Beyond the chess tables lining Ocean Parkway, past the rabbinically-overseen pizzerias in nearby Borough Park (one of the largest orthodox Jewish populations outside Israel), you’d be forgiven on any given Saturday for thinking the area surrounding classic Bensonhurst slice joint J & V Pizzeria is a ghost town. But across from a 7-Eleven and the old-school Italian Bari Pork Store on the corner of 64th Street and 18th Avenue, the smell of cheese grease and dough drifts out the doors of “The Home of the Jojo.”
J & V stands for John and Vinny — John Mortillaro and Vincent DeGrezia — two friends who founded it when this was a much more Italian Bensonhurst in 1950. These days, you’re more likely to hear Chinese and Polish, but more than 60 years of pizza tradition continues. Its namesakes were from Sicily (John) and Naples (Vincent), geography responsible for its square and round pies. J & V also claims to be among the first pizzerias to sell by the slice.
Maybe. Carol Helstosky’s book Pizza: A Global History describes scenes of poor children in Naples (lazzaroni) scrounging money to buy pieces of pizza from vendors selling it from metal containers called stufa. In America, Lombardi’s supposedly sold parts of pies to Italian immigrants. And Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice Of Heaven, reports that Nunzio Trivoluzzo served slices in 1943 at Nunzio’s in Staten Island and that Louie & Ernie’s sold them in their East Harlem location in 1947. Still, J & V may have been a Brooklyn pioneer.
“We were one of the first,” said John’s son Joe, J & V’s current owner. “We were doing it with bicycles to make things convenient for people. Women used to come in to order and ask, ‘Can you bring it to the house?’ because they’d be carrying packages, running their errands. Remember, not everyone had telephones then.”
J & V is a two-story building with gold columned-corners, maroon awning and a declarative block-lettered neon sign that gives it presence on the surrounding block disputed only by the large Chinese characters in the windows beneath. Inside, it’s all wood paneling, jagged stone floors, and metal napkin dispensers. Pizza boxes are stack against a mirror-paneled wall in a back room filled with rows of Formica booths. Lazy fans turn at different speeds and there’s a rack of par-cooked grandma pies. There are photos of forgotten movie stars and bands on the wall.
A mechanical revolving tray FISH oven at the front is tended by one pizzaiolo. There’s a set of keys dangling from the oven hood and lots of opening and closing of the door to check on how well the undercarriages are cooking. Another pizzaiolo stretches dough and ladles sauce. There’s a camera hanging directly over the register and a display full of slices with standard toppings.
The day manager notes two focaccia-thick slices topped with a finely chopped, near creamy chicken parm, and Buffalo chicken as most popular. There’s also the “Jojo,” essentially an oregano and Parmesan-dusted calzone sandwich invented in 2005 and named for Joe’s son. It begs conquering.
There are also “dumplings,” stubby stromboli stuffed with meat, cheese, and sauce. They slice them from the center out before warming in the reheating oven by the register. “I don’t know why we call them dumplings,” the manager says. “Someone must have been bored that day.”
The cheese slice is a baseline for any pizzeria and this saucy $2.75 one is a narrow isosceles with a consistently browned, but bendable bottom, and an acidic gravy that satisfies the back sides of the tongue. There’s more flavor than you’d expect, and enough cheese and sauce to drop off the back. The cornicione’s underside is dotted by tiny blisters and has a cross-section of three-leaf clover air pockets. It’s a saucy, fairly cheesed slice packing more flavor than you’d expect.
A narrow isosceles with a consistently browned, but bendable bottom, and an acidic gravy that satisfies the back sides of the tongue.
J & V’s grandma is one of rare slices that’s thinner than the regular, but with more of that tangy gravy — enough to twirl a forkful of spaghetti through. There’s a big garlic presence and it’s light on the cheese, but not in a way that you miss it. Very satisfying.
A father on a cellphone walks in behind his two young sons. They head to the back without looking at the men behind the counter. Minutes later, they leave without buying anything, father still on his phone. “Gracias por dejarme usar el baño,” shouts the boy. A pizzaiolo looks up and says, “More manners than his father.”
J & V’s manner is to turn out classic, reassuring slices to locals who know the names of the men making them. It’s stuck in time enough that a goodfella could walk in any moment. But in the gutter outside, a crushed, weathered Starbucks cup is just one sign time hasn’t forgotten J & V. Neither should New Yorkers.J & V PIZZERIA