Some people are born into royalty.
Andrew Bellucci’s admission to a royal family came a little later.
On Tuesday, in the long parlor of Farenga Funeral Home in Astoria, stood a collection of restaurant industry bigwigs who had gathered to pay their respects to Mr. Bellucci, a one-time federal prisoner who became a New York City pizza-making pioneer.
In the far corner stood Ravenna Wilson, owner of The Native Bread and Pastry in East Williamsburg. Beside her was Justin DeLeon of Apollonia’s Pizzeria on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, who flew in for Mr. Bellucci’s wake. At the center of the room stood Drew Nieporent, whose list of New York restaurants includes Nobu and Tribeca Grill.
Into this assemblage walked Paul Giannone, founder of Paulie Gee’s, a pizza parlor in Greenpoint with locations from Baltimore to Chicago. Scanning the room, his eyes locked on a pair of pizza boxes featuring oversized pictures of the deceased.
“I never seen pizza boxes at a wake before,” Mr. Giannone said. “I gotta check that out.”
Mr. Bellucci was working inside his restaurant, Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, in Astoria, when he collapsed from heart failure on May 31, said Matthew Katakis, his business partner. He was busy making a clam pizza, his new signature dish, Mr. Katakis said. He was pronounced dead a short while later. He was 59.
“He died the way he wanted: with his boots on, making pizza,” said Nino Coniglio, a co-owner of Williamsburg Pizza.
At his wake, Mr. Bellucci was celebrated for making pizza like no one else in New York. Sure, his ingredients were expensive and fresh, the restaurateurs and big eaters present agreed. But where Mr. Bellucci excelled was dough. Hot from the oven, a pizza crust by Mr. Bellucci managed to be crisp and chewy, thin but fluffy, all at the same time.
“Before I came here on this trip, I thought I had a great slice,” said Mr. DeLeon, whose own crust was praised as an “airy, almost focaccia-like base” by the Los Angeles Times.
“This morning I went to his place, and ate there for the first time,” Mr. DeLeon said. The meal led to a realization: “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Mr. Bellucci’s rise, fall and rise again is among the most colorful in recent New York restaurant history. As lead baker at Lombardi’s pizzeria in Little Italy in the early 1990s, he helped create a renaissance of traditional Italian pie that inspired generations of pizza lovers and entrepreneurs. But his fame was cut short, first by a 13-month prison sentence for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars during his previous job at a law firm, and then by more than two decades of self-imposed exile spent driving a taxi in New York and baking pizzas in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
More unfortunate turns followed, including a spat with an investor over naming rights to Mr. Bellucci’s first pizzeria in Astoria. The resulting lawsuit in federal court was settled in December 2022.
Finally, his friends and fans said, Mr. Bellucci was ready to claim his seat at the table of New York pizza royalty.
“They just finished the lawsuit,” said Sean Robinson, Mr. Bellucci’s friend and a former chef. He was just getting started.”
Though still unknown to most casual foodies, Mr. Bellucci returned to New York and quickly gained admirers among the city’s elite restaurateurs for his twin talents of cooking and self-promotion.
“We don’t get together for beer and talk about the Yankees,” Mr. Coniglio said. “No, we talk pizza history and pizza stories and who we think is making the best cheese.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Bellucci regularly walked from his apartment in Crown Heights to East Williamsburg, where he followed Ms. Wilson around her bakery.
“He used to walk an hour. He was very driven,” Ms. Wilson said. “He wanted to make bread better than me.”
Mr. DeLeon stood near a circular arrangement of white pompom flowers, some spray-painted red and brown, like a pizza’s pepperoni and its crust. Rare for this crowd, Mr. DeLeon cried. He remembered Mr. Bellucci riding a scooter to cheese and bread shops, all the while talking by phone about his hunt for rare ingredients.
“Talking to him was my weekly ritual,” said Mr. DeLeon. “It was religious for me.”
After four hours of telling stories of Mr. Bellucci’s improbable life, his fans and friends gathered in a circle at the front of the parlor, before a gold-colored urn of his remains. Behind them stood a flower arrangement of football mums over a bed of green lemon leaves. The white flowers read, “The Don of Dough.”
Someone poured smoky Mezcal into tiny plastic shot glasses, which were passed around.
“He got a second chance to do it better,” said Sean Fahy, a restaurant entrepreneur in Kensington, Brooklyn. “He did it. It was spectacular.”
Mr. Coniglio raised his cup.
“He was the original pizza nerd,” said Mr. Coniglio. “Never to be forgotten in the industry.”
The Don of Dough was dead. They all drank and winced.
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