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Name Games: Ray's Pizza vs. Ray's Pizza


For 50 years the debate has raged on: Which New York slice shop can claim to be the famous "original"?

On a Seinfeld episode called "The Maid," the following exchange takes place between Jerry and Kramer:

KRAMER: I think it's over. We had a big fight, she threw me out, I started walkin', and now I'm lost downtown! I don't have any money. I don't recognize anybody. I miss home, and I don't even know how to get there.

JERRY: What's around you?

KRAMER: I'm lookin' at Ray's Pizza. You know where that is?

JERRY: Is it Famous Ray's?

KRAMER: No. It's Original Ray's.

JERRY: Famous Original Ray's?

KRAMER: It's just Original, Jerry!

JERRY: Well, what street are you on?

KRAMER: Hey, I'm on first and first. How can the same street intersect with itself? I must be at the nexus of the universe.

While he may have been on a soundstage masquerading as New York City, any self-respecting pizza-eater knows that New York City is the nexus of the strange universe that is Ray's Pizza and its various iterations -- Famous Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, Original Ray's, Original Famous Ray's, and so on and so forth.

Since time immemorial, debates have raged as to which "original" Ray's can actually lay claim to being the actual original Ray's. Or, if not time immemorial, at least 1959.

It was then that 22 year-old Ralph Cuomo opened the first Ray's Pizza at 27 Prince Street, in what would later become the fashionable SoHo section of Manhattan.

"Why not Ralph's Pizza," asked John Tierney of the New York Times in a 1991 interview.

"Ralph's might have sounded, I don't know, maybe too feminine," Ray, er, Ralph explained. "Besides, nobody ever called me Ralph. My family took the Italian word for Ralph -- Raffaele -- and shortened it to Rayfie or just Ray. All my life I was addressed that way."

The original Ray/Ralph opened a second pizzeria uptown a few years later, but sold it in 1964 to a man who, as luck would have it, didn't go by Ray, either.

His name was Rosolino Mangano, and it was under his tutelage that Ray's expanded and became Original Ray's in the process. As luck would have it, Rosolino also soon became Ray, although he hesitantly admitted that "Ray" Cuomo was indeed the original Ray.

It is here that the sauce thickens.

In 1981, "Ray" Mangano sold one of his many pizza parlors -- a shop on Second Avenue and 51st Street -- to a fellow named, again, not Ray, but Gary.

After getting in the Ray's game with the assist from Mr. Mangano, Gary Esposito opened five Original Ray's pizzerias on Long Island and in New Jersey. However, he added an interesting twist to why he was the actual Ray.

"I have never said that I am Ray," he said. "That's my claim to originality."

He also began to get curious about who the real Ray was and decided to investigate. Gary/Ray located Ralph/Ray (are you following?) and the two set up a company to start officially franchising Ray's Pizza.

When applying for a trademark, they ran up against Rosolino "Ray" Mangano, who fought them for five years before capitulating and agreeing to form a sort of pizza-makers' "coalition of the willing."

"Ray" Mangano personally traveled by limousine to each and every ersatz Ray's he could find in order to enforce the three "Rays'" licensing agreement.

"I went to a dozen places in New York and New Jersey," he recalled. "I said to them, 'You want to be Ray's Pizza, you got to pay. You got to use the same sign, put up the same tile inside, use the same ingredients. You don't want to pay, take down the sign.' "

Those who don't want to pay and don't take down the sign find themselves contending with the U.S.A. Famous Original Ray's Licensing Corp., which is the legal entity the three Rays formed -- and the group's attorney, Stephen Feldman, who happens to be the only player in this game who does not go by the name Ray.

"People crop up all the time trying to copy a successful trademark, and we intend to continue stopping them. They are infringers," he said.

Of course, a little creativity goes a long way these days. And one enterprising Brooklyn pizza slinger has found a way to associate his restaurant with the name Ray without running afoul of any laws:

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