Last week's news of the imminent closing of Ray's Pizzeria on Prince Street was a direct hit on the New York pizza community's funny bone. On one hand, the very name of the pizzeria evokes laughter because of the seemingly endless variations of Ray's scattered around NYC (and beyond). On the other hand, we feel the painful demise of a pizzeria whose opening over half a century ago predates any of the confusion that comes with the now infamous and unoriginal name.
I knew I would get questions about Ray's from day one of running tours of significant New York pizzerias, so I made it my mission to learn as much as possible about the history of Ray. Plenty has already been written about the confusing ownership of the various Ray's locations, so I'm going to give as quick a summary as possible by tracing the lineage through a collection of business licenses and phone books I have collected over the years.
Ralph Cuomo and his partners opened Ray's Pizzeria on Prince Street in 1959. Not only does the restaurant's awning say so, but so do the phone book and original business license. At this time, there was no other pizzeria in Manhattan with the name Ray. When asked why not call his restaurant Ralph's, he is said to have replied that the name Ralph was too feminine. (Yeah, I don't exactly get it either.) Considering a future where Ray would appear on pizzeria awnings all over the city, it's truly ironic that Cuomo may have avoided using his own name because there was already a place in Manhattan called Ralph's Pizzeria Restaurant (862 9th Ave). And so, the restaurant at 27 Prince Street was simply called Ray's.
After just five years, Ralph Cuomo and his partners opened a second Ray's Pizza location at 1073 First Ave, which they quickly sold to Frances Giaimo. Cuomo continued to run the Prince Street location, cutting any connection to the First Ave store, which Giaimo sold to Rosolino Mangano in 1968. With the entrance of Rosolino Mangano, Ray's jumps into the forefront with an explosion of pizzerias across town. He gave ambitious family members and immigrants the opportunity to run his stores, resulting in the creation of a mini-chain.
Name recognition grew for Ray's, which some former employees used to their advantage. Mario and Lamberto Di Rienzo formed a partnership in 1973 to open a pizzeria called The Famous Ray's Pizza at the corner of 6th Ave and 11th Street. In response, Mangano changed the name on his restaurants to Original Ray's Pizza in 1976 (this may have happened sooner, but the earliest "Original" business license I have is from 1976). Meanwhile, the pizzeria at 27 Prince Street was still just called Ray's.
Tensions escalated as more pizzerias started calling themselves Ray's. It's a common name, easy to fit on signage, and cheap to write in neon. In fact, Ralph Cuomo was getting so miffed by the hullabaloo over his name that he added a comment on a 1982 business certificate that states, "Ray is my nickname." By this point, every Ray's pizzeria was either "famous," "original," "real" or "world famous," so Rosolino Mangano upped the ante when he combined the most popular adjectives and renamed his location at 204 Ninth Ave "Famous Original Ray's". He registered for a trademarked two years later and started bringing on the lawsuits. To this day, more unaffiliated Ray's pizzerias open every year in New York, Arizona, California, London, Australia and beyond. The grand sum of these pizzerias does not constitute a single chain or franchise. It's a real mess for pizza lovers and lawyers alike.
It's very likely that other pizzerias used the name Ray before Ralph Cuomo (I found evidence of at least two), but none lasted long enough to be affiliated with the current situation. The pizzeria at 27 Prince Street truly is Patient Zero for the Ray's epidemic. After Cuomo passed away in 2008, the business fell into disarray. The family's internal battle over the building's ownership led to last week's announcement to either close or relocate the pizzeria.
My friends and family know how interested I am in the whole Ray's story, so I got quite a few calls and emails when the news hit last week. It seemed like everybody had heard about it, even if they didn't know what it meant. But one person hadn't heard the news until I told him a few days ago. Frank Spatola made pizza at Ray's on Prince Street for 32 years before exiting three months ago. Perhaps he just needed a change of scenery, or maybe he saw the writing on the wall. But fear not, Spatola hasn't retired. You can find him slinging pies above the West 4th Street subway station at Cafe Amore's Pizza (6th Ave and West 3rd Street). The pizza may not be identical to that of Ray's on Prince Street, but at least you know there's a qualified pair of hands behind the counter.
Like Ray's, Amore's is a slice shop. In fact, Amore's was once a Ray's! Slice shops entered the scene as a way for young entrepreneurs to enter the food business without spending much on rent, equipment or personnel. In the late 1950's, one could purchase all the necessary equipment for a few thousand dollars. A small place like Ray's could serve just as many take-out customers as any dine-in restaurant with a fraction of the space. Few slice shops of that age remain, leaving just a handful to carry the torch.
It will be a real shame if the legacy of Ray's on Prince Street is in name alone. The Ray's name is so garbled at this point that most people will likely think of the controversy before considering the food. I had a pretty killer square there last week and I hope folks get a chance to stop by before the final slice is served. This pizzeria floats alone in a sea of confusion, as it isn't part of a chain or franchise. It stood before all the others and will remain independent until the final day. The awning doesn't need to make bold claims; this place has true fame and originality in a way few eateries will ever attain.