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And I'm Robert Siegel.
A vote that was too close to call, allegations of ballot fraud and a contested recount. It might sound like presidential politics, but this drama is being played out in the small New Jersey town of Nutley. And instead of politicians, it is pizza makers who are fighting to win. NPR's Robert Smith explains.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
The annual Nutley Jaycees Pizza Challenge was never meant to divide a small town, to pit neighbor against neighbor. It was supposed to be a fun way to raise money for charity.
Ms. IRMA(ph) CONFORTI: The pizza contest was for a good cause, for scholarship money. Just gotten out of control.
SMITH: That's Irma Conforti. It was her mother's recipe that toppled the established pizza hierarchy in Nutley. But before we get to that, you have to understand Nutley pizza history.
Mr. PAT CUSTODE: Ah, this is Ralph's Pizzeria and Restaurant. My name is Pat Custode. We've been here now since 1960.
SMITH: Ralph's has always been the top dog in a town that takes its pizza very seriously. When the pizza contest started in Nutley in 1997, Ralph's won three years in a row. The pizza was so dominant that Custode decided to sit out the 2000 contest, and then the trouble started when a rival took home the top trophy.
Mr. GEORGE RITACCO: Ritacco Brothers brick-oven pizza, and my name is George Ritacco.
SMITH: Ritacco put out a big sign outside his shop that bragged that it was now the number-one pizza in Nutley, a sign that is up today.
Mr. RITACCO: That is the prize of winning this contest, that you could say that you were voted the best pizzeria in town.
SMITH: In 2001, though, mysteriously there was almost twice as many ballots for best pizza as there were people who paid the entrance fee. Ralph's took back the crown and the pizza contest evolved into a shouting match with demands for a recount. Imagine Bush vs. Gore with extra cheese.
Mr. RITACCO: This is almost as important as the Florida presidential race. All the pizzeria owners have a great deal of pride and you just want to win.
SMITH: So now there were two places claiming to be number one. And then last year a new pizzeria came to town.
Mr. NICK CONFORTI: The name of the restaurant is Michael's, and my name is Nick Conforti and this is my mother Irma Conforti.
SMITH: The Confortis took top honors and put up their number-one pizza sign and then this year the pizza wars went nuclear. Michael's won by a few votes, but later that night there was a secret recount and all of a sudden Ralph's was declared the winner.
Mr. CONFORTI: We were up by seven votes and then definitely I think something fishy happened 'cause it just doesn't make sense.
Ms. CONFORTI: Actually, if they were going to do a recount, they should have had us there, too.
Mr. CONFORTI: Yeah.
SMITH: So now there are three pizzerias all with signs declaring themselves to be number one. Allegations of influence peddling and bribery were suggested. The citizens of Nutley take sides. At Michael's, Paul Perez wouldn't dream of eating elsewhere.
Mr. PAUL PEREZ: Ralph's, it's like a piece of cardboard you chew the day afterwards.
SMITH: Across town, Beverly Tomlinson takes her stand with Ralph's.
Ms. BEVERLY TOMLINSON: He deserved to win. It's the best.
SMITH: And the feud may never be settled. After all the controversy, no pizzeria owner really wants to re-enter the contest. Pat Custode.
Mr. CUSTODE: It turns people against one another and I--you know, I don't like that. Because of this, you know, everybody always has something bad to say about one another, you know, which I don't agree with.
SMITH: So which pizza really is the best? It's time for a little investigative reporting.
Let me taste the plain cheese slice at Ritacco Brothers. Mmm. Lots of cheese, a really nice smoky, tomato flavor.
The Michael's slice is extremely thin and the crust is almost like a cracker.
Finally we have the Ralph's cheese slice. Let me have a bite here. Mmm. Nice chewy crust and a ton of cheese.
Investigation complete, and as much as I would love to settle this once and for all, the only thing I've concluded is you should never get involved in a pizza war in New Jersey, at least not if you want to show your face around town again. Robert Smith, NPR News, in Nutley, New Jersey.
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