Since 1929, this decidedly old-school landmark has earned worldwide fame as one of the original—and still one of the most popular—pizzerias in New York City.
After plying his trade at Lombardi’s in New York’s Little Italy, pizza maker John Sasso was ready to strike out on his own. He bought a small storefront on Sullivan Street, opening his eponymous pizzeria in 1929. By the early ’30s, he moved operations (and his circa-1909 coal-fired oven, purchased from a bread baker to create his signature pies) to its current location at 278 Bleecker, a bustling street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Sasso sold the business in 1954 to Augustine “Chubby” Vesce and his brother, and “Chubby” ran the pizzeria until the mid-’80s, the decade when John’s expanded to meet demand, taking over the storefront next door.
Today, Bobby Vittoria sits at the famous pizzeria’s helm as its controlling partner, with about a half dozen of his own relatives lending a hand to ensure a top-quality product. “Our employees and customers are extended family, and everybody here is proud of what they’re doing,” says Daniel Frank, online manager for John’s. “We’re still running it as a family, and we’re supertight. John’s just feels like home to us.”
Indeed, the pizzeria has invested in this iconic NYC neighborhood for years, but the love flows both ways. Waiters and managers have stayed loyal for decades, and fans of the crispy coal-fired pies flock to the pizzeria, often standing in lines that stretch down the street. Celebs including Frank Sinatra and Billy Crystal have been familiar faces at John’s, while media personalities such as Jon Stewart and Howard Stern have promoted the pizzeria on-air. Outlets from The New York Times to the Food Network also have given glowing reviews. “We’ve always tried to keep everything simple and original, with whole pies only (no slices) and no delivery,” Frank notes. “People are connected to that nostalgia, and we want to maintain the integrity of the original.”
Staying true to the old-school can be a challenge for John’s, a cash-only, POS-less business with a limited menu and a lived-in, vintage vibe, where a 1930s register still makes change for customers. High rents and property taxes in Manhattan, ever-evolving safety codes, and one of the most competitive pizza markets in the world have kept the family on its toes. But a strong base of neighborhood clients and visitors from around the globe cement it as a true New York landmark and keep the business thriving after more than 80 years. “It would be foolish to complicate things; the more you have, the more you can mess up,” Frank says, laughing. “We would never sacrifice quality for money or tarnish our name.”