said Sal Finocchiara of Palermo Pizzeria in Richmond Valley.
Bob Whiteaker of Nunzio’s admitted customer unpleasantness was among the reasons to part with the business. Rudeness came particularly from new patrons, he underscored — not the neighborhood customer base or loyalists.
Based on time spent in parlors lately, my opinion is that the nasty comes out from those not appreciative of old school restaurant formats, which take some time like ordering in person, being present in the moment when calling in an order and having patience for cash transactions.
In his experience, Neal D’Orio of the former Pizza D’Oro believes that younger generations do not want human interaction. They’d rather process the entire transaction on the phone.
Former Staten Islander Cynthia Ariosta owns Pizzeria Tra Vigne in Napa Valley. The experiences of pizzeria people are similar where she is. She summed up a cycle: “The customers are so rude right now. It’s insane how people are. We are getting a lot of pushback about slow service but it’s because we don’t have enough people. And if they see empty tables and they can’t sit, they get [peeved] about waiting.”
But ultimately, it’s competition that makes or breaks a pizzeria, says Angelo Luppino of Lorenzo’s in Dongan Hills. At Lorenzo’s a slice is $2.75. The average price for a slice on Staten Island is $3.
He said, “Staten Island, like Brooklyn, has a lot of pizzerias. I try to keep it cheap. I just want to make a living and not hurt the customers. I also don’t want to get hurt. We want to keep our customers coming back but it’s hard to do with the prices what they are.”
Ariosta said, “We are lucky to be in the Napa Valley, which will always be a tourist destination bringing an influx of captive audience every year.”
Tra Vigne’s advantage in the busy restaurant region is its affordability and value, said Ariosta.
“Every once in a while you’ve got to take time out from all of the high-end, Michelin-starred, celebrity chef, white tablecloth-restaurants in Napa Valley and just get a good honest meal.”
Like the classic New York City parlor, she says her pizza-centric business has withstood the test of time — through an earthquake, recession, multiple fires in the area and a two-plus year of a pandemic.
And I have hope that a collective passion for pizza allows entrepreneurs to weather some oddball economic times.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].