New York pizza is more than food: It is a sense of place and a confident face-to-the-world attitude. Only in New York is it common for pedestrians to duck into long, narrow, dingy storefronts and emerge with a slice of pizza, then stride down the street eating in rhythm with the city, the wide slice folded up so that its hot, gooey toppings go into the mouth, not onto the clothes.
The triumvirate behind Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria is confident it can transplant the quintessential New York pizza experience to the West Coast and beyond. Bronx-born company founder Richie Palmer and his partner, restaurateur Alan Finkelstein, who owns Los Angeles' Monkey Bar, are joined in the venture by business manager Adam Bernhard, COO. The company spokesperson is none other than Raquel Welch, Palmer's fiancee.
The chain currently comprises five pizzerias. The first generation of stores - one each in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and Encino - were named Mulberry Street Pizzeria. However, the restaurant changed its name to Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria for its most recent openings - Irvine Spectrum Center and The Block at Orange - as well as all planned future locations.
With expansion to begin in Maui, Las Vegas and Denver, two pizzerias are scheduled to open this year and five more next year. "We're looking for high-profile entertainment centers," Bernhard says.
What makes a pizza a New York pizza? "New York pizza is a thin-crust, 20" pizza," he says. "Just great-tasting, real straightforward pizza. There's no such thing as pineapple and Canadian bacon on our pizza, no barbecue shrimp pizza, no chicken Thai pizza. We do a mushroom pizza, a pepperoni pizza, a chicken parmesan pizza, an eggplant pizza and our version of a lasagna pizza, which is ground beef, ricotta cheese, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. We use the highest-quality ingredients: the most expensive mozzarella cheese on the market, and the best tomatoes on the market, grown in a very special part of Napa Valley."
Bernhard adds that the restaurant decor also differentiates Richie's from the standard mall or fast-food pizza place.
"Our places look like you stepped out of a 1950s or '60s pizza joint," he says. "We have a counter with stools. We use the old-fashioned black-and-white hexagonal floor tiles, and the traditional red-and-white-checked tablecloths. You walk in and you feel like you're in New York."
That also means hand-tossed dough. "It's hand-stretched and hand-tossed, so it's a show as well," Bernhard says. "Kids put their hands up on the glass. They think it's the greatest thing they've ever seen."
It takes at least a month to teach someone to toss pizza dough, he says, especially because Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria uses a 20-ounce dough to make a 20-inch pizza. When Bernhard says they're making a thin crust, he means it.
Richie's aims to be a family restaurant. "We have not included beer or wine on the menu," Bernhard explains, "because we want grandmothers sitting next to a little league baseball team. We want everyone to feel comfortable."
The Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria concept is unlikely to be franchised because of its emphasis on quality control.
"If we don't keep up the quality, we're just another pizza joint," Bernhard says. "This is not a gimmick - it's New York pizza. We want people to come in, have a slice and a soda, sit down, read the paper and be on their way."