There are few things more authentic in New York City than the pizzeria and in South Queens, there is no shortage of them.
In a one-square-mile area, including all of Ozone Park and parts of Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and Howard Beach, there are 18 pizzerias.
One of the oldest and most popular is Ozone Pizza, this year celebrating its 50th year in business.
A half century ago, two brothers from Sicily, known in the area only by their first names Paul and Joe, opened a pizzeria Ozone Park on Liberty Avenue between 96th and 97th streets. When they started, they were just one of less than a handful of pizzerias in the area.
Joe has long retired and Paul passed away in 2005. His son, Vito, now runs the business, while working full time at the Long Island Rail Road.
He is a familiar face in the pizzeria, the current head of a family that has been respected in this community for half a century. The pizzeria is now located at 96-15 Liberty Ave., just a few doors down from where it first opened. Customers who file in at dinner on this particular Friday stop to say hello to Vito.
Their surnames are not known outside of personal friends or people who have done business with them, but in this community, that’s how friends are known, by first names only.
With its long counter in front running perpendicular to the front window, which allows the chefs behind the counter to look out onto Liberty Avenue, it’s orange booths in the back — which Vito remembers assembling as a teenager — and its Italian decor, including a map of Sicily on the wall, Ozone Pizza has the feeling of a classic New York eatery.
The pizzeria is a bustling enterprise. It helps that just outside the door is the stairs to the Rockaway Boulevard A train station.
“We get people coming off the train, stopping in to get dinner,” Vito explains.
But the vast majority of his customers are legacy customers, those who have been coming to the pizzeria for its entire history, and their descendants who have been coming since they were children.
“We’ve fed children who have grown up and brought their children to eat here,” Vito said.
As the neighborhood’s demographics change from a neighborhood of Italian and Irish to a more diverse area with large West Indian and Hispanic populations, pizza still remains popular. One thing that has changed, Vito says, is the type of pizza.
“When we first opened, you had regular, Sicilian and a calzone,” he explained. “Now you have all kinds of toppings; buffalo chicken, pineapple, it’s a much larger selection.”
Their Sicilian pizza, known in non Italian circles as “square pizza,” is Ozone Pizza’s most popular item, Vito says.
“People come from far away just to get a Sicilian pie,” he explained.
For the pizzeria’s 50th anniversary, Vito said he is breaking a long-standing rule — he will be reducing his prices for Lent.
During that time, regular pies will be $10, small pies will be $8, Sicilian pies $13 and heroes will be $5.
Ozone Pizza can be reached at (718) 845-9555.