John’s of The Village
No, this post is not about where to find public restrooms in the Village. It is, though, about a very important part of New York City’s culture: Italian cuisine. Italian Immigrants have made a lasting impact on both Greenwich Village and the East Village, both of which had significant Italian immigrant and Italian-American communities. Many of those immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans constructed the historic buildings we cherish today. Many established restaurants and pizzerias that are still open. And a noteworthy a few of them were named John.
There’s John’s of Bleecker Street and John’s of 12th Street. They are not related. At one time, there were actually four different establishments that went by “John’s of…” John’s of 64th street, which closed in 2014, and Johns of Times Square, which has been open since 1997, do hold familial connections to the Johns of Bleecker. Johns of 12th Street and Johns of Bleecker both have unique histories, with commonalities and important differences.
John’s of Bleecker Street
John’s of Bleecker was founded by John Sasso in 1929. It was originally located on Sullivan Street until they lost their lease, and in the early 1930s moved to their current location at 278 Bleecker Street. The neon sign in the front reads “Port’Alba” which was allegedly the pizzeria’s name before it became John’s. In 1954, Sasso sold the pizzeria to Joe Vesce and he brought his brother Augustine (Chubby) into the business when he returned from military service. They passed the pizzeria on to their nephew, current owner Bob Vittoria, in 1984.
In the 1940s and 50s, Bleecker Street was lined with Italian-American cheese shops, butchers, and pushcarts. Now, however, the pizzeria is one of the few establishments from that era, and of that type, still operating on this stretch of the South Village.
In 2019, Johns of Bleecker celebrates its 90th year, though some have speculated about its true date of origin. One researcher is said to have discovered documents linking Sasso’s restaurant at Sullivan street to Filippo Milone, who is said to have had a bakery selling “pies” at 175 Sullivan in 1915, which would make the shop 104. It was that spot which, in 1925, was labeled “Pizzeria Port’Alba” and owned by John Sasso. Whether it’s 90 or 104, that’s quite a storied Village pizza history!
John’s of 12th Street
John’s of 12th was established in March 1908 by another John, John Pucciatti. Pucciatti Immigrated from Umbria, Italy to the present-day East Village, where there was a thriving Italian American community centered around 1st Avenue. John’s’ current owner, Lowell Fein, took some time to speak with me about the restaurant. Fein owns the restaurant with partners Paul Dauber, Robbie Rundbaken, and, continuing the namesake’s legacy, John Bishuk. Fein mentioned that the Italian immigrant neighborhood where Pucciatti moved to in the East Village existed even before Little Italy. When he got here, Pucciatti was the new guy on the block.
In 1907, Pucciatti had Italian marble brought in for the interior of his shop and had a painter come in to paint scenes of historic Italy, all of which are still there today. It’s important to clarify that John’s of 12th is not a pizzeria, but a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant. They do serve pizza, but that wasn’t the case until recently. They’re known for their famous chicken parmesan, but also for being one of the few traditional Italian restaurants to change with the times and become more vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free friendly, a switch they made 10 years ago.
In more than a century of business at 302 East 12th Street, John’s has been a part of a lot of important histories in the East Village. The restaurant was frequented by members of the mafia and even was part of an ambush assassination plan by mobster Joe Masseria in 1922. Socialist activist Carlo Tresca was also known to frequent the restaurant and was a good friend of the Pucciati family. Fein mentioned that Tresca and Pucciatti got along well because they had similar progressive ideas about politics.
During the prohibition era, the restaurant had a speakeasy on the second floor that sold moonshine made by Pucciatti’s wife, who went by Mama John. Mama John would have a candle lit in the restaurant and if they were alerted that police were near, they would blow out the candle and everyone would finish their alcohol. After prohibition, they decided to keep the candle going as decoration, and now, after 85 years of wax, that candle is 250 pounds, still on display in the dining room. You can read more about John’s of 12th Street here, and more about the surprising history of the building here (it’s built on top of what was once one of New York’s oldest cemeteries) and in our East Village Building Blocks interactive map here.
These East Village and Greenwich Village Johns, each with their distinct and inspiring histories, still share more in common than just their names. John’s of 12th Street and John’s of Bleecker Street have both survived years of neighborhood changes around them. They are lauded as legends of their respective neighborhoods. The Italian immigrant spirit was crucial to both neighborhoods with the number of businesses that were started and the community that was built. Some of the most important architecture of these neighborhoods was built by Italian immigrants, including for example the Mary Help of Christians church which was sadly torn down to be replaced by a luxury apartment building.
The best thing to do now would be to visit both John’s and observe that history for yourself! Buon Appetito!