(New York Jewish Week) – I can’t believe I’ll never have another Bella. Or Aztec. Or Zen.
These unique pizza slices, made with whole wheat or corn crusts, topped with feta, red peppers, corn, whole garlic cloves, pesto and more, were specialties of Cafe Viva Gourmet Pizza, a longtime kosher pizzeria on Broadway between 97th and 98th streets. .
The Upper West Side establishment, open for three decades, abruptly closed on Monday. My family had ordered a Viva pie three days earlier, not knowing it would be the last.
As a member of his dedicated clientele, I was shocked to learn that his business was on shaky ground, as owner Tony Iracani told the I Love the Upper West Side blog, which broke the news of the closure. My friends and I immediately started texting each other about the terrible news, quickly realizing that we had “survivor’s guilt.” Although we all considered ourselves regulars, we worried: had we done enough to keep this beloved pizzeria going?
When I first moved to the Upper West Side in 2012, I lived around the corner from Viva. I’ve eaten there or picked up a slice (or three) to take home on so many occasions that I shudder to think how badly my bank account has been affected by the restaurant over the past 10 years.
There was a Saturday night in 2018, immediately after Passover ended, that my husband and I went to Viva to sample sourdough pizza perfection for the first time. The following evening, we set off in search of a satisfying but easy dinner before we had fully restocked our post-Passover pantry – and found ourselves at Viva 24 hours later.
During the first year of the pandemic, during my pregnancy and the first years of my children, we ordered Viva practically every Saturday evening: a large Napoletana – the fanciful name given to their usual cheese pie – plus an occasional side dish. homemade fries. It was a ritual that anchored us during a destabilizing period.
What made Café Viva’s pizza so distinctive? There were specialty slices that were unique. It offered gluten-free and vegan slices before those terms became common, as well as bowls of hearty minestrone soup and whole-wheat garlic knots that gave me such a whiff of it that it seems little likely that I could forget it anytime soon.
What it wasn’t was a typical kosher pizzeria. For one thing, it operated under independent kosher supervision, which meant there were plenty of kosher caretakers on the Upper West Side who didn’t feel comfortable eating there. As a kosher sitter myself, I ate objectively terrible pizza, because that was the pizza available to me. But at Viva, we didn’t have to be ashamed of our pizza. Due to its unique menu items, it has attracted a wider audience than many “traditional” kosher establishments. (Want proof? Hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco said “it belonged.”) It was a special pizzeria that happened to be kosher.
Once, when Viva changed his rabbinical supervision, my husband, a rabbi, called the restaurant’s kosher supervisor to find out if he would still feel comfortable eating there. My husband felt satisfied with their response, but the really exciting news that came out of the conversation was the suggestion that my husband could become a potential kosher supervisor for Viva. The tantalizing opportunity to have even more Viva in our lives never materialized, but for a brief moment it felt like a golden ticket.
For now, I’ll have to settle for a homemade Bella pie, topped with spinach, pesto, feta and red onions. It’s better than nothing.