There is much curiosity over who will be the big cheese on one of the New York's hottest slices of pizza real estate.
At stake is a corner of Brooklyn under the end of the Brooklyn Bridge that has been ruled for more than a decade by Grimaldi's, an old-world-style pizzeria with crusts as thin as the line of tourists is long, a special oven, and now - a feud.
AdvertisementOn Wednesday, newly delivered flour sacks were shot down a sidewalk slide into Grimaldi's basement. Inside, a member of staff expertly tossed dough. A babel of languages could be heard as customers dined at tables covered with red-and-white tablecloths under walls covered with faded pictures of Frank Sinatra.
Following their guidebooks, many of the diners had walked in via the Brooklyn Bridge to enjoy a quintessential New York experience.
But bubbling under the surface was 'the real New York' of another kind: rival eatery royalty, an angry landlord, stern officials, true tragedy, and a spat that within days will upend a city institution.
In fact, as guidebook writer Ellen Freudenheim says the spat is "closer to a feud".
Grimaldi's troubles began with disputes between the Ciolli family who own the restaurant and the landlord over rental payments and taxes. This year the landlord refused to renew the lease.
In what some view as revenge, the landlord then invited another famous New York pizza family to take over the space. The family in question was none other than the Grimaldis who started the restaurant before selling it -- name and all -- to the soon-to-be ousted Ciollis.
The Ciollis, who have expanded across the country from their Brooklyn base, found the perfect riposte -- leasing bigger premises next door that they intend to open under the Grimaldi's name. Pizza war looms.
But the Grimaldis will inherit a secret weapon when they move into their old establishment, to be named Juliana's after the owner's mother: a coal-fired brick oven.
Coal ovens burn more intensely than gas furnaces, pizza makers say, cooking pies quickly and adding that perfect burnt-around-the-edges flavor. There are only a handful of legal coal ovens in operation in New York and it is almost impossible to get permission for new ones to be installed.
The Ciolli's attempt to install one of these ovens in their new premises, a handsome 19th-century bank building, led to their entire renovation project being suspended by city inspectors
Now, instead of a sign announcing the reincarnation of Grimaldi's, the front doors of the Ciolli's new pizzeria display a vacate orderan. The fine print cites an "illegally installed coal-burning oven" posing "imminent danger to life or public safety."
The family recently got a small break when the landlord allowed a two-week extension on vacating the old restaurant, which had been due Wednesday. But staff, who wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words "coal brick-oven pizzeria" and "I'm gonna make you a pizza you can't refuse" were glum and worried about the future.
Gina Peluso, daughter of Frank Ciolli and manager of the restaurant, brushed off the problems at the new premises as "just paperwork".
"You can have the ovens. It's just now they've put a lot of rules and regulations," she said, adding assertively: "This is a coal brick-oven pizzeria."
Freudenheim says the current restaurant-related tumult in this Brooklyn neighborhood reflects the passion for pizza in a city with a huge Italian-immigrant population.
"Historically there's been a lot of drama about pizzas in Brooklyn," she said. "A person could write a comedy skit about it."
Local residents say they share tourists' love for the current, world-famous Grimaldi's, although in typical New York fashion they immediately name lesser-known establishments that are far superior.
In a city used to seeing beloved institutions killed off by gentrification, this particular upheaval might even get a happy ending, with Juliana's, the relocated Grimaldi's, and -- perhaps -- other handmade pizza kings rubbing shoulders.
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