It’s a question almost as old as New York City pizza itself. “Which is the real Ray’s Pizza?”
There have been many claims to the Ray throne over the years, and the path to finding out the truth — whether you’re a New Yorker, a visitor to the city, or even one of the owners of a “Ray’s Pizza” — is rife with half-truths, rumours, legal battles and even some jail time.
We worked out the tangled history, up to the sad irony, reported this week by the NYT, that the original Ray’s Pizza is closing.
The very first store to put the name Ray's Pizza on their sign was opened in 1959 on Prince Street in Manhattan
27 Prince Street, to be exact. From a historical standpoint, this is the 'original' Ray's Pizza -- it's in the 1960 phone book and everything.
Ralph Cuomo, then a 22-year old Sicilian immigrant with a little money and his mother's pizza recipe, opened the shop and put his nickname on it. This venerated location is still known as simply 'Ray's Pizza.'
'Everybody knows me as Ray. I can't go no place -- Ray, Ray, Ray... I was the one who made Ray famous,' said Mangano in a 1991 interview, in the days of great legal contention.
This first Mangano-owned Ray's, at 1073 First Avenue (which no longer exists), took the name 'Famous Original Ray's Pizza' and would eventually expand it to upwards of 25 locations (about a dozen of which last to this day).
Mangano created the Famous Original Ray's logo, the name inside the little crown. He also added a few innovations to the pizzeria industry, such as the glass display case for pies and slices, that would help business boom and allow Mangano to open mulitple locations.
The spin-offs began when Joe Bari bought a Ray's from Mangano in 1973 and named it, for some reason, Ray Bari's
Joe wanted to keep the name Ray, for the same reason every other pizza shop in New York wanted the name Ray -- it was becoming synonymous with pizza. He even went as far as registering the name with the State of New York.
He opened five shops in New York City and Long Island with the name Ray Bari Pizza, later saying 'We were the ones that made Ray's popular.'
That is, of course, subject to interpretation, but the Famous Ray's Pizza opened by Mario DiRenzo, a chef from Roio del Sangro in Abruzzi, Italy, made Ray's a name throughout the city. Mario's explanation of the name: 'It's a small town I come from. Although I am a Mario, in Roio I am also a Ray. The name Ray is a nickname for the family name of Di Rienzo.' At the time, there was still no copyright on the name Ray's.
The pizza, with the signature New York thin and crispy crust, expanded from Greenwich Village to multiple locations throughout New York and Long Island.
The final big player in the Ray's saga was Gary Esposito, who wanted to bring the name back to its roots
Second Avenue and 51st Street was the first Original Ray's owned by Esposito, a Queens-born entrepreneur who bought a Mangano-Ray's in 1981. After opening locations in New Jersey and Long Island, curiosity pushed Esposito to uncover the truth behind the Ray name: who was Ray, and did he know his name was being slapped on tons of pizzerias throughout the New York metropolitan area?
Esposito contacted a recently liberated Ralph Cuomo (fresh off a stint for Mafia-related activities) and together they trademarked the Ray's brand and set up a joint company to franchise their pizza.
USA Famous Original Ray's Licensing Corp. was blocked by Mangano -- until he joined the cause himself
The federal trademark pursued by the Cuomo and Esposito team was blocked by Mangano, who had once said 'Nobody ever heard of Ralph Cuomo.' The legal battle between the two sides raged for five years, until Mangano agreed to join what became the USA Famous Original Ray's Licensing Corp.
Together, the common logo and pizza recipe was settled upon, bringing some order to the chaos that had been Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, and Original Ray's.
During the 1980s and early 90s, tons of independently owned pizzerias had taken the Ray's moniker for their own business
Much in the same way you can find multiple Joe's and John's Pizza's throughout New York, the name Ray had been utilized by countless other shops throughout the New York are, such as Ray Bari's and other iterations of the words 'Ray' + 'Pizza.' Like many of the countless pizza places in the city, some were decent while others were better left untouched altogether.
When the Ray's coalition was formed in 1991, Mangano personally visited the rogue Ray's shops, telling them they'd need to pay for the franchise tag or lose the name altogether. A Times article in 1994 quoted the Mangano family as saying they had half a dozen infringement cases being actively pursued.
'He put pasta on pizza -- write that down,' said Anna of Ray Bari's Pizza during the fight to keep the Ray Bari's name. Mangano shot back that the Bari group made a watery sauce and had copied his glass display case idea. Insults and lawsuits were hurled back and forth until Joe Bari agreed to change the name to RayBari Pizza, which satisfied both sides.
Other cases are constantly being investigated. and as of 2006 there were over 40 pizza places with the name 'Ray' in the title. More recently, the Famous Ray's in the Village (opened by DiRenzo in 1973) was hit with a $1 million dollar lawsuit.
And now a sad irony: The original -- the actual original -- Ray's Pizza is set to close at the end of the month
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