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Eric Lurio

Eric Lurio

Posted May 11, 2009 | 11:11 AM (EST)

Fifty Years: The Legend of Ray's Pizza


Sometimes historic events go unnoticed when they happen. When, in the late 1790s, some New Yorkers began trading shares of stock under a tree on Wall Street in New York for the first time, no one gave it so much as a glance. The same thing happened half a century ago, when a guy named Ralph Cuomo, Ray to his friends, opened a pizza joint on at 27 Prince Street in New York City. Few noticed at the time, but a trend had started that would end up as a treasured New York tradition and a regional joke. Everyone's heard of Ray's Pizza.

For the first few years of it's existence, Ray's was just a neighborhood pizzeria (with mafia connections, Coumo would spend time in jail, but that's a different story). It was popular, and he opened a second one a couple of years later. But Ray was very busy with his other business (for which he was sent to the pokey), and he sold the uptown one, at 1233 1st Ave, 1st Ave & 66th St., to Rosolino Mangano in 1964.

Mangano claims to have made the name Ray famous by offering several different types of pizza in a glass display case. But that isn't true, another guy made the name famous. His name was Mario Di Rienzo, who was, in 1973, a famous chef. In that year, he had a mission: Create the best damn pizza on the planet, and that year, he opened his emporium. He called it Ray's Pizza. Why?

Many years ago, in the New York Times DiRienzo, originally from the Italian Village of Roio del Sangro in Abruzzi, explained the derivation this way:

"It's a small town I come from. Although I am a Mario, in Roio I am also a Ray. The name Ray is a nickname for the family name of Di Rienzo. Every family has a nickname in my town. Someone asks, 'Did you see Mario?' and there are so many Marios in town you have to ask 'Which Mario?', so the answer is Mario Ray. And so my restaurant became The Famous Ray's Pizza. If it were The Famous Mario's, you would have to ask 'Which Mario?'"

Also in 1973, a certain Joe Barri bought the Ray's Pizza on 76th Street and Third Avenue, (later, he would change it to Ray Barri's) this was decent pizza too, but Di Rienzo's was amazing. It had almost, but not quite enough cheese to fall on your lap when you picked up a slice. Word went out and it became instantly legendary. For the "in crowd" Ray's of 11th street was the only place to get a slice.

Rosalino decided to expand, so did Barri. Other people started renaming their places "Ray's" to cash in on the hoopla. Soon, you had Ray's pizzas on almost every block. Famous Ray's, Original Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, Original Famous Ray's, "Fred's Ray's" even a NOT Ray's in Brooklyn. There were hundreds. At one point, Mangano owned 25 Famous Original Ray's Pizza establishments, and his was just a tiny fraction of the "chain."

By 1990, "Ray's Pizza" was New York's official in-joke. The quality varied from wonderful to lousy, and at this point, one might wonder, why weren't there any lawsuits over copyright and trademarks and such? Gary Esposito, who owned five "Original Ray's" wondered that too, and in the middle '80s, he located Ray Coumo, who by now was out of jail, and they decided to get together with some independent Ray's proprietors, and actually retrofit a genuine franchise chain.

Only Rosalino didn't want to. For five years he frustrated every attempt to trademark the name and it's variations. Then in 1991, he gave in and joined, going around in his limo telling proprietors to buy a franchise or get sued. Sometime in the last year or two, one notices a number of "Famous Original" or "Original Famous" pizza places with the word RAY'S whited out.

According to noted pizza authority Scott Weiner There seem to be about 40 pizzerias with the name Ray's left in New York City, nine of which are part of the official chain. The one on 11th street was sold in the '90s and resold several times, and the quality has gone down quite a bit but the ambiance is still there, and the very first one on Prince street?

They 're celebrating half a century in business. Perhaps they should get a plaque or something.