Totonno’s pivoting to frozen pizza business model, store may reopen in future

Beloved Totonno’s in Coney Island is pivoting to a frozen pizza business model.
Joe Hall, Creative Commons

Totonno’s, the famed Coney Island pizzeria which has remained closed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, is pivoting its business model toward nationwide distribution of frozen pizza pies, but its owners say a reopening of its storefront is not out of the question in the future.

Antoinette Balzano, granddaughter of founder Antonio “Totonno” Pero, told Brooklyn Paper the business is in the final stages of the transition, recently receiving new freezers at the Neptune Avenue store and training pizzaiolos in the art of frozen pizzamaking.

Balzano said that they plan to launch at the end of September or beginning of October, using Uber Eats to deliver pies in the New York Metropolitan Area and eventually other companies to deliver all over the country, and potentially enter the frozen foods aisles at supermarkets across America. She said that this next move is the best way to cement her grandfather’s legacy in the hearts and minds of the American consumer.

“We’re training and getting ready to transition to the deliveries throughout America,” Balzano said. “So that we can bring my grandfather’s name and legacy where it should be.”

Totonno’s has long been recognized as one of the finest pizzerias in the Five Boroughs, and tomato sauce runs in the family’s blood. Totonno Pero was, by Balzano’s telling, the first pizzaiolo in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, the Neapolitan immigrant was baking bread at the Lower Manhattan grocery store belonging to Gennaro Lombardi when he suggested they make a pizza pie, a decision which proved immensely popular.

An exquisite Totonno’s pie in 2011.Joe Hall, Creative Commons

By 1905, Lombardi had secured a license to open the very first pizzeria in the United States, which still exists on Spring Street though a block from the original location; Pero made the pies. Eventually, Pero migrated to Brooklyn to open his own shop, Totonno’s, in 1924, which in the intervening century became one of Coney Island’s most beloved eating institutions.

The restaurant faced a number of challenges in recent years: it was the site of a devastating fire in March 2009 that forced its closure for nearly a year. And like many businesses at the People’s Playground, it sustained massive damage during Hurricane Sandy that also forced several months’ closure.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Totonno’s closed along with the rest of the city’s commercial sector, but the pizzeria never reopened its doors even after the state and city began loosening restrictions and allowing the resumption of food service business, distressing its many fans on the peninsula and elsewhere.

“Growing up around Coney Island, by brother and I would often go to Totonno’s for the most desirable classic pie around,” said Michael Quinn, the CEO of Feltman’s Hot Dogs and a native of the People’s Playground. “Their absence has been deeply felt in Coney Island the past few years.”

Balzano said that during lockdown, the family used their newfound free time to take care of sick relatives, and also met with representatives to discuss the potential transition to the frozen pizza industry, which the family determined to be the best course of action to carry on their grandfather’s legacy. She said that the frozen pies are in the midst of taste-testing at locations across the country, but in places where it’s already been tried, the results have been promising.

Balzano noted that the Coney Island storefront could potentially reopen in the future for sit-down customer service, but there are no plans in the pipeline for that at the moment. Having denied throughout the pandemic that the business was gone for good, Balzano shot down recent rumors that the family is “throwing in the towel.”

“Some idiot said that we threw in the towel. We don’t throw in towels,” Balzano said. “We keep coming back. We are not closing.”

Correction: this article has been amended to note Lombardi’s is not, in fact, still in its original location.