A Filmmaker Explores Past Friendship and Obsession through the Prism of Pizza

Andrew Bellucci in his Lombardi's Pizza restaurant circa 1995
Andrew Bellucci, in an image from Untitled Pizza Movie, is shown in his Lombardi's Pizzeria in the mid 1990s.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 23, 2021) — An exploration of the fault lines of friendship, memory and filmmaking, Untitled Pizza Movie (UPM) — a new documentary film series written and directed by a celebrated UAlbany alumnus — is making its New York premiere at NYC’s prestigious Metrograph theater.

The 7-part series is a work by David Shapiro ’85, a part-time faculty member of Art and Art History. The full series will be available to stream for $5 beginning Feb. 26, through a Metrograph membership.

A “valentine” to a lost city, a pre-gentrified New York, the first three parts of UPM premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it took home the “Best DocuSeries” award.

“Through the prism of pizza, the film tells a story of self-invention and friendship, set in the early 1990s,” said Shapiro. At that time, under the guise of producing a TV series titled “Eat to Win,” he and his lifelong friend, Leeds Atkinson, set out to find NYC’s perfect slice — and to eat for free. As the two filmed at pizzerias across all five boroughs, they captured a changing city — a chronicle they preserved on video tape.

In 1995, the two young men filmed interviews with pizzaman Andrew Bellucci, whose Lombardi’s Pizzeria became the toast of the highbrow New York food world. Shortly after, Bellucci was uncovered as a Wall Street criminal wanted by the FBI. Shapiro and Atkinson follow the story, filming Bellucci from his restaurant to his cell block.

David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson talk outside Lombardi's Pizzeria in downtown Manhattan.
David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson talk outside Lombardi's Pizzeria in downtown Manhattan.

Soon after, Shapiro and Atkinson abandoned the enterprise. Shapiro put the film in storage. The old friends drifted apart.

Twenty years later, after hearing that Leeds had died under mysterious circumstances, Shapiro began to piece together their lost footage, setting out, as he says, “on a road trip of memory” to discover what happened to both Bellucci and Atkinson.

A triple portrait of three men and three American families, the work was shot across three continents and more than 30 years.

Speaking within the first installment of the seven-part series, Shapiro asks the fundamental question the work sets out to answer: “’‘How do you remember someone in a disposable world?’ — you would think the grid of New York would be a good place to map a memory . . . In retrospect, it’s hard to pin something down in a city that easily buries its past.”

Exploring themes of memory, obsession, failure and self-invention, the work interviews notable characters such as New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, NOBU’s Drew Nieporent and Wall Street lawyers.

His works include the 2016 feature documentary Missing People (Altavod, 2016), which won the Jury Award at The Hamptons International Film Festival, and Keep the River on Your Right (IFC, 2001), based on Tobias Schneebaum’s book of the same name, which won the prestigious Independent Spirit Award and made the Academy Award shortlist for an Oscar.

For HBO in 2009, Shapiro wrote and produced Finishing Heaven, an effort that earned him a 2010 Emmy Award nomination. His visual art has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including shows at MoMA, the Tate, the Norton, the Brooklyn Museum and the University Art Museum. Missing People was screened at the Writers Institute FiIm Series in 2016.

His work has been profiled and reviewed on NPR, BBC, CNN, in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Art in America, Art News, Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine and numerous other publications.

At UAlbany, Shapiro teaches both grad and undergrad studio art and film studies courses, with what he calls “a hands-on approach.” He has made collaborative films with some of his grad students.