The eye-catching vintage sign proclaims: “ohn’s Pizzeria.” The letters in “Pizzeria” are in the bold carnivalesque font that decorates many decades-old slice joints in New York. As for “ohn’s,” it’s missing a one-of-a-kind flourishing cursive capital letter.
“The J fell off,” says Susan Bagali, while ladling sauce onto a Sicilian pie behind the counter. “I called three companies and none of them could fix it right. I don’t wanna change it at all.”
John’s Pizzeria’s unchanged appearance is exactly what first caught our eye while the corner restaurant was shuttered during the entire Covid-19 pandemic – for good, we worried. But late last year, we spotted Susan and her mother Rose Bagali back at work, hunched over behind the counter, stretching out dough. The parlor’s Tiffany-style hanging lamps shone brightly, and a queue of middle schoolers brandished dollar bills at the women behind the counter.
Susan and Rose had wanted to avoid the stresses of the pandemic, so they took a long stay-home vacation, shutting the store for nearly three years. But their excitement to be back at work was palpable. “It’s nice to see everybody again,” Susan says. “I missed everybody, and they missed us!”
“We were having people leave voicemails like, ‘Please open up,’ and writing to us on Facebook,” adds Susan’s son Dennis, who left his job in finance last fall to help reopen the shop.
If every New York neighborhood pizzerias has a claim to fame, John’s has at least two. Its Sicilian pie, which a window sign designates the “best in town,” and the remarkable, lasting crispness of its crusts. Customers come for the great pizza. But they return, in large part, for the nostalgia. The mid-century orange plastic seats that would be at home in a laundromat, the faux-brick paneling and sunny tiled walls, the backlit Pepsi-brand menu board and even the yellowed ceiling panels have been carefully maintained rather than discarded. They’re part of the shop’s identity. “A lot of our customers say, ‘Don’t change it, because these are our memories,’” Susan says.
Though John’s is noteworthy as a kind of period piece, it’s not a destination for tourists. Its biggest customer base consists of kids from nearby P.S. 102, St. Adalbert’s Catholic Academy, and Maspeth High, most of whom are Asian or Latino. Since the Bagalis reopened their shop, its rollicking after school business has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In 2020s New York, foodies and trendsters have come to fetishize nearly all of the city’s studiously old-fashioned institutions, from the white-tablecloth Bamonte’s in Williamsburg to far-flung neighborhood joints like Di Fara in Midwood. Susan and Rose have done almost nothing to cash in on that trend, though Susan says she’d be open to promoting the shop as a film location. (Frozen-in-time Italian-American businesses like those on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx have been used as set pieces in last year’s The Many Saints of Newark, among other recent productions.)
John’s certainly looks the part of a classic Italian-American restaurant, but the Bagali family is not from anywhere near Naples. Rose was born in Russia and raised in Istanbul by Turkish Muslim parents. After immigrating to Queens with her late husband, John, in the early 1960s, she felt isolated in the neighborhood, where she still lives.
“I was very lonely, crying a lot,” Rose says. “We were sending letters to Turkey, and they would take a month to get there.”
Soon, Rose befriended a Turkish-speaking Armenian couple who lived in a nearby building where John worked as a superintendent. The couple owned a neighborhood pizza parlor a few blocks from the current location of John’s, but had financial problems and were struggling to stay open. The woman told Rose she wanted to return to Turkey, and in 1965, Rose asked the woman’s husband if he’d be willing to sell the pizzeria for $5,000. He said yes and Rose and John took over. Ten years later, they moved the parlor around the corner to its current location at Grand Avenue and Haspel Street.
How did Rose learn to make pizza? “I watched [the former owner], how she did it,” she says. “I saw what she was doing, but I never liked the way she made pizza.” Rose also drew from her own culinary repertoire. “We Turkish people have a lot of similar food like börek, with cheese and meat, or lahmacun,” she said. A piece of John’s pizza resembles the platonic ideal of a New York slice, with a few notable characteristics. The Bagalis add more dried herbs and black pepper to their pizza sauce than most slice shops, and salt their dough more aggressively.
When we revisited John’s this month, school hadn’t yet let out. A woman who said she’d been eating at John’s for 30 years waited for her slice. A neighbor opted to sit around for half an hour when he heard the Sicilian pie was still in the oven, rather than go for a regular. “It’s been so long since I had a good Sicilian slice,” he explained.
Behind the counter, three generations of Bagalis were making pies. Dennis and Susan discussed the merits of delivery, something John’s hasn’t offered since the nineties. Nowadays, the best option would be the delivery apps, Dennis suggested. But once the after school rush picked up, the three could barely make enough pies to keep up with the steady stream of kids, who all paid cash, just like the old days. The need for DoorDash or UberEats seemed worlds away. If John’s survived the pandemic and kept things the same, it could survive anything.
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Published on February 15, 2023