Patsy's Pizzeria was founded in what used to be the predominately Italian neighborhood of East Harlem in 1933 by Pasquale (Patsy) Lanceri. When it opened it was one of New York's earliest pizzerias along with Lombardi's and Grimaldi's. Patsy's claims to have originated the idea of selling pizza by the slice. Lancieri is said have learned his craft at Lombardi's brick-walled coal oven. New York's pizza dynasties are now in their third and fourth generations, and counting. And in its neighborhood of Spanish Harlem (which at the time the restaurants were started was known as Italian Harlem), two restaurants "vie for the title of El Barrio's best bite": Patsy's Pizzeria "where — so they say — the archetypal thin-crust New York pizza was first invented" and nearby Rao's, run by legendary restaurateur/ Sopranos actor Frank Pellegrino.
Patsy's was sold and expanded after its founder's death to Frank Brija, an Albanian from Kosovo, who bought the pizza company from its founder's widow in 1991. Greek pizzamaker Nick Tsoulos decided to bring coal pizza to Manhattan and made an agreement with Brija, the new owner of the East Harlem Patsy's, to use that name and in 1995 opened Patsy's Pizza at 509 Third Avenue, near 34th Street. Tsoulos, "a member of a Greek pizza-making clan in Queens", opened traditional New York pizzerias in Manhattan after licensing the name and starting in 1995 with a Patsy's on Third Avenue and 35th Street. He and his partners opened four more locations in Manhattan.
Dispute over Patsy's name
The original Patsy died in the 1970s and his widow sold the East Harlem pizzeria to longtime employees in 1991, "to the chagrin of Patsy Grimaldi, her nephew, who opened a Patsy's in Brooklyn in 1990". The feuding deepened when Tsoulos' Patsy's opened in Manhattan, and Patsy Grimaldi changed the name of his pizzeria to Grimaldi's, which the New York Times said is the best and truest to the original.
In 2009 there was a legal battle with Patsy's Restaurant on West 56th Street, founded by Pasquale (Patsy) Scognamillo in 1944 and a haven for Frank Sinatra and many celebrities, and Patsy's Pizzeria which was sold to the pizza emporium to the L.I. entrepreneurs in 1991.
Renaissance of pizza
A story from The New York Times reported in 1998 that, before the "pizza renaissance" of the 1990s, "the classic pizza was on the endangered list, treasured as an artifact of old New York but bypassed by a culture that preferred its pizzas fast, cheap and delivered." The tradition was kept alive by "just a few pizza landmarks, most famously John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street, Patsy's Pizza in East Harlem and Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano in Coney Island ... [who] zealously preserved the traditions." Environmental regulations made it hard to build new coal ovens because they could only be rebuilt or replaced under an environmental grandfather clause, "not installed from scratch." According to The New York Times, "Pizza makers have become architectural historians, seeking out spaces that once housed a coal-burning oven, like old bakeries or restaurants".
- John Marzulli Patsy's feud continues with heart of matter of name July 6, 2009 Daily News
- 104 Years of Pizza in New York New York Magazine July 12, 2009
- Galen Moore (October 15, 2003). "An enticing slice of New York: In a city known for its coal-fired pies, pizzerias are keeping the tradition alive". The Boston Globe.
- Eric AsimovNew York Pizza, the Real Thing, Makes a Comeback June 10, 1998 New York Times
- Thomas, Amelia (August 11, 2008). "A taste of Spanish Harlem". Chron.com. Retrieved July 20, 2009.
- Leslie EatonThe Patsy's Connection; Two Competing Pasta Sauces Share a Name and a Trademark Lawsuit February 1, 2000 New York Times
- Clear sign they're still fighting July 7, 2009 Daily News
- Anthony M. Destefano Restaurant winner in battle of the Patsys April 11, 2008 Newsday