In yesterday's New York Times F.Y.I. column, the question was raised: Where was the first Ray's Pizza, and what's the story behind it?
A. Why don’t you ask something simple, like what happened to Judge Crater? Some New York culinary questions (just who invented the black-and-white cookie is another) are destined to remain shrouded in mystery. The evolution of Ray’s Pizza resists an easy explanation....
The Ray’s question is also bristling with lawyers. Rosolino Mangano, of Famous Original Ray’s Pizza on Columbus Avenue near 83rd Street, went to court in the early 1990’s, registered that name and branched out with many identically named Ray’s, run mostly by relatives, with others under license. Then there was Ralph Cuomo, who in 1959 opened a Ray’s Pizza at 27 Prince Street and then another one on First Avenue and 59th Street; the second location ended up in Mr. Mangano’ s hands. Other would-be Rays said they had a right to their versions. Some joined forces; some sued. You get the idea.
Slice suspected as much, from the research we've done on the topic, that's why you've never seen an in-depth investigative piece on the place on this website. I mean, if the might and muscle of the Gray Lady couldn't uncover the truth, we're afraid the Ray's question will forever remain a greasy mystery.
From A Full Belly, March 18, 2004:
Food Wars claims that there are at least 3,000 pizzerias in New York, and at least 30 of them use some form of “Ray’s” in their name including but not limited to Ray’s, Ray’s Pizza, Famous Original Ray’s Pizza, Ray’s Famous Original Pizza, World Famous Ray’s Pizza, Not Ray’s Pizza, and RayBari Pizza. A quick poll of Citysearch finds 2788 results on “pizza” and 45 results on “Ray’s pizza”. The thing is, there is no Ray.
Using his mom’s pizza recipt, Ralph Cuomo opened Ray’s in 1959 in Little Italy, which quickly became known as the place to buy the slice (and later, the place to buy a slice AND some heroin, but curiously enough Food Wars fails to mention this bit of trivia). In the early 60’s, Cuomo opened a second Ray’s (54th and 7th Ave), which was eventually bought by Rosolino Mangano. Mangano changed the name to Famous Original Ray’s, even though it wasn’t the original. Mangano now goes by the name “Ray” even though legal name is still Rosolino, and has opened Famous Original’s all over New York City. Mangano also claims that he is the “Ray” that has made the name "Ray’s" famous.
In 1981, Mangano sold a store to someone else, who continued using the name “Ray’s” and soon more “Ray’s” pizzeria variations began popping up. Ralph Cuomo then attempted to trademark the name "Ray’s." The three "Ray’s" pizza players eventually incorporated together, trademarked the name Ray’s, and then went after everyone else using the name.
But wait, there’s more! Joe Bari bought a “Ray’s Restaurant” in 1973 and turned it into a pizzeria and added his own name, Ray Bari Pizza. Bari believes he, not Mangano of Famous Original Ray’s, made the name famous by using cab drivers to spread to word about the pizzeria. Joe Bari refused to change the name, and was sued by the corporate Ray’s, and eventually changed his restaurant name to RayBari Pizza.
And there you have a small slice of the contentious history behind New York pizza.