Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Patsy’s: Neighbourhood History through Pizza

with 2 comments

by David

Mmm... pizza...

Just ate at Patsy’s Pizzeria in Spanish Harlem with my wife and my parents. Founded in 1933, Patsy’s is one of only two coal-oven pizzerias in Manhattan (they’re no longer allowed, but the restaurants were grandfathered in). Several other locations have sprung up, but they don’t have the coal-ovens, and they aren’t as good.

The pizza at the original Patsy’s was delicious, as usual. Which is why it might seems surprising that the restaurant, if certainly not empty, was not overflowing with customers the way comparably excellent pizza joints like Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s or John’s might be on a Sunday afternoon.

The original Patsy's interior

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Patsy’s is not in the most convenient location. On First Avenue by East 118th Street, there are no subway stops nearby. Second is that the neighbourhood has undergone a demographic shift. Patsy’s was once at the heart of Italian Harlem, but the Italians have moved away, and Puerto Ricans have moved in. Now the neighbourhood is Spanish Harlem.

The customers at Patsy’s, for the most part, did not appear to be tourists, but they did not appear to be locals to the neighbourhood either. Everyone loves pizza, but in this location, the restaurant seems to be surviving rather than thriving.

I suspect this was not always the case. The story of the old neighbourhood is told brilliantly in Robert Orsi’s book The Madonna of 115 Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem.  

The book describes the massive yearly festival of the Madonna that took place on the streets of Italian Harlem, how this religious ritual reflected an ethnic community’s attempt to maintain tradition while also adapt to their new American surroundings. I’m sure Patsy’s was always packed then.


After WW2 especially, though, Italians moved away from the neighbourhood, and Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, moved in. Though also Catholic, these newcomers did not really embrace the tradition. Instead, other Catholic immigrants, like Haitians who lived further away, continue to participate in the  the formerly Italian ethnic Catholic festival, as do Italians who return to their parents and grandparents’ neighbourhood.

That festival, however, only happens once per year. But Patsy’s Pizzeria remains, a delicious – and hopefully permanent – relic of days gone by.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 15, 2012 at 17:21

2 Responses

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  1. 50 minutes is nointhg!I used to be a hostess at the Cheesecake Factory in Baltimore {the busiest in the country} and waits could go up to and hour and a half. People were not happy by the time they got their table!But yes, waiting for food is terrible.I remember once that at Old Ebbits, we got to the table pretty quickly, but then waited forty minutes for our order to be taken and then an hour or so for the food to come.Phew. Sorry for the novel length comment.


    May 14, 2012 at 15:17

  2. Coal burning oven make great pizza as it comes out crispy not soggy and does not leave you feeling over stuffed never been to Patsy’s but very familiar with Grimaldi’s.

    Troy in Vegas

    May 21, 2012 at 15:41

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