Remembering Andrew Bellucci, the King of Clam Pizza

The New York chef was a complicated man, but his pies were some of the best

December 15, 2023 6:40 am
Matthew Katakis stands next to a lifesize photo of his former chef and business parter at his Astoria pizzeria
Matthew Katakis stands next to a lifesize photo of his former chef and business parter at his Astoria pizzeria
Wesley Parnell

For five fraught minutes on the night of May 31, 2023, Matthew Katakis was on the phone with emergency services summoning whatever reclusive knowledge of CPR he’d acquired decades earlier as a Boy Scout. He was crouched atop the body of his business partner and pizza chef, Andrew Bellucci, who’d collapsed on the floor of their pizzeria in Astoria, Queens. During an afternoon meeting, Katakis says Bellucci, who was 59, blue-eyed, white-haired and working hard not to carry too many extra pizza-maker pounds, complained about fatigue and soreness in his left arm. He’d slung up the meddlesome wing, certain that he’d banged it hard somewhere a day earlier. So, forecasting a relatively slow Wednesday at the pizza parlor, Katakis sent Bellucci home to rest. But a few hours later, with special guests arriving soon, he called Bellucci in to prepare the pizzeria’s most toiled-over and acclaimed menu item: the Fresh Shucked Clam Pie. 

Though it had already been dazzlingly reviewed in Bloomberg and the The New York Times, shortly before that fateful evening, Bellucci had added one more cooking step to preserve the clam pie’s quality. After decorating the widened dough with a chimichurri sauce, black pepper, extra-virgin olive oil and pecorino romano, he’d slide it into the oven, clam-less. Bellucci had to buy his clams, in bulk and shucked, during the morning hours. He then kept them on ice throughout the day until fulfilling an order. But tossing cold clams onto an oven-destined pie was robbing them of “ideal mouth consistency,” Katakis says. “They were gummy, and he felt that if he heated them up a little bit — barely heated them up — their texture would be different.” Bellucci decided to sous vide the clams for 10 to 30 seconds. When the pie was 80%  cooked, Bellucci would pull it out of the oven, spread the warmed clams around and shove it back into the heat for another 90 seconds. Before finally plating the pizza, he added lemon juice and a series of cut-up lemon wedges around the crust for diner customization. 

“That’s it, that’s the pie,” Katakis says. “And it’s one of the great things.”

After paramedics took over for Katakis, Bellucci was declared dead from a heart attack at the hospital. If the pizzaiola wanted to be remembered for one thing, it probably wouldn’t have been his penchant for chaos and controversy. Difficulties followed Bellucci infamously across two separate stretches of his professional life as a top pizza chef in New York City. Instead, Bellucci would likely rather his legacy be wrapped in a clam pie, the offering he was working on the moment he lost consciousness in May.

“The problem is, he’s a lunatic,” Katakis says, still speaking of Bellucci in the present tense this past summer, a little more than a month after his partner’s death.

Katakis, who’s 49, big and expressive, had been hearing about Bellucci’s dream to keep a clam pie on a pizzeria menu since their first meeting in 2021. Katakis says he’d divested in another Astoria pizza place around the time Bellucci fell out with Leo Dakmak, who’d owned pandemic-shuttered tattoo parlors in Manhattan before transitioning into a restaurateur. Dakmak hired Bellucci as his pizza chef after reading his bombastic Craigslist ad offering his services, in which he likened his level of culinary artistry to that of a Jedi master. Once Dakmak was ready to open his pizzeria’s doors in December 2020, Bellucci insisted it bear his name. Dakmak agreed to call it “Bellucci Pizza,” only when Bellucci signed an agreement providing the financier free-use privileges to his name. Their relationship quickly soured for reasons that varied depending upon the speaker. (Bellucci said he didn’t want Dakmak to use his name at potential new locations without his pizza oversight; Dakmak claimed Bellucci overspent on the small company’s credit card.) 

After partnering with Katakis, Bellucci opened “Bellucci’s Pizza” in January 2022, just eight blocks east on the same 30th Avenue as Dakmak’s parlor. Dakmak sued over the near mirror reflection of a name and, eventually, Katakis and Bellucci settled on a change: “Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria.” But in the 15-minute talk Katakis had with Bellucci just after the chef became a free agent, the clam pie was already on the proverbial table. But Katakis wasn’t biting into it.

“There was no way I was gonna let him do this fuckin’ clam pie,” Katakis says. “I was like, ‘Dude, nobody’s gonna eat a fuckin’ clam pizza.’”

Aside from his own personal aversion to shellfish on pizza, Katakis was worried about liability issues constantly looming over a pizza place he hadn’t even opened yet. As the New York State Department of Health points out on its website, “For some people, eating raw shellfish can cause serious illness or even death,” caused by bacterium commonly found in the mollusks. Food handlers inside and outside of restaurants are instructed by regulators to take extra special care of shellfish they sell to consumers. Restaurant managers must also retain special dated tags that come with shellfish purchases for 90 days so health officials can track batches suspected to be dangerous and prevent infections. 

clam pizza bellucci's
The infamous clam pie
Wesley Parnell

Katakis wasn’t the first restaurateur who’d gotten into bed with Bellucci and was turned off by his clam pizza kink. “I wanted to make the potato pie, but Andrew said no,” says Bellucci’s former boss, Leo Dakmak. “He wanted to go with the clam.”

Dakmak cites additional headaches that come with clam pie production: the smell factor and the sensitivity surrounding clam storage tied to contamination concerns. Even if safely kept on ice, clam meat won’t taste very good after a day under those conditions. So if a pizzeria doesn’t sell the clams they buy, they go right in the garbage. Longer lasting canned clams are not even a consideration for hard core pizza chefs like Bellucci, who Dakmak says probably would have preferred to buy a boat and fish fresh clams out of the ocean every morning if he could. Should Bellucci have done that, though, he would’ve run into another roadblock. 

“Ideally you want to have fresh clams and shuck them yourself,” says Nino Coniglio, a world-champion pizza maker who calls Bellucci a “dear friend,” having met him four years ago at a pizza festival. “But shucking clams is not the easiest thing to do.”

The WikiHow page devoted to clam shucking is 12 steps long, with a preparation section alone that includes making sure the clams are alive, scrubbing them clean with a stiff brush under cold water, soaking the clams in salt water for 20 minutes and then refrigerating them for another hour. The actual shucking requires a specific type of knife, protective gloves, patience, precision and a willingness to exercise your arm muscles hard.

“I’ve got a guy shucking clams who has been here for 32 years in New Haven,” says Paul Hahn, former general manager of Frank Pepe Pizzeria. Though recently retired, Hahn still utilizes present tense when discussing the restaurant’s business, one that’s driven in part by its world-famous white clam pizza pies, which have been slung there since the 1950s. Of Frank Pepe’s dedicated clam shucker, Hahn says, “He comes in, lights the ovens in the morning and spends the rest of the day shucking clams.”

In 2018, the New Haven Register profiled this gentleman, Erik Preston, who’s apparently held the position since he was a teenager. Watching him work, the writer noticed that his hands moved surprisingly fast. He asked Preston if the job was dangerous. “Nah!” he replied. “The knife is pretty sharp, but it’s no problem once you get used to it.”

Chris D’Auria, Director of Quality Assurance at Frank Pepe’s, says Preston knows how to cut perfectly-sized pieces of clam meat for the pizza, without shell parts ending up on slices. (Hahn and D’Auria say Frank Pepe’s has not faced any lawsuits from sick customers in the past; occasionally a clam pizza eater might bite into a shell, though — nobody’s perfect. It’s perhaps worth noting that one Redditor claimed to have found a pearl on a Frank Pepe clam pizza earlier this year.) Frank Pepe’s northeast locations field clams shipped to them from a Rhode Island-based provider that harvests from a secret bed each day. D’Auria says Frank Pepe pizza chefs have tried clams from other beds, but none worked as well on their pies, which are made with olive oil, fresh oregano, garlic and pecorino romano. There’s also the perfect number of clams and clam juice spread about the dough, and the pie is cooked for 10 minutes to keep the clams from drying out and becoming rubbery.

As you can see, clam pie requires a tremendous amount of resources that the typical hole-in-the-wall NYC pizzeria can’t generate. Alongside sheer product quality, a combination of location, promotion and legacy is what makes Frank Pepe’s run, with clam pizza providing a good portion of the fuel.

“We are so humbled by it and proud of this special pizza,” D’Auria says. “Having something that has become, in some people’s minds, the number-one pizza in America, it’s amazing.”

Andrew Bellucci himself made a special pilgrimage up I-95 to Frank Pepe’s. A pizza tour manager acquainted with Bellucci told Hahn it was the New Yorker’s “lifetime dream” to spend time in a Frank Pepe kitchen and make a few pizzas. “For me, it was a great thing,” says Hahn, who coordinated Bellucci’s trip to New Haven and stood alongside him in front of Frank Pepe ovens, four months before his death. “He was fantastic. You met the guy once and it was like you knew him forever.” 

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After its opening, Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria thrived the first few months of 2022, on the strength of what cofounder Matthew Katakis branded as the “Classic New York City” and “Fresh Mozz Margherita” slices. But the parlor’s namesake continued to hound Katakis for blessings to pursue a clam pizza that would prove not only safe, but profitable. In lieu of a boat and the nearby presence of clam fishing waters, Bellucci told Katakis he’d source his clams from Ocean Fish Market, located two blocks away on 30th Avenue. But there was still the problem of devoting time and resources to cleaning the clams and finding storage space where they would be kept on ice, in addition to other steep cost considerations. Clams are expensive: $8 for a dozen at Ocean Fish Market, per Katakis, with two dozen going on each Bellucci pie.

“You want to be at 25% food cost, so between the dough and the chimichurri and the clams, I’m at 20 bucks,” Katakis says. As much as a local Astorian might want to chomp down on a delectable clam pizza, few will probably spend $80 on a single pie. 

But Katakis says Bellucci caught him on “a good day” in April 2022 and got the go-ahead for a clam pie demo. Though he’d personally never enjoyed a clam pizza before, Katakis says he was impressed with Bellucci’s first iteration. At that point, the pie included the clams’ digestive sacks, which are not appetizing to everyone. But within a few weeks, Bellucci, always the tinkerer, started scissoring the sacks out. Katakis agreed to sell the pie by pre-order only so the restaurant could purchase the correct number of clams ahead of time. He permitted a 33% food cost, charging customers $59.99 for a large pie. Bellucci finally had the Fresh Shucked Clam Pie on his pizzeria’s menu.

It wasn’t exactly a first for him, though. The Bellucci legend starts in the 1990s when he reopened Lombardi’s, which claimed to be the first pizzeria founded in the United States. It had closed the decade prior, but the new Lombardi’s made waves, and Bellucci embraced pizza celebrityhood, which in part arrived courtesy of his clam pie. A 1995 item in the Times says the Lombardi’s version was “a delicious combination of fresh-shucked clams, olive oil, garlic and oregano, with just a hint of Parmesan, on a crisp crust.” But soon after Bellucci’s name started showing up in the press, federal agents showed up to Lombardi’s. They ordered a pizza and arrested Bellucci for embezzling money from a law firm that employed him in the 1980s. 

He pled guilty to 54 counts of fraud and served a 13-month prison sentence in Otisville, New York. Upon his release, Bellucci drove cabs around New York City for a few years. He then helped open restaurants in Malaysia, Bangkok, Hawaii and elsewhere before returning to the Big Apple.

Then came his affiliation with Dakmak, who, like Katakis, eventually caved under Bellucci’s relentless clam-pie pressure — to an extent. Dakmak never featured the pie on the menu at Bellucci Pizza. Instead, it was only conjured up when customers friendly with the owner or the chef specifically asked for one. This approach to clam pies still stands at Bellucci Pizza. The current chef will simply fetch a few clams from the same Ocean Fish Market on 30th Avenue and put a pie together in about 35 minutes when asked. Dakmak and his crew will do the same thing for any well-regarded customer who requests a pie with a particular topping they fancy. Making a clam pie once in a while is “no big deal,” Dakmak says.

While he was never totally intoxicated by the prospect of a clam pie nor was able to maintain a stable relationship with Bellucci, Dakmak still hails his brilliance in the back of a restaurant. “I hope you don’t make me sound like I’m against Andrew,” Dakmak says. He says he appreciates Bellucci’s ability and was happy about the press accolades Bellucci received over his clam pizza while working out of his second Astoria outpost. Dakmak says he also learned a great deal about pizza preparation during their time together, which has helped Bellucci Pizza continue to serve customers long after the loss of its founding chef. “I totally, totally believe in him,” Dakmak adds.

bellucci chef whites and sunglasses
Bellucci’s chef’s jacket, sunglasses and crucifix hang in a shadowbox at the pizzeria.
Wesley Parnell

Katakis, too, oscillates between bitter frustration and awe on the topic of his departed partner, who, upon the opening of their pizza parlor, was dubbed by Katakis in marketing campaigns as “The Don of Dough.” In addition to “lunatic,” at different points in our discussion, Katakis calls him “an egomaniac,” “a liar” and a shoveler of “bullshit.” Katakis says he went through “50 or 60” staff members who either left the restaurant because they couldn’t work with Bellucci or were fired by him. He’s also angry that Bellucci discussed his recipes with other pizza chefs and restaurant managers in New York — something that is common in the pizza community, according to Paul Giannone, founder of the Paulie Gee’s parlor chain and one of Bellucci’s large circle of industry friends who turned up at his funeral last spring. But as far as Katakis is concerned, Bellucci’s big mouth inspired copycats. 

“Nobody was doing clam pies two years ago,” Katakis says. “Even in his death, he’s still inspiring other pizza guys.”

Today, Lombardi’s pizza offers a clam pie with “limited availability,” and so does F & F Pizzeria and Lucia of Avenue X, both in Brooklyn. But whether or not clam pizza in New York can now be defined as trendy is up for debate.

Salvatore Carlino, owner of Lucia of Avenue X, which was founded in February 2022 and just celebrated the opening of a second location in SoHo, says slices with hot honey appear to be a bigger thing in local pizza right now than clam pies. He confirms that Bellucci showed up in Sheepshead Bay at Lucia of Avenue X shortly before they opened. He calls him “a sweet guy” and a “rad dude,” but not the inspiration behind his own restaurant’s clam pie. That distinction instead goes to Carlino’s parents, who ran Papa Leone Pizzeria in Manhattan Beach from 1974 to 2017. 

“​​My dad used to make a pie called the South Brooklyn Bake,” Carlino says. “That was a clam and shrimp pie that was made on a Sicilian square. When I made the clam pie for Sheepshead, I just removed the shrimp out of the recipe and turned it into a clam round pie.” 

His chefs lightly cook fresh clams in a white wine butter reduction at a slow simmer before finishing them off atop the pie in the oven. This delicacy is only available Fridays at the Sheepshead Bay location. “It’s really, really hard, labor-wise, to get the clams first thing in the morning, if we were to do it [every day] and chop them up,” Carlino says. “We get our clams locally, they’re shucked for us and we chop them up fresh, which is really important.” He says at Papa Leone, his parents kept an “old-fashioned, packed walk-in box” refrigerator that he’d prefer not to have. “We just make sure that what I have is what I have, and then once it’s gone, it’s gone.” 

Carlino says he doesn’t envision the Lucia clam pie being twirled in SoHo. Without the demand it has in South Brooklyn, a community with a long fishing history, it probably won’t make financial sense to offer it there. (The world champ pizza chef Nino Coniglio says he recently opened a clam pie pop-up shop on Long Island, thinking fish connoisseur customers there would flock. But consumer tastes can be fickle, and the venture turned out to be a costly dud.)

Bellucci’s clam pie is still on the menu at Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, available for pre-order five days a week. Naturally, he wasn’t content with just one. “He kept driving me nuts,” Katakis says. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I want to do the red clam pie, I want to do the blue clam pie, the purple.’” 

Bellucci experimented with what became the Fresh Clams Casino pie: hand-shucked cherrystone clams, fresh mozzarella, applewood smoked bacon, fresno chili, bell peppers and toasted bread crumbs. “He did it, but he hated it,” Katakis says. “He was still tinkering around with it. I loved it because it has cheese…so I put it on the menu, but he was still further developing it when he passed.”

When GrubStreet covered the fun-but-inaccurately monikered “Bellucci Vs. Bellucci” feud, the chef told the website, “When I make a pizza, I give it all of me: my heart, my hands, my spirit.” 

Bellucci’s friend and fellow pizza parlor owner Paul Giannone calls him “a true artisan” who “wasn’t doing it just for the money.” “He just always wanted to try to do things a little better than he did before,” Giannone says. “And he did great stuff. He really made great pizza.”  

In spite of all the grief Bellucci caused Katakis, that profound passion ultimately served as a primary color in the portrait of his character. “I’m going to miss his eccentricities and his craziness,” says Katakis, who is of Greek origin and, in observance of the Greek Orthodox tradition of paying tribute to a person when their soul leaves Earth, closed Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria on a Tuesday in July, 40 days after his passing. “I adopted him as like a family member. I don’t get involved with actually cooking; I used to when I was younger. But today, I was making dough in his honor.”

A few months later, after being trained alongside core staff members of Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, Katakis was certified in CPR. 

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