Q&A: Antoinette Balzano and Cookie Cimineri of Totonno’s

Photo by Chris Crowley

Q&A: Antoinette Balzano and Cookie Cimineri of Totonno’s

This year, Totonno’s, the famed Coney Island pizzeria, turned 90. Founded by the original pizzaiolo at Lombardi’s, Anthony “Totonno” Pero, this doughy institution has counted punk legends (The Ramones), rock stars (Lou Reed), professional athletes (Derek Jeter), and world-class chefs (Mario Batali) among its regulars. For many customers, it’s a place that inspires some of their oldest memories, but for Pero’s granddaughters and co-owners, it’s home.

We spoke with Antoinette Balzano and Cookie Cimineri about life in Brooklyn’s beach town, the pizzeria’s history, and why Lou Reed loved it so damn much.

How did your grandfather come to open Totonno’s?

antoinette: What I know—that’s the famous picture—is that he and Gennaro Lombardi came to America maybe a few boats apart, and at some point, he went to work for Lombardi, who owned a grocery store. This is really important. Grandpa was a baker in Naples, but he decided to make pizza, so it was his idea. He was the only guy making pizzas. But now that it’s a food establishment, it has to be licensed.

So, although they’re given credit all the time for being the first licensed pizzeria, and it was, Anthony was the first pizzaiola. And people just forget about him. If Lombardi’s was the first licensed pizzeria and he was the guy to bring pizza to the grocery store, he brought pizza to America. I keep saying that. That’s what we know, and nobody else has said otherwise.

cookie: Before he opened it, a tinsmith owned this building and Totonno’s was across the street. They lived next door, at 2766. When they moved the building here, they lived in the back. There’s a kitchen and two more rooms in the back. That’s where they all lived. In the morning, the kids would go buy one ball of cheese, run down the block, sell it down the block, and buy another.

At what point did your grandfather stop making pizza here?

c: I think the early ’50s. But even after he retired, he wouldn’t let anyone else make his pizza. He used to get the mozzarella and chase my uncle Jerry [the second pizzaiolo] away. It was always me and him. He’d make a white pizza, not the size we make now it. We’d sit there and eat it. “Coo-ken.” He couldn’t speak English, so I had a grandfather, but we never spoke.

a: He never learned English. He died when I was only 9, but I’ll never forget. He would wear silk shirts. They would pick him and take him to the city to go to Lincoln Center. At bingo, he would buy cards and all the women would be around him, because he was a lady’s man. Our grandmother died when she was only 40.

He only had limousine drivers. He wore tailored clothes. He was very classy and he named my mother Edith after the opera “Aïda.” He only went to the opera. He was tough. All I can say he came here on a boat, deplorable conditions. And who else are we talkin’ about 90 years later?

Even back then, Coney Island was still a big destination. What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up?

a: Back then, they were only open on the weekends. My brother said this is a resort area—and, well, it was, but it’s not the place it used to be. But that’s why they would only open up on the weekend. We lived across the street and, during the summer, me and all my girlfriends would go get the bread in the morning, run chores. We’d go back home for lunch, go to the beach, stop at Nathan’s and eat dinner. Go back to the boardwalk. Everybody was outside on their stoops. I remember there being civil rights protests in 1967. They had to close Steeplechase Park and when that happened they closed the movie theaters. It went downhill from then on.

c: For me, it was different. We went to the pool at Steeplechase. We’d spend all day there, clean up, go the rides, and come back home at midnight. Twelve years old and nobody would bother you. Our parents didn’t worry. There was no air conditioning; everybody was em>out. You couldn’t sleep. In those days there were just the neighborhood people.

My uncle Jerry didn’t let anybody in. No interviews, no nothing, there was nothing on these walls. It was very popular then. The place used to get full so he felt that he didn’t have to advertise. He’d make a certain amount of dough and when it was sold out he would close. He knew it was going to sell out every day—he didn’t know what time, but it was maybe a few hours a day and then he’d go home.

When I came here, I still couldn’t let them in, because he was here, but when he died I let them in. That’s when the whole world found out about us.

Before Totonno’s, what did you do? How did you end up making pizza?

c: I was an actress. They were hosting a feast and Julia, Jerry’s sister, needed help. Jerry would make the pizza, bring it out, and he’d sell slices—we never sold slices, only during the feast. I came here, she liked it, and asked me to come back. I told her I could only come during the weekends. They were open Thursday through Sunday. She’d been doing this her whole life; she was tired. When she asked again if I could help during the week, I said no, and they stopped being open those two days.

Jerry didn’t want to do it anymore and I wasn’t going to do it. He taught me—I had to. He would ask me to make a pizza, I didn’t know why. I knew that he wanted it to go on, but he didn’t have children, and he wasn’t great at expressing himself. “Come here, make it, I’ll watch you.” I was really good at it and I knew exactly where he put the pies in from all the years of watching. My first pizza was perfect. It just came natural to me. But it’s too tough.

How often do you eat pizza?

a: Not very. One time I waited in line for an hour and a half. Cookie will never take anyone out of line.

And now, countless pies later, how have you seen Totonno’s influence spread?

c: You never ate pizza like this before, and you never will. I don’t eat at any of the newer places. But, if you use good ingredients and you make dough fresh, I’m sure it must be good. I’m not saying it’s mine, but it’s alright. That’s why everyone eats here. Mario Batali, Michael Lomonaco, they all did. I was in Lou Reed’s documentary, Rock & Roll Heart. He’s here; we’re standing over there. He gives me a kiss, and he takes the plaque [above the table]. “To Joel and Cookie, the best pie in the world, I love you.” It won a Grammy and I didn’t go. They sent me tickets. But he came after that. We’re also in a song, “Egg Cream.”

The best part about being in that documentary [released in 1998] was I didn’t know nothing about him. He’s coming in here since Uncle Jerry was making pizzas. Forever. We never knew who he was. When he would walk in, my uncle Jerry would say, “Cookie, the rock ’n’ roll guy is here.” That’s all he knew! He used to sit right down there with his girlfriend and they would eat the pizza. That’s it. I found out later who he was.

In a sense, the city is always hurtling forward, but Totonno’s is this place that insists on keeping things that way they are. It’s still living in Lou Reed’s New York, if you will. Why is that?

c: That’s our personality. That’s the way they were and that’s the way we are. We have the same traits. I think it’s an Italian thing. We’re always the last ones to leave. Most of us don’t like change—that’s why Italy looks the way it looks. It’s just the way we are. We’re Americans too, but we got that trait. We live in a neighborhood until we can’t anymore. When I was a kid, we lived on West Sixteenth. My whole family lived in every house. We did everything to keep it in the family and we can’t anymore, because there’s nobody left.

It’s like the last people in the neighborhood. We went right to the end, the last drop.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Chris Crowley is a freelance journalist with a focus on food and culture. He has contributed to publications that include Narratively, Grub Street, Punch, and Serious Eats, for which he extensively covered Totonno’s recovery after Hurricane Sandy.

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