Coney island and a slice of in-your-face pie

When I’m travelling I often avoid swanky restaurants because I seldom have my good shoes and jacket with me and because I’m allergic to bills in foreign currencies that require me to kidnap a sheikh’s son for ransom money to afford the tip. But I didn’t expect to be intimidated at Totonno’s.

Totonno’s is the best pizza restaurant in America and probably the world, or so they tell you. Mind you, a whole bunch of pizza restaurants in New York tell you that they are the best pizza restaurant in America and therefore the world, so it’s hard to verify, but Totonno’s has a strong claim.

It’s not really a restaurant. It’s a greasy den on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island at the distant end of the F-train that runs eastwards out of lower Manhattan and hurries through the warehouses and ungentrified hinterlands of Brooklyn. It opened in 1924 and had a table permanently reserved for Al Capone, and I don’t think they’ve changed the tablecloths since. They only make pizzas, nothing else. The walls are decorated with framed faded sports pages from the 1930s. The guys in the kitchen have hairy arms and grubby white vests and give the impression they’re concealing a lit cigarette and as soon as you look away they’ll take an insolent puff.

This is not a place that puts on airs and graces. I arrived with my friend Jacques and asked for a table.

‘We’re full! Wait outside!’ bellowed the proprietress, an elderly spade-shaped woman with a face like the inside of a duffel bag. We stood on the sidewalk and watched cars swerve down the street avoiding the potholes until she grunted at us to enter. We sat nervously.

‘Where you from?’ she said. ‘England?’

‘South Africa.’

She glared at me as though I was playing a practical joke on the wrong person.

‘What’ll you have?’ she said, with a voice like someone breaking a gin bottle.

‘I want a pizza,’ I answered in a small voice.

‘No kidding!’ she hollered. ‘Hey, Sal, the English guys want a pizza!’

‘Well, la-di-da!’ yelled Sal back from the kitchen.

‘Any particular pizza for your majesties?’ she said, dropping some kind of grotesque curtsy. It was surreal. I’ve never felt so abused in a restaurant, which is saying something because I sometimes eat out in Cape Town.

‘Um,’ I said.

‘Um,’ said Jacques.

We scanned the menu but we were panicking so much our eyes weren’t transmitting information to our brains.

‘You’ll have the sausage and peppers,’ she growled at me. ‘He’ll have the anchovies.’

I knew I should just nod and accept her decision but I had a question. Jacques’ eyes widened as he realised what I was about to do. He began to shake his head and make the sort of low, pleading sounds you’d expect from a sheikh’s son who has been gagged and tied to a chair.

‘The peppers,’ I said, ‘are they green peppers?’

There was a long, frozen silence. In the distance, I could hear the carnival music from Luna Park and the screams from the kids on the Cyclone.

‘Green peppers?’ she said incredulously. ‘Green peppers?’

‘It’s just that I don’t eat green peppers, and…’

‘Sal! This idiot thinks we put green peppers on our sausage pie!’

‘No, I’m just checking that–’

‘You want green peppers, get the hell out of here.’

‘No, I don’t, I promise!’

‘Why are you still here?!’

‘I’m so hungry.’

Finally she agreed to bring us our orders, provided we didn’t do anything and didn’t say anything else. I don’t even remember what the pizzas tasted like. As we shuffled out, stunned and trembling, she came past and pinched my bottom.

‘See you soon, cutie pie,’ she said.

Getaway, November 2016