Sunday, August 19, 2012

Interview: Rino Lacerra of Manhattan's Brick Oven Pizza 33

On a beautiful warm August Saturday evening, EPBAC (eats pizza but avoids cheese) and I went to a party in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood on Staten Island. Having come from an earlier lunch at the legendary Denino's Pizza, we had already logged a great pie day. But as we arrived at the party, the hostess was passing large trays of small slices of pizza. Pizza! My eyes lit up and of course I immediately took a piece.

Click on pic to enlarge!

It had cooled to room temperature, but it retained some crunch to the crust. The emphasis was on the savory sauce and small bits of pearlescent onion. There was cheese, some under the sauce and some above. The crust had some lovely char and even carmelization at the edges where cheese had spilled over. 

Our Staten Island hostess (L) with EPBAC

I ask our hostess, where did the pie come from?  "Manhattan! Rino brought it from his pizzeria; he's sitting right over there."

EPBAC and the pie

So here was an opportunity to eat some more excellent NYC pizza (two boroughs in one day!) and also learn about pizza from the owner and pizza maker. The pizza came from "Brick Oven Pizza 33," which is located at 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan (there is more than one Manhattan location).

Pizzaolo Rino Lacerra

We chatted with owner Rino Lacerra (and his lovely wife Connie) while enjoying another slice. He's a friendly guy with a deep knowledge of piemaking. During that evening and then in a follow-up conversation, Rino gave us a little insight to the pizza business.

PQ: What pizza did you grow up eating (and where)?

RL: I grew up eating Margherita pizza in Naples, Italy.

PQ: How long have you been in the pizza business?

RL: I have been in business for 44 years. I have opened up 11 stores.

PQ: We talked a little about your technique and ingredients, such as using a dry version of fresh mozzarella so the pizza does not get soggy. When New York Magazine wrote about your pie, they noted the top-shelf ingredients you use, such as "San Marzano tomatoes, high-gluten flour, fresh mozzarella, and basil." What else are you doing differently than other pizzamakers?

RL: We have both imported and domestic products. Our pizzas are made in a brick oven with TLC. We have great pizzamen that can make our thin crust pizzas to perfection.

PQ: When not eating your own pizza, is there another pizza place that you enjoy?

RL: Yes, I enjoy eating pizzas at Taverna Di Leone in Italy. Also I enjoy Totonno Pizza in Coney Island.

PQ: Outside of pizza, what is your favorite meal?

RL: Lobster

PQ: Selling pizza in New York City – is that an advantage or disadvantage? 

RL: Well even though the expectations are higher and the competition tougher, if you are good, you can make it anywhere. Plus you need good locations.

PQ: You told me you need a bouncer for your place. Why is that?

RL: He is there to break up any arguments and to keep the peace. A lot of people come after their night outs and sometime they are quite intoxicated.

PQ: At Pizza Quixote, we care more about crust than about toppings, but what is the most inventive topping you offer? What is ordered most often?

RL: We have Pizza Rino that has arugula, black gaeta olives, and prosciutto. Our most famous pizza is the Margherita.

Rino's pie in his Manhattan store

Rino's memorable quote, cited in the New York Magazine piece, is "A good pizza is like a woman; she's gorgeous when she gets out of the shower, but then you've got to be careful about putting on too much makeup."

EPBAC (R) with former coworker, not Snooki!

The pizza that Rino brought from Manhattan to the party on Staten Island was superb. It was square, with an emphasis on the sauce, and shared that feature with "tomato pie" of Philadelphia/Conshohocken as well as the famous square slice at L&B Spumoni Gardens. But it had a thinner crust, more like a Trenton pizza (also called "tomato pie" but which has "pizza" amounts of cheese). Because this pie was so good even after traveling from another boro and cooling, we are quite anxious to try to fresh from the oven.

You can see the New York Magazine article at

Connie and Rino Lacerra

Pizza 33 on Urbanspoon


  1. Wow this one brings back memories. After moving out of Brooklyn in my early 20's, i had gone on a pizza haitus; busy with work, and having nothing noteworthy nearby, pizza became a very occasional afterthought.

    Then one day i happened upon a small pizza place in Staten Island. There was a unique looking wood-burning oven in there, and it produced a smallish-size pizza that i had never really seen before. Of course it was a neopolitan style pizza, with fresh mozzarella and just the right amount of sauce and fresh basil. I had not had pizza like this growing up. It was life-changing and it re-ignited my love for great pizza. This pizza place happened to be run by Rino and it was called Crispinos. Rino was semi-responsible for the weight gain that would ensue in the coming years as I could not get enough of his pizza, as well as the small menu of other food he would also prepare, all of which was fantastic. He would also eventually end up catering several of my families events over the next couple of years. Sadly, Rino expanded the restaurant and removed the focus on pizza (he may have even removed the oven - i don't remember). Then the restaurant disappeared altogether. But my love of pizza continued on and my journey to find my favorites continues on to this day. Thanks for sparking those memories!

  2. Thanks for the comments... great story! It was fortuitous to run into a pizza maker at a social setting. I know the feeling when your favorite restaurant changes or closes. But for now, with pizza, I'm finding that LOTS of good ones are opening.

  3. Great story ! I started eating Rino's pizza in 1982 when I got married and lived in Bay Ridge. He owned the Pizza Palace. Fast forward 31 years, my son moves to Murray Hill and I walked into Pizza 33 and took out two slices. One plain and one margarita. My husband says that's Rino's place. The pizza was the best and still is. I know pizza because i'm from BROOKLYN. Rino I will be looking for you and Connie ! Joy

  4. Joy - great info, thanks! I spent 2 years visiting Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge, 2009-2001. There is not any good pizza in that part of Brooklyn any more. Had to go to Coney or Midwood or Park Slope or W'burg to get a decent pie. Say hi to Rino for me!