Pizza is one of New Jersey’s most popular and down-to-earth delicacies.

So it may seem as incongruous as spreading the tomato sauce on top of the cheese that some Garden State pizzerias have begun accepting bitcoin, the most common of the still uncommon variety of electronic payment known as cryptocurrency.

“Serving traditional Italian food with modern ways to order and, of course, pay for your food,” texted Tony Fevola, owner of Fevola’s Pizzeria in Lacey Township, which accepts bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency, and Litecoin, a later variation.

Cryptocurrencies are essentially digital cash, transferred electronically from the owner’s digital “wallet,” or in retail purchases, by scanning a q-code on a smartphone.

Fevola’s, located in the Lanoka Harbor section of the Ocean County township, is one of at least three New Jersey pizza places listed on bitcoinrestaurants.net, along with two in downtown Jersey City, Helen’s Pizza on Newark Avenue and Alex’s Italian Restaurant & Brick Oven Grill on Grove Street.

The development of bitcoin as a currency that could have real purchasing power but without alloy or paper tender was made possible by the development of so-called “blockchain” technology, which acts like a vast public ledger on which every bitcoin transaction is recorded and stored, according to bitcoin.org and other sites dedicated to the currency.

Maintenance of the system requires constant updating with complex code developed by a network of independent computer programmers known as bitcoin “miners,” who are paid for their work in bitcoin itself. The miners can use the bitcoin to buy things directly from vendors that accept it, or trade their bitcoin for dollars or other currencies.

Pizza actually figures prominently in bitcoin history.

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The cryptocurrency’s first use in a commercial transaction is widely attributed to a Florida computer programmer named Lasclo Hanyecz, who was hungry while logged into in a bitcoin chatroom in May 2010. According to several accounts, Hanyecz offered 10,000 bitcoins to anyone who would have pizza delivered to him, and he eventually received two large pies purchased by the taker (using a more conventional method of payment) from a local Papa John’s.

As with other currencies, bitcoin’s value fluctuates — wildly upward so far.In January 2017, 1 bitcoin was valued at just over 900 U.S. dollars and by the end of that year, one was worth about $19,650 — its peak so far. As of Friday’s rate of about $3,200 per bitcoin, those 10,000 bitcoins spent by Hanyecz on two pizzas are now worth about $32.4 million.

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Fevola said when he began accepting cryptocurrency early last year, he said, it wasn’t to boost business. And clearly it hasn’t. Despite a sign in his window indicating he accepts bitcoin, Fevola said exactly two customers have paid for their orders with the cryptocurrency in the nearly two years he’s accepted it.

“The problem isn’t that it’s difficult to use, the hurdle is that the average Joe doesn’t know how to acquire $50 worth of Bitcoin,” he said.

One way is to purchase it at an online marketplace like localbitcoins.com, which lists sellers who take electronic payments, and those who only take cash. In the latter case, the site lists cities where cash sellers are located, with contact forms to arrange for physical payment. A pair of sellers in Newark, one in Jersey City and one in Palisades Park, were offering dollar-to-bitcoin exchange rates that ranged from $5,573.74 to $5,989.78.

Nicolas Kalcanides, whose father opened Helen’s Pizza 50 years ago in Jersey City, said his family pizzeria began accepting bitcoin in 2014. It was after he had read about the cryptocurrency and began buying it as an investment the year before, when one bitcoin was valued at $50 to $60, or about 1/100th its current value.

“I did pretty well,” said Kalcanides, 40, who lives in Somerset County, where he tends to his investments when not at the pizzeria helping his father, Steven Kalcanides, ease into retirement.

Bitcoin is more popular in Jersey City than Lacey, at least for pizza sales. Kalcanides said Helen’s makes about 10 transactions in bitcoin a month, mainly to the young urban professionals and techies who have flooded the Hudson River waterfront city, a PATH ride from Manhattan’s Silicon Alley.

“I would say the younger customers, customers in their 20s, they’re surprised,” to see that bitcoin is accepted at Helen’s,” Kalcanides said. “The older folks, they don’t even know what it is.”

The small amount of bitcoin income from those sales ends up being converted into dollars rather than turned around and spent directly on bitcoin purchases of dough, sauce or cheese because, Kalcanide said, “none of the vendors accept it yet.”

Cryptocurrencies’ independence from governments or central banks has made it popular among libertarians and, according to its critics, money launderers and other financial criminals. Some banks have closed accounts containing standard currencies belonging to firms that also do business in cryptos.

In Lacey, Fevola said he was attracted to bitcoin for the security provided by the underlying blockchain technology, which allows users to trace any transaction — to follow the digital money — whether double-checking on a pizza purchase or insuring that a charitable contribution got into the right hands.

“I wasn’t really using it to increase my business,” said Fevola, a 52-year-old father of two, who after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 founded a charity called Pizza with Compassion, which gave away 3,000 pies. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting to me, and it might be interesting to the public. And it has the transparency aspect to it, which I love.”

“Customers would actually ask me to teach them,” how cryptocurrencies work, he said. “I don’t think it hurts to be part of something new.”

Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook





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