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From Modest Beginnings in East Harlem, Storied Patsy's Pizzeria Comes to Greenwich

Greenwich is in a for a treat. The storied Patsy’s Pizzeria that has operated in East Harlem since 1933 is coming to town.

There are more than a dozen Patsy’s locations in New York, but when the restaurant opens at 130 East Putnam Ave, it will be the eatery’s first location in Connecticut.

This week Frank Brija and his son Adem, who runs the original East Harlem location, came to Greenwich to meet up with business partners Ben Celaj, Eddie Brahimi, Sergio Celaj, and Steve Haxhiaj, who will manage the Greenwich location.

Standing: Ben Celaj, Frank Brija, Eddie Brahimi, Sergio Celaj, with Steve Haxhiaj who will be the manager at Patsy’s at 130 East Putnam Ave. Nov 2, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
Patsy’s Pizzeria will open in the first quarter of 2023 at 130 East Putnam Ave. Photo: Leslie Yager

The space was most recently occupied by Moon, and prior to that was longtime home to Asiana. But some residents recall jockeying for a place at the bar when Tucson drew crowds the 1980s. Those with even longer memories enjoyed The Sand Trap in the 1970s.

Within moments of Adem scraping the Moon logo off the window on Wednesday and putting up “Patsy’s Coming Soon” signs, excited passers-by stopped to ask the burning question: When?

Ben Celaj, one of the partners working with the Brijas, said he expected Patsy’s will open in January or February 2023.

Celaj, who is from northern Westchester, but dines out in New York City and Greenwich several nights a week, said part of his role with the group is to seek out great locations. When he learned the space at 130 East Putnam Ave was available he was thrilled.

“But I had to convince him about Greenwich,” Celaj said, referring to Frank Brija.

“I never left New York,” Frank replied by way of an explanation.

Adem and his father Frank Brija outside 130 East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich, soon to be home to the first Patsy’s Pizzeria outside New York. Nov 2, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

“There are very few available spaces in Greenwich,” Celaj said. “I think Patsy’s will be the perfect fit. This is our first time working together with Patsy’s because we have high end steak houses and Italian restaurants in the city, so we’re merging two businesses. We’re going to have great food, great pizza and a great ambiance.”

The location does have many advantages. It is centrally located, but unlike Greenwich Avenue, there is both street parking in front and a big parking lot behind the building.

Adem shared the backstory leading up to Patsy’s expansion from the modest shop in East Harlem to 16 locations in New York, and now its first location in Connecticut. The pizzeria was first opened in 1933 by a couple from Italy, Pasquale ‘Patsy’ Lancieri and his wife Carmella, who brought familiar cuisine to their fellow immigrants, including traditional, coal-oven pizza.

after Patsy died in the 1970s, Carmella ran the business on her own for many years.

Frank, who had had jobs in several pizzerias growing up, worked beside Carmella in East Harlem for several years, learning all her recipes. She continued to run the restaurant into her 80s, and when she retired in 1991 Frank bought the business.

Adem, who runs the East Harlem location today said all the recipes are Carmella’s.

“We use many of the same vendors too,” he added. “When my dad officially bought the place, two of the pizza men had been there since the 1950s. Another pizza man came in 1970s and worked there until the 2010s. Even now we have guys who’ve been at the East Harlem location more than 20 years.”

In the mid 1990s, Frank franchised out the first Patsy’s locations in New York City. Adem said today there are 15 or 16 locations, including four stands at Citi Field in Queens, and new locations planned for White Plains and Staten Island.

Given the Patsy’s legacy stems from the storied East Harlem location, Adem said authenticity is prized.

“It’s always been very important, no matter how much we expand, that we maintain the East Harlem location,” Adem explained. We try to change it as little as possible. It looks like a snapshot in time.”

And that experience is what draws neighbors, tourists and even celebrities to Patsy’s.

In 2017, during the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for Diane Keaton, Al Pacino recalled how the cast of The Godfather had gathered at Patsy’s in East Harlem and even recalled the moment when Marlon Brando introduced himself to Keaton.

More recently, online raves have come from the likes of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds.

The coal oven at Patsy’s in East Harlem. Contributed photo

Adem said the oven itself dates back to 1933. The dough machine is from the 1940s.

“My father likes the saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Adem said. “The oven is really big and could fit 20-30 pizzas at a time, but you don’t fill it up. The pizza is cooked in about 90 seconds at about 1000° degrees. It has a thin crust.”

“When our pizza comes out of the oven, the cheese is still moist and you get the cheese pull, and the sauce is hot – you don’t want to overcook.”

The East Harlem location is a regular stop on Scott’s Pizza Tours, where Patsy’s is referred to as “East Harlem’s undisputed oasis of pizza.”

“People think the dough machine is a museum piece. I tell them, ‘No that’s what made your dough today!’” Adem said.

Dough machine still in operation at Patsy’s in East Harlem. Contributed photo

“All our locations have a full Italian menu,” Adem continued. “Chicken Parm, pastas, fish, and steak – plus pizza.”

As an homage to the original location, with every expansion, elements of the original restaurant are shared through black and white photos, the use of wood, and signage.

“Even the pizza oven will have a certain look that harkens back to the restaurant’s roots,” Adem said. “The idea in Greenwich is to maintain a lot of history and bring the same great pizza and great food with a modern twist.”

Steve Haxhiaj, whose background is northern Italian cuisine, said the partners have been together for about 30 years. Right now, in New York City, they own Il Monello and Tuscany Steak House, which Haxhiaj manages, but he will come to Greenwich to manage Patsy’s.

“We are bringing our experience and our sources up to Greenwich, and combining it with Patsy’s,” Haxhiaj said. “Most of our sauces will be Tuscan. Expect amazing sauces!”

“It will be a more upscale Patsy’s,” he added. “But the prices won’t be high.”

Stay tuned…