BY ELISSA STEIN | “For many years some of the best pizza in New York has been available at a shop called Ray’s. One problem is that at least four shops in Manhattan claim to be the ‘original’ or the ‘famous’ Ray’s. Without prejudicing anyone’s claims, let me say that this is the best Ray’s, and although it is not the oldest, it certainly deserves to be the most famous. The pizza is magnificent.” — Dick Brass, New York Daily News, Feb. 16, 1979.
Two weeks ago, the Famous Ray’s Pizza, known more recently as the Famous Roio’s Pizza, sold its last pie. After 40 years at the northwest corner of Sixth Ave. and 11th St., the world famous pizzeria, whose slices were once described as “famously delicious” by The New Yorker, closed its doors for good. Loyal customers, myself included, carried individual slices home in the rain on borrowed plastic trays that last night — they’d already run out of bags and pizza boxes.
Mario Di Rienzo, also known as Ray, along with his brother Lamberto, opened his pizza shop in 1973 and it quickly became not only a neighborhood staple, but a destination for New Yorkers and tourists from all over. Mario’s quest for the perfect slice quickly had many under his spell — The New York Times and The New Yorker both sung his praises. According to the notice posted in the shop’s papered-over windows, theirs was named best pizza multiple times and, as noted in various articles posted on the place’s walls, hungry customers used to wait in lines that often stretched far up Sixth Ave.
The Ray’s of old though didn’t last. According to a statement from Di Rienzo’s family, it was operated by others under license for many years. There were legal issues over the name. And then it closed, seemingly for good in October 2011. The word “Ray’s” was cut out of its red canopy, white letters scraped off the facade signs. An article about the shutdown mentioned that Famous Ray’s had been included in a “5 worst slices” list. But while the pizza was mediocre, the closing was still sad.
And then, early in 2012, it reopened. Mimi Sheraton wrote in The New York Times, “Good news for those needing pizza by the slice is the recent return of Mario Di Rienzo, the original proprietor of Famous Ray’s Pizza in Greenwich Village. He has renamed the same location as Famous Roio’s Pizza in honor of his Abruzzo hometown, Roio del Sangro, and the huge slices are deliciously New York.”
It wasn’t the same. A renovation scrubbed the urban grittiness out of the space, lights now shining a bit too strongly, walls painted too bright a white. Instead of the late-night quintessential N.Y.C. pit stop it used to be, the hours and the shop felt suburban. And the great crowds didn’t return. Sadly, Mario passed away months after the reopening, his family continuing to run the business until the building it was in, which they owned, was sold.
But, whether the slices were ordinary or extraordinary, another staple of the Village is gone. The loss of longtime businesses that grounded the neighborhood — Joe Jr’s., Jon Vie, the Food Emporium and now Ray’s — is ripping holes in the community fabric that can’t be filled.