In many places, corner pizzerias are gone. In Elmhurst, however, John’s Pizzeria has been a sentinel of thin-crust pizza and neighborhood memories for two generations.
Newcomers are impressed that John’s, at the corner of Grand Avenue and Haspel Street since 1965, is run by two women, Rose and Susan Bagali. “John is my husband – he’s home, retired,” Rose disclosed with gruff good humor.
The fare here is everything we take for granted in the realm of New York thin-crust pizzeria – the tangy fresh tomato sauce, aromatic bouquet of the herbs and garlic, generous helping of hand-shredded mozzarella and of course the crispy, wafer-thin crust that seems to elude out-of-town venues.
“It’s the screen,” Rose said showing off the steel mesh on which the round pies rest while baking, “That’s the secret.”
There’s no secret to the goodness here. When mama’s making the chicken, sausage and spinach rolls, they’re “just like mama used to make.”
And they’re just like John used to make too, back in the days when he would give a slice to the kid who was “a little short.”
While we were enjoying our crisp Neapolitan, and chewy good Sicilian slices and the cold sodas (Pepsi products) we retrieved from the refrigerated case in the back, Susan talked about being a child in the neighborhood.
“People who grew up here and then moved away come back for pizza and bring their own children,” she explained, as Rose carefully weighed out quarter-pound portions of succulent baked chicken breast for another batch of rolls, concealing final steps before popping a fresh batch into the oven.
“They say, ‘Wow, the place hasn’t changed a bit’ and some order food that they freeze to bring back home,” Susan recalled. “They tell their kids, ‘This is what pizza is supposed to be.’”
All of the offerings here are what they’re supposed to be. The sweet sausage is aromatic with a hint of fennel, the chicken moist and spinach still firm inside the thin crust of their respective rolls.
The sauce has just the right tang and the entire store, from the marble working surfaces to the well-worn counter tops, to the patina on the ceiling tiles and wallpaper, has that patina of age that takes returning neighborhood kids back to the days of stickball summer.
“I want to fix the place up,” said Rose, to Susan’s horror, who could only exclaim, “No ma, that’s the whole point.”
“That’s what everybody says,” Rose admitted.
Deana, the other, camera-shy daughter, retreated further into the kitchen, where the meatballs, eggplant, sausage and peppers are turned from groceries into magic.
Among a poster of Italian proverbs is one that has sustained the Bagali’s since they left Trentino in Italy to feed generations in Elmhurst.
“Who eats well, lives well.” Three blocks from Queens Boulevard, not far from Queens Center Mall, you live well for the price of a slice at John’s Pizzeria.
85-02 Grand Avenue, Elmhurst, NY 11373
Cash Only; no bills over $20.
Open Tuesday through Sunday noon to 10 p.m.
Closed on Monday
Q58 or Q59 bus stop in front.
Meters on Grand Avenue, local neighborhood parking
85-02 Grand Avenue