- Alan Feuer The New York Times
Not unlike the city-states of 16th-century Europe, the pizza men of New York City have been at war for decades.
In the 1980s, three of them, none named Ray, fought an epic battle over the permutations of the Ray’s pizza franchise (Famous Ray’s, Original Ray’s, Famous Original Ray’s) — until they finally joined forces to destroy the other Ray pretenders citywide. Twenty years later, a similar struggle erupted in Manhattan between two Italian restaurants named Patsy’s — a conflict not to be confused with the one in Brooklyn at about the same time between the pizza maker Patsy Grimaldi and the guy he sold his business to.
But now, after a period of peace, another war has broken out pitting the proprietors of Famous Joe’s Pizza and Famous Joe’s Pizza of the Village in a trademark case involving accusations of intellectual property theft and the misappropriation of celebrity endorsements. As the claims — and counterclaims — have made their way through Federal District Court in Brooklyn, issues have arisen over sign fonts, Twitter accounts and the crucial question of which pizzeria the actor Tobey Maguire actually likes best.
The underlying lawsuit in the skirmish was filed in November, but its roots reach back to August 2004 when Joe Pozzuoli Sr. and his son, Joe Jr., the owners of Famous Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, fired Victor Zarco, who had worked at their Bleecker Street location since 1989. (It has since been closed.)
While the parties disagree on why Zarco was dismissed, no one disputes what happened next: Touting himself as the Pozzuolis’ former “pizza man,” Zarco opened a pizzeria on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, calling it Famous Joe’s Pizza of the Village, even though his name isn’t Joe and his place was not in Greenwich — or any other — Village.
By all accounts — even one from the judge in the case, Brian M. Cogan — the Pozzuolis’ pizzeria is a New York institution. Famous Joe’s Pizza (or “JP,” as their court submissions call it) has been featured in numerous movies and in TV shows like “Law & Order” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” In 1996, New York Magazine described its pizza as “the quintessential New York slice.” Not to be outdone, Scott’s Pizza Tours later noted in promotional materials that JP’s pizza might be “the greatest slice of pizza in the world.”
Famous Joe’s Pizza of the Village (or “JPV”), by contrast, has received reviews that Cogan has called “somewhat tongue-in-cheek.” In 2006, for instance, Time Out New York described JPV’s fare in a less than charitable fashion: It’s good at 2 a.m. when “you’re drunk.”
For the first six years that Zarco’s pizza shop was open, the Pozzuolis were unaware of their copycat in Brooklyn, court papers say. But in 2010, in a kind of sit-down summit, Pozzuoli Jr. visited his rival and asked him to stop using his family’s trademarked name. Zarco, however, has a different version of events. He claims that Pozzuoli Jr. appeared one day, looked around and said, “With you we have no problem. Everything is OK.”
Legally speaking, it was OK for another seven years. But according to court papers, that changed in October, when Zarco put up a sign that was, as Cogan said, “nearly indistinguishable” from the one JP had been using since 1983.
Was it really mere coincidence, the Pozzuolis asked, that Zarco had availed himself of the exact same design — the one with “Joe’s” in a red, slanting script and “PIZZA” in block text set against a solid wash of white? Pozzuoli Jr. sent Zarco a cease-and-desist letter when he learned about the sign. Zarco changed it, but only slightly — straightening the “Joe’s.” The lawsuit quickly followed.
In January, Cogan issued an opinion enjoining JPV from using the duplicative design, saying that Zarco’s version of events struck him as “dubious.” Cogan found that the sign was an attempt “to create the impression among customers and potential customers” that the two pizzerias were “associated.”
In his opinion, the judge said that more than the logo had been stolen. Zarco, he explained, had adorned the walls of JPV with photographs of Maguire and others that had actually been taken at the Manhattan pizzeria; he had also posted images on JPV’s social-media accounts of “Spiderman 2” — Maguire’s hit movie — being filmed at JP.
You might have thought that all this evidence, in a federal judge’s order, would have ended the fight. But as in other conflicts, a cease-fire in a pizza war isn’t easily achieved. Within three weeks of the order being issued, the Pozzuolis had already accused Zarco of ignoring it.
In a letter to Cogan, the Pozzuolis claimed that while their rival’s sign had indeed changed — barely — his Twitter page was still using their logo, which had also appeared on Zarco’s GrubHub account. They further said that JPV had borrowed the one-of-a-kind “soccer dog logo” they had briefly used to promote their pies during the World Cup. As for the photograph of Maguire, it had not been taken down, they claimed. In fact, it was “enlarged.”
Three days later, Zarco wrote his own note to the judge saying that he had just fixed his Twitter page and that GrubHub had “migrated all the information” from another food website without his knowledge. He said the Pozzuolis’ accusation that his photo collection had changed “for the worse” was patently false. Then in a follow-up note, he took a subtle swipe at his former bosses, complaining that their pizzeria’s “name is as generic as the pizza they serve.”
Zarco’s lawyer, William Hochberg, said his client was not “looking for trouble, but he won’t be trampled on” by the Pozzuolis’ “zealous pizza lawyers.”
“We hope to reach a truce that makes sense for all,” Hochberg said, “especially the pizza-loving customers.”
At lunch on Friday, there was little sign at either pizzeria that a bitter battle was raging in the courts. Inside JPV, a few students from William Alexander Middle School sat at a booth plucking strings of gooey cheese from their slices and washing them down with soft drinks. Across the river at JP, an older clientele stood at a counter, savoring their crusts, blackened lightly with a char.
The air of normalcy led one to wonder how pizza wars get started in the first place. This was a question that the younger Pozzuoli has thought about for years.
“Pizza is so commonplace these days that I guess when you have a standout product, others try to mimic it,” he said. “It’s no surprise to us. People are passionate about pizza.”