Totonno’s is one of those old school pizza parlors–seriously old school. The owner learned how to make pizza with the founder of Lombardi’s, which, as every pizza lover knows, enjoys the distinction of being the first pizzeria in the United States. And while it’s possible to enjoy Totonno’s pies at different places in Manhattan and Yonkers, Joan took us out to its first Coney Island location. The street name, Neptune Avenue, might conjure up a mystical street where one might find mermaids and seahorses. In reality. Not so much. Imagine garages, gas stations, and an odd pirate statue in front of a junk yard (?) instead.
We arrived *just* in time, unaware that the original Totonno’s closes at 8:00. It was luck and Joan’s great driving that got us in line a few minutes before an adorably grumpy woman, who has clearly been with Totonno’s since the beginning announced, “NO MORE!”
Simple fare (no menu but a list of toppings on the back wall) and cash only!
What we drank
Lemonade Iced Tea
What we ate
Half sausage and garlic
The first official Saturday of summer, so what better place to go for pizza than Coney Island? The journey from the north to south end of the borough was an opportunity to recapture happy memories of riding down Ocean Parkway – in the car with my family, later on bikes with friends – on the way to the beach or amusement park. It was also an opportunity to show off my ability to name the various neighborhoods along the way for the most recent Brooklyn transplant, Tricia. I have to admit that my geography skills were at times a little sketchy – not completely sure where Ditmas ended and Kensington began – but I easily found Neptune Avenue and our destination. Upon being seated in the most utilitarian setting imaginable (no printed menus, dixie cups with no ice for bottled soft drinks), I realized that it’s really all about the pizza – no salad, no appetizer, no chaser, just one large pie. Of course, we had the required (half) margarita and one-half garlic/sausage. The first bite of a slice straight from the oven is pure heaven – this one as close to your corner pizza joint as we’ve come so far. Unfortunately, I was also in the throes of a major allergy attack, so the stuffy nose and general malaise did not help me distinguish any subtlety in the seasoning or flavor of our hybrid pie. This month, I will leave it to my esteemed colleagues to provide you with their sophisticated analyses of the mouth-feel of the cheese or the chewiness of the crust, but all I will say is, I enjoyed my three slices then went home to partake of the magic of Benadryl.
It sort of starts at the end, when, upon walking towards the car, I confessed to my companions, “I’m feeling like the pizzas are all starting to blur together.” In other words, is there a limit on how good pizza can actually be?
Not that Totonno’s isn’t good. The legendary pie purveyor has definitely earned its reputation by baking tasty, crisp, thin-crusted coal oven pizzas crowned with fresh mozzarella and sweetly tangy marinara. But aside from the coal oven flavor and the fact that they serve only whole pies, no slices, you’d be hard pressed to find another reason to trek out to Totonno’s if you weren’t headed to Coney Island already. An institution started more than 80 years ago and modeled after the famed Lombardi’s in Little Italy, Totonno’s has a no-frills interior with a tin ceiling and photos on the walls (a la Sal’s in “Do the Right Thing”), a refrigerator selection of soft drinks, Snapple and beer, a sampling of 5-dollar bottles of Bolla wine, and a toppings list that about equals that of any standard NYC slice joint. [Caveat: I believe that the two Manhattan branches that sprouted much later have a more extensive menu all the way around.) Our half regular and half garlic-topped pie was hot, fresh and certainly satisfying. But even as we ate, I couldn’t think of what to say about it that I hadn’t already said, with more gusto and passion, about some of the other stellar stops we’ve made along the first half of this year-long journey. I was hungry, it tasted good and it filled us up. I actually enjoyed my ice-cold Snapple lemon iced tea as much as my pizza — though I enjoyed neither as much as recounting the tale of a recent date with a height-challenged, online suitor who will forever be referred to as “Tiny Todd.”
Of course, I always enjoy a trip out to Coney Island, and the fact that we were the last guests to be seated before the place closed for the night made it feel like we were indeed meant to be there. And there is nothing at all wrong with good-quality, basic pizza. But in the quest for the holy grail, I’d say Totonno’s is bringing up the rear.
When it comes to the kind of ambiance I hoped to find along the way on my journey across Brooklyn’s pizza landscape, Totonno’s did not disappoint. I confess I don’t share the desire to check out the latest pizza place reviewed in the New York Times (I suspect this is because it’s ALL new to me), and standing in line to eat pizza because someone else claims it’s good is not my idea of fun. I wanted experiences at places where the walls are covered with stories about the pizzeria’s history. And this was that place. It was great fun catching up with Karen and Joan, but I also thoroughly enjoyed reading how Totonno’s came into being. On a sentimental note, I was excited about the trip to this Coney Island legend because my father had his first slice of pizza somewhere on the boardwalk. He still remembers being a little boy walking along with his parents and asking what they were eating. When my grandfather explained “pizza” to him, he asked if he could have some. The rest is history (I like to think that Etta James’s “At Last” started playing in the background).
Unfortunately, my pizza palate is suffering from a serious case of ennui (I’m convinced it’s because we narrowed our criteria too much), but even if this had been our first adventure, I think I would have found Totonno’s lacking. The crust was fine, but I needed a lot more flavor all over the pie. Serious flavor–salt, spice, herbs…something! I feel about Totonno’s the way I feel about “Glee”. I get the hype, and I’m very glad it’s there, but…
Now even an uninspiring pizza is still pizza. And driving down a wide avenue singing along to Michael Jackson tunes is always a good time, so there are no serious complaints from me.