On what seems like every corner in New York City, there is a pizzeria claiming to be the best.
Many share similar traits — a clear glass shelf displaying the various pizzas available, vegetables or meat, sometimes pineapple or shrimp, or plain old red sauce and cheese. It’s the perfect meal for any time of day, greasy to varying degrees, some with cheese sliding off the crust. And of course there are the best New York pies — known for thinness and crispness, to be folded but not to flop. Often on the walls are photos of celebrities, sometimes with their arms wrapped around the owners. This culture is ingrained in the city’s life, unmistakably New York. In Lviv, one business has created a nearly perfect replica, bringing the Big Apple to Ukraine.
I met Stepan Ben Sheptyskyy, owner of New York Street Pizza in Lviv, in mid-November. It was snowing, and when I walked into his restaurant I was wearing four layers of long-sleeved shirts under my ski jacket. I headed to a table near the entrance to shed some of the weight of the clothing. “Wow,” I heard a customer say behind me, “Are you warm?” “No,” I replied.
At first glance, the pizzeria might not look like a New York replica. Rather than a soda dispenser, there is an espresso machine behind a bar, and you can’t order by the slice. But the walls are covered with carefully selected photos recalling NYC: images of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, replicas of Basquiat paintings, and a menu hanging from the ceiling reading “Pizza with prosciutto.” Looking around, though, I noticed one thing missing. “Where’s Sinatra!” I said. Sheptyskyy smiled and pointed to the wall behind me, where there hung one large framed poster of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. (Nearby was a picture of Marilyn Monroe, who also spent time in New York.)
Sheptyskyy came up with the idea of bringing New York to Ukraine after the nine years he spent in NYC, in the ’90s and early 2000s. At the time, he was a young musician from Lviv hoping to make it in New York, and he found himself in the city’s underground Ukrainian punk scene. He spent his days working in restaurants and evenings performing in gigs with his band, Vidlunnya, which loosely translates as “an echo.” Sheptyskyy recalled that he would “play music in restaurants, Brooklyn, all kinds of different music, many Russian, Ukrainian, Polish restaurants, festivals, upstate New York, Chicago, Washington.”
“New York is a beautiful city, very beautiful,” he added with a smile, noting that he knew of the Voice, though he admitted he never read the paper when he lived in the city. There was one thing that was ever-present, however: “I have a lot of friends in New York, Italian usually. We go to pizza, pizza, pizza, always pizza.” (One of those Italian friends claims to be a nephew of Sinatra, according to Sheptyskyy.)
After returning to Ukraine, in 2000, Sheptyskyy and some partners started opening the New York Street Pizza chain. The first location was just a few streets away from where we spoke. At that interview, a pizza was brought out, made especially for me with no cheese, as I am vegan. The thin crust was Roman-style; there was a crunch, different from too much of New York’s more run-of-the-mill pizza, which is sometimes soggy. Sheptyskyy’s sister lives in Italy, which influenced some aspects of the pizza’s ingredients and production. The sauce was sweet, resembling what can be found at Anna Maria’s pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But the Lviv pizza had an almost overwhelming amount of vegetables, mushrooms, basil, and tomatoes. “New York City likes plain pizzas. Ukrainians like a lot [toppings],” Sheptyskyy noted.
New York Street Pizza was a staple throughout Ukraine, from Lviv to Kharkiv and Mariupol, for nearly two decades. Parents held their children’s birthday parties there, a special occasion — going to New York City without leaving Ukraine. But there have been serious problems in recent years. “Covid killed the business. Now it’s war,” stated Sheptyskyy matter-of-factly.
Countless small businesses have felt the weight of Russia’s invasion, and the National Bank of Ukraine has projected that inflation in the country will reach around 30% by the end of the year. In October, the unemployment rate in Ukraine was 34%, and 28% of private businesses had shut down, according to the report. The World Bank estimates that Ukraine will need at least $349 billion to rebuild itself, but that was before Russia started directly targeting civilian infrastructure. The economic challenges Ukraine currently faces have had particularly extreme ramifications for the small- and medium-size businesses, which the government reported, in 2020, account for 85% of the country’s job market.
Lviv has empty storefronts across the city, some still bearing the name of the business that once was active but is now boarded up to prevent looting. There used to be close to 40 New York Street Pizza restaurants throughout Ukraine, but many of them have closed. While Sheptyskyy still owns the franchise, he is not directly involved in keeping track of which locations have stayed open despite the war.
“I think they have some in some cities, but I don’t know. That’s what’s happening now. Many businesses are closing, closing, closing, but we try to keep going,” Sheptyskyy explained, and then motioned toward the impromptu stage next to the table where we were sitting. People come for the music, some to see Sheptyskyy play.
The restaurant owner maintained a level of humor during our time together. He is 61, at the cut-off age for the mandate that requires all men 18 to 60 to stay in the country, should they be needed in the military. With a laugh, Sheptyskyy told me that there was a party at this location the night before the war began. The party ended in the early morning hours, and Sheptyskyy posted videos on Facebook of his friends singing and drinking. He awoke a few hours later to numerous messages — “Take these videos down,” they all said. “We are at war.” Sheptyskyy leaned back in his chair and said, “No one can believe it. Closed business, no customers, nothing, everything was dying.”
I asked Sheptyskyy to tell me more about his life in New York, where he went, what he did, and whether he had any crazy stories. But he changed the course of our discussion. “I have to go back to New York again. How’s Trump?” he asked sarcastically, since the future president was a bombastic local presence when Sheptyskyy’s band was playing around NYC. Sheptyskyy then again mentioned one of his oldest friends in New York, Sinatra, who claims to be Frank’s nephew and who also says he once knew the former president when he lived in New York, in the ’90s. Sheptyskyy has stayed in touch with this friend over the years, and Sinatra has checked in often since the war began. His friend now lives in Florida, and asks what he can do for Sheptyskyy: “He tells me ‘Come to Florida.’ I say no, I can’t, I like Ukraine.”
Then our interview was over and I returned to my mounds of clothing, bracing for the freezing temperature and the snow that would smack my face when I stepped outside. Sheptyskyy stopped me and asked if I wanted to hear him sing a traditional Ukrainian song before I left. “Of course,” I replied. He then headed for the stage — had he been hoping I would say yes? Probably, because he looked so comfortable as he exclaimed into the microphone. Customers paid little attention to him, seemingly used to the performances that might break out at any time.
Once the song was over, I asked Sheptyskyy about his plans for the future. With a smile, he said, “I’m going back to New York, and this time I bring my wife and young son.”
On December 16, I received a call from Sheptyskyy while walking to the Nostrand Avenue subway station in the pouring rain. But the four words the restauranter said made me stop in my tracks: “I’m in New York!” He and his family had been in New York for two weeks, staying in Brighton Beach — Little Russia. With little time to talk, Sheptyskyy told me he would call me back. We speak next on December 28. “Back in New York, very happy to be here,” he says to me over the phone.
Russia had launched a new round of missile attacks. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry wrote on Twitter, in response to the assaults, that Russia had been “saving one of the most massive missile attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion for the last days of the year.”
“We will stay here for a few months, maybe a year. It’s nice to be here for some time,” says Sheptyskyy, referring to the bombardments. I ask what his plans are for New Year’s, and if Vidlunnya will get back together. “I was going to go out for New Year’s, maybe perform. But now I think I’ll stay in. My kid is 15 months old, I have to watch him,” he replies.
But Sheptyskyy still has plans to perform in New York, and aims to start Ukrainian music festivals throughout the state, saying, “No one in Ukraine wants to go to festivals right now.” Vidlunnya has been replaced with a new name, Stepan’s Band. “Like my first name,” he adds. “We will play with band of four people, some from Brooklyn and others from Jersey.”
“Are you the lead singer?” I ask, already knowing the answer. “Yes. And saxophone player,” he replies, with a small laugh.
Stepan’s Band hopes to play in Brooklyn and Manhattan. But the first gig will happen at the restaurant Hot Potato, in Brighton Beach. My last question is one that has been building since our call began: “But Brighton Beach is predominantly Russian. How does it feel to be a Ukrainian there?”
“Brighton Beach Russians — it’s okay here. They don’t want to talk about politics. They are trying to escape Russia too,” Sheptyskyy replies. ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.