Andrew Bellucci, who in the 1990s became one of the first chefs in New York City to achieve fame for pizza, then lost his job and reputation when an old crime caught up with him, only to return more than two decades later to a city full of pizzaioli inspired by his artisanal, traditionalist approach, died Wednesday in the New York City borough of Queens. He was 59.
He collapsed from heart failure while working at his restaurant, Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, in Astoria, said Matthew Katakis, his business partner. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.
Mr. Bellucci’s pizzas first won attention when he worked at Lombardi’s, a revival of a venerable coal-fired pizzeria on Spring Street in Little Italy. Nancy Silverton, Todd English, and other chefs came to taste his pizza, which was a far cry from the foldable, gold-and-orange and mostly interchangeable slices sold across the city. Silverton was especially impressed by a pie topped with fresh clams, garlic, oregano and olive oil.
“The glory is the crust: light, thin, crisp yet elastic, blackened and blistered and full of the smoky flavor that comes from the coal oven,” Eric Asimov wrote in a review in The New York Times in 1995.
New York pizza had long been celebrated, but its origins were obscure, its techniques little understood and its makers unknown to all but a few regulars. Mr. Bellucci saw things differently.
He had learned the craft of pizza in the East Village, baking pies at Two Boots and then Three of Cups, now closed. But he learned the lore of pizza at the public library, where he spent his off hours poring over old phone books, newspapers and advertisements.
Mr. Bellucci’s reading convinced him that the first pizza in the United States had been baked in a coal-fired oven on Spring Street by Gennaro Lombardi, an immigrant from Naples. Transfixed, he began nosing around Little Italy until, on Spring Street, he located a vacant bakery with a coal-burning oven. He kept searching until he found Lombardi’s grandson, also named Gennaro, and persuaded him to put the family name on a pizzeria with the oven he had found. Mr. Bellucci would make the pies.
Mr. Bellucci didn’t just twirl dough, however. He told stories about pizza, pizza ovens, pizza families and pizza legacies, and these stories brought attention to styles and methods that other pizza makers would explore over the next few decades.
“He helped usher in the revival of classic coal-fired New York pizza, which was really a return to the way pizza was before it became a slice-shop food on every street corner,” said Scott Wiener, a columnist for the trade magazine Pizza Today.
“He allowed things like Neapolitan pizza to come back, which led to the neo-Neapolitan pizza of Roberta’s, Paulie Gee’s, Ops, etc.,” Wiener went on, naming three leading wood-oven pizzerias in the city. “Which has led to what we have now” — a diverse pizza ecosystem in which even street-corner slices are considered worthy of serious attention.
One day in 1995, two agents from the FBI walked into Lombardi’s, ordered a pizza and ate it. They left with Mr. Bellucci in handcuffs.
The charges against him stemmed from an earlier job as an administrator at a Manhattan law firm, Newman Schlau Fitch & Lane. Talkative and personable, Mr. Bellucci had been popular at the office.
He once invited the lawyers and other employees to a party he threw in a restaurant on Christopher Street, according to “Untitled Pizza Movie,” a nearly four-hour documentary that is largely about him. There was an open bar and a live band.
One guest looked around and said to her husband, one of the firm’s partners, “He must be stealing from you.”
She was right, although it would take months for the firm to determine that Mr. Bellucci had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. By that time, he had left the firm and seemed to vanish.
Federal investigators suspected that he had fled the country. In fact, he was on Spring Street, stretching dough and giving interviews. Eventually, one of his television appearances tipped off authorities.
“Why would someone on the lam allow his picture to be taken hundreds of times?” said Ed Levine, the author of “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven” and one of the first writers to praise Mr. Bellucci’s pizza. “He was clearly addicted to attention.”
Mr. Bellucci eventually pleaded guilty to 54 counts of fraud and was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison.
In a phone interview from prison with Asimov, he dismissed the seriousness of his crime, saying that his victims were just a law firm, an insurance company and a bank. “It’s not exactly like sticking up an old lady,” he said.
When he was released on bond, the court stipulated that he be tested for drugs, and his sentencing recommended drug counseling. Mr. Bellucci, in the interview, denied using drugs.
Other parts of his story unraveled. Contrary to his claims, he had never been a partner in Lombardi’s.
He had also led journalists to believe that he had been following Lombardi’s heirloom recipes. Years later, though, he told Wiener that the dough was the same one he had made at Two Boots.
He told people that he was from the Bronx. Lawyers at Newman Schlau Fitch & Lane were led to believe that a grandmother of his had, as a Jew, survived the Holocaust.
In fact, Andrew Thierry Bellucci was born Jan. 21, 1964, in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Patrick Basil Bellucci and Jeanne-Marie (Schmiederer) Bellucci, both from Roman Catholic families.
Mr. Bellucci is survived by his mother; his brother, Joel; and his wife, Geetanjali Peter, from whom he was estranged. His sister, Chantel, died of cancer at 14.
For several years after his release from prison, in 1997, Mr. Bellucci drove a taxi and drifted in “pizza purgatory,” as he put it in the documentary. He tried to return to Lombardi’s, but the owners would not have him.
In 2013, an ad on Craigslist led to a position as the founding chef of Mikey’s Original New York Pizza, a group of American-style pizzerias that was just starting in Malaysia.
Later, he would say that the job “got me back in the game,” but the hours were long and he had no friends in Kuala Lumpur, where he lived alone in an empty apartment. One night, he said in the documentary, he swallowed what he recalled as 50 Vicodin tablets chased by Jack Daniels in a suicide attempt. He lived, although he was two hours late to work the next morning.
Returning to New York in 2017, he worked as a driver, a chef at Rubirosa on Mulberry Street and a consultant on several far-flung pizzerias. All the while he looked for a backer to finance his dream restaurant, a cathedral of pizza where clam pies would take up a full page on the menu, the clams shucked to order by a worker at a prominent station built to resemble a pulpit.
No Medici stepped forward, but in 2020, he was hired to open a more modest, 300-square-foot shop in Astoria, Bellucci Pizza. His employer, Leo Dakmak, owned a piercing shop on St. Marks Place and a tattoo parlor, but was a novice in the pizza business.
“He got my vision and said he would follow me blindly,” Mr. Bellucci told The New York Post. “I told him that was maybe the stupidest thing he would ever do.”
Baked in a new $35,000 electric oven, the pizza came in 25 varieties, including pepperoni with vodka sauce and chicken-bacon-ranch. All pies and slices, the restaurant said, were sprinkled with 18-month-aged pecorino Romano and ground aranya peppercorns harvested in Kerala, India.
Less than a year later, Mr. Bellucci quit. Dakmak said that they had argued about “repeated high charges on the company credit card.”
Mr. Bellucci told the food website Grub Street that “the final straw” had been Dakmak’s desire to open a second shop “whether I was there or not.” Almost immediately, he found a new associate, Matthew Katakis. Together they built a splashy, red-and-white restaurant a few blocks from Bellucci Pizza and nearly five times its size.
They named it Bellucci Pizzeria. Dakmak, who had trademarked the name Bellucci Pizza, sued.
The legal action, popularly but imprecisely known as Bellucci v. Bellucci, was irresistible to the news media, generating at least as much press as Mr. Bellucci had received during his criminal case. In an out-of-court settlement, he agreed to rename his restaurant Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria.
Although he had 18 pizzas on the menu, three kinds of dough and any number of toppings, two aspects of his trade preoccupied Mr. Bellucci above all. One was what Katakis called “a borderline lunacy” about dough. The other was clam pizza.
“Other people put clam pie on the menu but nobody’s that meticulous,” Katakis said. “He figured out that the clams were going on the pizza cold, so he figured he should sous vide them,” heating them in a hot-water circulator for 45 seconds before baking.
Mr. Bellucci was preparing clam pizzas as a surprise for some guests when he died.
His return to the ovens as a celebrated old hand brought Mr. Bellucci into contact with a younger generation of bakers who are as obsessed with the minutiae of pizza as he was. He became a mentor to many of them, inviting them to work in his kitchen, sharing recipes and advising them before they went on to open their own pizzerias.
Few were old enough to remember the dark ages when Mr. Bellucci first began telling New Yorkers that their city had an important pizza legacy to live up to.
“Nobody was trying to bring respect to pizza,” Levine said. “It took a convicted felon to do that. That’s kind of crazy when you think about it.”