Gallery: Letters to Totonno's: Pete Wells, Allison Robicelli, Cookie Cimineri, and Others on America's Church of Pizza

Louise 'Cookie' Cimineri, Co-Owner
Louise 'Cookie' Cimineri, Co-Owner

"Well, actually, it was my whole life. I never thought it was going to be. I got dragged in. My aunt Judy asked me to help her, and she liked the help so much it became my job. They got me in there and wouldn't let go. She got sick, and then Joel got sick, and who was it? Just me...

It means everything to me. I went there as a child, and I never left. I love it. I love the customers.

I was a teenager when [my grandfather] passed away. He never spoke English, I never spoke Italian ... When we used to come in, we would sit at the front table. Jerry was making the pizza at this point, but grandpa would make his own pie. A little white pie for me and him."

[Photograph: Michael Berman]

Antoinette Balzano, Co-Owner
Antoinette Balzano, Co-Owner

"My earliest memory of coming here is from when I was 5, sitting at the booth and doing my homework. I had a lot of nervous energy.

We're very simple, simple, simple people. When I came in after the hurricane, to see my grandfather there in that photograph—I cried ...While we're living we're going to make sure its the way grandpa wanted it. If it weren't for Jerry, Joel, and Cookie to preserve this, I would say I could do this. But I couldn't do this."

[Photograph: Chris Crowley]

Dick Zigun, Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island
Dick Zigun, Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island

"Totonno's is the soul food of Coney Island. When I was new to Coney, a resident took me there for the first time and taught me how to be a customer. From the very beginning, it was clearly a special place. That was back in the day when [Jerry] was still alive, when they were only open I think 3 days a week, and even if there was a line at the door, they closed when they ran out of ingredients. That alone was quirky.

There were of course rules like, 'don't you dare ask for a slice, you have to order a pie.' But it was almost like this was an important ritual and important knowledge and you had to behave. Almost like Sienfield's episode about the soup nazi.

We have to appreciate that the place is an unofficial landmark not just for Coney, but for food. To recognize that something important happened there.

You know, if you cared to learn, you would look at the photos and realize not only had The Ramones and Lou Reed hung out there, but at a point you'd come to a photo of Lombardi's … Cookie would point to [Totonno's] shoes and show you that the flour was on Totonno's shoes.

I got to know everyone there. You know, when the place had the fire, it was a shock and a shame. I remember how anxious we all were. When it reopened, I had the third pie. And I ate the whole pie myself.

Totonno's is significant not only in that its still here, but in the same location with the same tin walls. Its not a relic, because it continues to thrive and be popular ...Totonno's pizza is one of the colors of Coney Island. Coney really would lose a lot of its soul if we didn't have it."

[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Pete Wells, New York Times Restaurant Critic
Pete Wells, New York Times Restaurant Critic

"Totonno's is important for a number of reasons: partly because of the link to pizza history, partly because of how resistant the family has been to change. Cookie called them 'stubborn'—there's no talk of slow food or the old ways. You see this in the cheese grater they used until it wouldn't work. That is how traditions get started, before they become these self-consciousness movements.

'We're just gonna go back to what we've always known.' That's unusual. The food culture is constantly changing and dynamic; everyone is putting lardo on pizza, but not at Totonno's.

It was funny, this one review—Cookie was telling me—said the decor looked like someone went half-way. Who would call this decor? There's no attempt to evoke anything, its not a decorating motif. See the place as you'd see your home.

Now, New York has a strong, diverse and well articulated pizza culture. I think its great to see these places, but the reason that strong culture exists is because of Totonno's ... At Totonno's they always thought of it as a craft. Everyone else is catching up. Totonno's predates artisanal.

It's a time to appreciate places like Totonno's, to recognize that they're central to the city's food culture despite being so far out there. When I was working on those pieces in the 90s, Cookie told me about all these people opening artisanal pizzerias in the 90s and coming out to eat her pizza to learn and try and replicate it. I never fact-checked that, but you know it wouldn't surprise me."

[Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Tony Muia, A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours
Tony Muia, A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours

"Totonno's I think epitomizes the story, is the story of Brooklyn.

For the past 8 years we've been doing tours, and in 8 years we've watched Brooklyn become this really hot spot. If you ask anyone who grew up here, Totonno's has always been a very special place for us. Your parents had stories about Totonno's growing up, your grandparents had stories about Totonno's growing up.

It's a very humbling experience going there, it's sort of this pilgrimage. And now with this recent thing with Sandy, you know much like the rest of Coney Island which has taken hits over the year and come back, Totonno's will come back. Again, it's like a classic Brooklynite: get knocked down and get right back up. Take the shots and come right back.

The history is there, you have to respect it for that. But the fact that it's still serving us this incredible pizza after all the knocks and shots it has taken is special. Between the fire and Sandy, it's one thing after another. But they bounce back. The family is no nonsense: from Totonno himself to Jerry to Cookie and Antoinette, Totonno's is the epitome of Brooklyn.

Coney Island's heyday was the turn of the century until the late 1950s, so now you're talking about a place that was there during its prime and also when Coney fell on hard times. Then you think about the Depression and all those years. But you know Totonno's has been this place where they don't follow any trends. You play by their rules when you go. When you go in that place, it is a shrine, it is a museum to the all the awards they won. And when I take people there who maybe now start to hear, they'll say, 'wait what's the name of the place?' And then you take them and park the car and they're like, 'where the hell are we?' And you bring them in and they realize: 'wow.' Now it's more well-known, but you know it's all character. When you go there, you have to give it respect and stand in line.

I have an uncle who ordered a pie and went in to ask Jerry how much longer it was going to take. Jerry threw him out, he never got the pie, but did he stop going? Absolutely not. I had a family friend who went in and didn't realize they didn't sell slices, and asked for two slices and a soda. I'm paraphrasing now, but I remember he was telling this story of how Jerry said, 'oh you want two slices?' And then he gave him step by step directions. 'What you want to do is turn around, go out that door, make a right, go down two blocks, and make a left. There's a pizzeria there, they'll serve you slices. I don't do slices here.' It was this whole dissertation, he couldn't just say no—but did it stop people from coming? No, it's the charm of the place.

They're holding onto the past and celebrating it. Even after the fire, it came back looking the same. There's something about that, being able to come back in your teens, 20s, 30s, and it's still the same. I always say that as we do tours of Brooklyn and I'm trying to teach people the history of Brooklyn, the history of Brooklyn is disappearing before our eyes. But with Totonno's, there's a certain sense of continuity there.

For me, it's an incredible place. It's enchanted, really is. When we get people that come back from years ago and we start waxing nostalgic about Brooklyn, they'll reminisce about Totonno's because it's something all the generations have been able to experience. And, God willing, I'll be able to take my 10-month old there for one of her first slices of pizza. That's the kind of place it is, that's what it means to me."

[Photograph: Provided by Tony Muia]

Adam Kuban, Slice Master General
Adam Kuban, Slice Master General

"It was one of my first tastes of the coal oven, New York Neapolitan style. I mean, honestly, Lombardi's was my actual first taste of that, but Totonno's was my first taste of coal oven pizza once I understood the significance of what coal oven pizza was. Once I had learned about the high heat of the oven, how to cook the pizza, the fresh mozzarella, the San Marzano tomatoes, all that stuff. To eat there with that understanding and that atmosphere … It was my first introduction to family-run, historic pizzerias.

When I moved to New York, in 2000, Coney was still charming in that weird dirty way. There wasn't a lot out there, and they were holding it down. They seemed to keep with it, and I admired that.

To me its always been that clean, well lighted place from Hemingway. I think the first time I went there was in winter, it was freezing cold and it was the only thing open on its block there. You've seen that block. It's auto body shops, across the street is NY Kitchen Supplies. There's nothing open on the weekend. And then Totonno's is there: there's light shining through the glass, you walk in and its warm from the oven. It just seems to be an old stalwart, and you get that old New York welcome. It's an initiation. After a while, you see Cookie interacting with the regulars and you realize it's a classic New Yorker thing. The old cliche, tough with a heart of gold."

[Photograph: Provided by Adam Kuban]

Paulie Gee, Owner of Paulie Gee's
Paulie Gee, Owner of Paulie Gee's

"I always loved pizza. But to me pizza was a good slice, Sicilian slice. I never looked past that. Something I found about pizzerias in Trenton—OK, gas oven, from before World War II—that piqued my interest.

I started hearing about Totonno's in the 90s, but didn't want to bother with going to Coney. A really good article in the Times or Daily News convinced me I had to go.

I went there, and a light bulb went on. The crust, the cheese. I would go and sometimes order a whole pie, would leave a 3rd and eat it for breakfast. I would put butter on it; Joel told me to cook an egg on it.

I wanted to know what made their pizza better, found out it was coal. I started going on tours, would eat at 5 or 6 places. I would go to Totonno's once, maybe twice a month. Whenever I could.

At Totonno's, I felt that I was eating something very authentic. It's original, everything done in New York is based off it. You feel like you're eating something that hasn't changed in 89 years.

Here's a family that has a pizzeria for 89 years, and they still have it. They gave me the courage to think I could open a business and have it still be here for my family."

[Photograph: Provided by Paulie Gee]

Allison Robicelli, Co-Owner of Robicelli's
Allison Robicelli, Co-Owner of Robicelli's

"I could talk about how great the pizza is, in my mind it's the perfect piece of pizza. But what means more to me is Totonno's in a historical sense—when I was a kid there was no such thing as artisan pizza. No one was getting on a train or car to go anywhere to get a fucking piece of pizza.

Being from Brooklyn, everyone has a guy for something. It's a competitive sport…Everyone is very territorial about their pizza, and I remember having to go out of our way to go to Totonno's. This isn't like walking over to Lenny's or Pizza Wagon, we're going to a really, really fucking bad neighborhood. It was more of a hole-in-the-wall back then than it is now. You could barely see the place.

Matt was saying he couldn't even remember where it was because he doesn't recall them having windows. They were boarded up or shuttered. You couldn't find the damn place unless you knew what you were looking for. It was perfect, and it was secret. And it was a day, an adventure, and you were going to go have this pizza. You'd have to order a whole pie so you'd put it in the car and drive back to Bay Ridge. The whole car would start smelling like pizza, and it'd drive you crazy. You'd get it back to the house, you'd eat it, and it was unlike anything you had before.

Now, remember: there were no brick oven places, no artisan shit. You had your plain old pizza places on the corner, and you had Totonno's.

A few years ago while my grandmother was really sick, I remember I was spending a lot of time with her just keeping her company and I brought over this documentary about Coney Island. It's one of those PBS American Experiences or something. And suddenly she just starts opening up to me; I had always just looked at her as my grandma. You know, the woman who took me on the bus to Totonno's. And she starts saying all these things: "I remember going on this ride, and going on a date there." That's when I learned about my great-grandfather, and she told me he was an artist.

When we came here, it was before the Depression. They came with no money, and people didn't really like Italians. A hundred years ago, we were not welcome. The house I live in now, when my great-grandparents bought it this was a new development. The neighbors had a fit because they wanted us to stay in Bensonhurst. They didn't want Italians to come to Bay Ridge because they thought they weren't clean.

And now, thinking about Totonno's, I'm not even seeing myself there as a kid with my grandma, but my grandma there with her father before she became a mom. And then I start realizing what this place really means and what it means to have pizza in America. When Totonno was working at Lombardi's, we were persona non grata. People were trying to get rid of us, deport us. And now pizza might be one of the most American foods that there is. And it was because of this guy, because of this little shop in Coney Island. In the middle of nowhere, not even on the good side of Coney—this was always the bad side of Coney. Just what they did, and keeping their traditions and not cheapening it. Making it so undeniably good, that it ends up buying us the respect and acceptance that we were looking for in this country. We owe them—as Italians from Brooklyn, Italian-Americans in general, and as chefs—a tremendous amount. They were pioneers for us.

They are people that I admire, and very much inspired my work ethic. You're talking about close to a hundred years of pressure, a hundred years where they had opportunities to give up the ghost, to say alright we're gonna use ragu or frozen dough or start delivering. They never did. Not during the fiscal crisis, not during anything. That takes a lot of balls, it takes integrity to do that. That was really inspirational to me.

[Photograph: Robin Mueller]

Scott Wiener, Scott's Pizza Tours
Scott Wiener, Scott's Pizza Tours

When it first came down that Totonno's was in trouble, that was a big deal because it's the longest continuously run pizzeria in America. Except the fire in 2009, they've been operating since 1924. There's no way we could have lost it—I'd be devastated. It was legendary for being so adamant … You know, Cookie just always being there was a big deal.

Their white pizza is all I need. It was one of the first pizzerias that changed my mind about what pizza could be. You know it was just so much better than everything else that I had known that it shifted my opinion about what pizza encompassed. It totally helped convinced me to start doing this. Seeing how Totonno's is this amazing historic place and yet it wasn't about to toot its own horn about its history. It is so about making great pizza—that is so what the tour is about, places that are so pizza-focused. Its just an amazing focus that they have, its admirable. Its really hard to do that today, when everyones doing pizza and pasta, but not them. They do one thing, and do it really well.

[Photograph: Omar Qadir]