Kosher Pizza War Simmers On After Brooklyn Rabbis Rule
This article has been updated with new information since its original publication.
There’s a kosher pizza war being waged in the heart of Hasidic Brooklyn — and a Jewish religious court has laid down a Solomonic decision about how the pie is going to be sliced.
Basil Pizza & Wine Bar is an established gourmet spot on Kingston Avenue, the main drag in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Enter Calabria, which opened its doors the first week of March — directly across the street.
In February, before the rival eatery even served its first slice, Basil co-owner Danny Branover sued in the local beit din, or rabbinical court.
He cited the Jewish law of Hasagat Gevul, which literally means “infringement of boundary” and is often used to prevent unfair competition or business practices. In this, traditional Jewish law runs countercultural to American capitalism. Not only is unbridled competition a no-no, but the businessmen agreed to follow a rabbinic ruling that, in truth, has no legal standing in secular society.
Basil contended that Calabria’s pizza was, like theirs, “specialty” pizza, and therefore would interfere with Basil’s livelihood. Calabria contended that its “Roman-style” pizza (a thick, hearty rectangular pizza that’s baked in an oil-rubbed pan) is totally different from Basil’s thin-crust Neapolitan-style pie.
The rabbinical court sided in part with Basil, ruling that Calabria could not sell specialty pizza without competing unfairly. It did say in the decision, issued in both Hebrew and ancient Aramaic, that Calabria could sell regular (New York-style) pizza.
Both sides promptly claimed victory — and it remains to be seen which spot will win out with customers.
Calabria says it will abide by the rabbis’ decision. The eatery changed its pizza, and has redefined its establishment as one that offers “New York-style pizza,” according to the restaurant’s website.
“We made sure to differentiate ourselves in every aspect, and everyone who comes into the store can see it right away,” said Shemi Harel, one of three brothers who co-own the restaurant. “It’s not like any other pizzeria, any other restaurant in the neighborhood. We try to do a simple New York-style pizza.”
He said he wants to put the conflict behind him. “We’ve got a lot of support, and the people of Crown Heights are behind us. We’re just trying to make people happy and do a good pizza place,” he said.
But Basil owner Danny Branover said he is keeping open the option of taking his case against his rival to a secular civil court.
“I’d rather not… [but] they’re basically doing exactly the same thing that they were doing from the get-go. You have to give them a chance, and hopefully they’ll come around.”
Branover’s partner, Clara Perez, said her side never wanted to put its rival out of business. She and Branover simply want their neighbor to play fairly according to Jewish law.
“There’s no American law that says you can’t open a pizzeria next door,” said Perez, who is not Jewish. “But my partner said that in their Torah they’re not allowed to do that.”
The complicated decision may shape the commercial fortunes of a business strip in central Brooklyn. But it also has its roots in centuries of Jewish religious and cultural practices.
The law of Hasagat Gevul, like nearly everything in the Talmud, is vigorously debated. Some believe that competition is good as long as the existence of a business does not prevent or impede people from patronizing the original store. Others take a more stringent position and rule that businesses that are too similar cannot co-exist in the same area.
Dani Klein, founder of YeahThatsKosher.com, a website that covers kosher travel and restaurants, said the strict interpretation might end up hurting everybody in a Jewish neighborhood like Crown Heights, which is fast becoming a kosher foodie destination.
“No business wants competition at their doorstep, but this is America, where competition is what makes businesses and industries thrive,” Klein said. “There are many communities that can’t afford to have too many kosher restaurants, because the community isn’t large enough to support it. But Brooklyn is not that area.”
The beit din is less a court of law and more a means of arbitration between litigants. If a defendant refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the beit din, its rabbis cannot compel the defendant to obey.
They may prevent the defendant from getting a hashgacha, or kosher certification, from the local certification agency, but there are multiple kosher certification groups, or Vaads, and there are independent rabbis who give certification in the New York area, which the defendant could easily obtain. Refusing to go to the beit din may not give the eatery a good name in the community — and it may lose some of the more religious clientele — but if it’s located in a populous area such as Brooklyn or Manhattan, that may not matter.
In Crown Heights, things seem to have settled down to an uneasy truce for the time being. With Calabria’s changes, the new restaurant has secured kosher certification and has opened its doors.
In other words, the rabbinical court battle is over, but the competition will continue to be waged in the court of popular opinion.
And may the best pie win the battle of Kingston Avenue.
Additional reporting by Forward food editor Liza Schoenfein.
Michelle Honig is the food intern of the Forward. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @Michelle_Honig