Louise Ciminieri is squinting at the ceiling and frowning. “This is annoying me right now,” she says. The rectangular area in question, roughly four by three feet, is slightly in front of the hulking brick-lined, coal-fired oven that has produced, since 1924, arguably the greatest pizzas in New York City: Totonno’s. Until this past March, when a huge early-morning fire destroyed the back half of the tiny Coney Island restaurant and called into serious question the existence of a classic—a place defined as much by a timeless look and feel as by the exquisite taste of what it served.
Which is why Louise’s ceiling anguish should be reassuring to fans of Totonno’s. The original tin walls and ceiling survived, except for this rectangle. Louise could buy new tin to line it and no one would know. But if she couldn’t have the original, better to leave it bare. “This is New York,” she says, gesturing around the room. “Some things shouldn’t change.”
Louise, known as Cookie to her friends, is the granddaughter of the restaurant’s Neapolitan immigrant founder, for whom it is named. She owns the place with her brother and sister. The family agonized over whether to rebuild, leaving the decisive vote to Louise, who has worked here since 1975. She was devastated, “sick to my stomach,” when she saw the charred remains, and is painstakingly restoring the place to all its quirky glory. She may live on Staten Island, but this is her home, and every pie (no slices!) is a communion with the past, her family’s and the city’s. “My grandparents washed their hands in that sink!” Louise says, appalled at the suggestion she could have taken the opportunity to redesign for efficiency. “Why wouldn’t I want everything to be the same?”
The fire gods spared the dining room: The vintage framed photos of everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Lou Reed are in storage, along with the tables and chairs. The two narrow booths are intact. And renovating the pizza would be sacrilege. “These salesmen say to me, ‘We can get you the exact same cheese—and it’ll be cheaper!’ ” Louise laughs. “They’re talking to the wrong person.”
I ask about the recipes for the incomparable dough and tomato sauce, whether they were written down and lost in the blaze. She shoots me a disbelieving look I remember from my first visit to Totonno’s: I violated an unwritten rule by attempting to sit and eat a pie I’d ordered in advance over the phone. Louise yelled at me … then agreed to let me stay, a demonstration of her stern yet motherly presence, the ingredient that really holds the place together. Now she doesn’t answer my question about the recipes being at risk in the fire. She merely points to her head.
An exact reopening date is still uncertain. Louise’s cell phone trills “Für Elise” for probably the eleventh time in the past ten minutes. She sighs wearily, answers it, steps outside onto the gritty Neptune Avenue sidewalk to talk. It isn’t necessary to hear the other end of the conversation. “Soon,” she says, smiling. “Soon.”