Pizza Obsessives: Brooklyn Pizza Tour Guide Tony Muia
I first met Tony Muia a little more than five years ago, when he was just launching his Slice of Brooklyn pizza tour. More than a just a tour of pizzerias, Muia really gives context to the great pizza of the Borough of Kings, sharing neighborhood histories and showing you iconic movie locations. It's a fun tour—and it doesn't taste so bad, either. Anyway, enough gabbing. Let's get Tony in the hot seat. —The Mgmt.
Name: Tony Muia
You've been doing the Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour since, what, 2005?
Yeah, I started on August 1, 2005, so we just had our five-year anniversary. I don't know where the time has gone, but it's been an amazing five years, that's for sure!
Are you doing the pizza tour full time now?
Yeah, it became my full-time job in October of 2007 after the tour was featured on NBC's Today Show.
What were you doing prior to this?
I spent almost 20 years in healthcare as a respiratory therapist taking care of trach patients on ventilators.
Wow. Huge career change.... How many days a week do you offer the tour?
The tour runs on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays for the general public. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are set aside for private tours.
And how many places are you hitting now?
Originally when I started, the plan was to hit up what I felt were the three different types of distinct pizzas styles found in Brooklyn at the time: Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge for their Neapolitan style, Lento's in Bay Ridge for their Roman, crackerlike crust, and L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend for Sicilian. Then, just before we launched the tour, Lento's went out of business as one of the family members left to open a location in Staten Island. So I had no choice but to launch the tour with just the two stops at Grimaldi's and L&B Spumoni Gardens and figure something out later. People told me I was crazy to do a pizza tour with just two pizzerias, but what was I going to do? I figured I'd dive right in and figure things out later. I thought I would add another pizzeria over time, but it became difficult finding a place that would accomodate 24, 36, and 55 people all at once, which is the size of the groups I'm dealing with. So we turned it more into a pizza-and-Brooklyn experience as we immerse folks into a total day in Brooklyn, sitting down at both stops and doing two slices and a soft drink at each place. And people have been absolutely loving it! I get folks from the United States and around the world.
Private tours are entirely different. I usually include about four places because we're talking about groups that really want to delve into the wonderful world of Brooklyn pizza and have more time to spare. So I'll include stops at some of the other legendary pizzerias in Brooklyn for an overall experience, like Motorino, La Villa, J&V, Totonno's, Lenny's, Pizza Wagon, etc. One of the most memorable tours was the private pizza tour I did for Ken McCarren, the CEO of Pizza Hut. He's originally from Queens and asked me to put together a private pizza tour for about 30 Pizza Hut franchise owners who were here for their annual meeting. He wanted to show all these guys, some of whom own hundreds of franchises each, where pizza came from and how, if it weren't for New York pizza, they wouldn't have a job. Then, about two months ago, I did another one for Liz Barrett, the editor of Pizza Marketing Quarterly magazine. We got in my car and we drove around Brooklyn. She brought a cameraman to videotape it. Here's the video of the tour that they posted on their website:
Say I'm a tourist. Why should I take your tour?
We like to say that we cover pizza, and Brooklyn, from one end to the other. It's the ony way to completely immerse yourself in the food, history, and culture of this great borough in 4 1/2 hours. Along with its native food, you'll experience things like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Coney Island, as well as some famous Brooklyn movie locations like Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas, The French Connection, and more. Plus you'll experience pizza like you've never tasted before!
What type of pizza do you prefer?
For the most part, I prefer the Sicilian pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens. I love sauce and crust on a pizza, and I'm really critical of the two. As much as I love Neapolitan-style pizza, there's never enough crust for me, and I feel that no place gets that ratio as perfect as L&B's Sicilian. But that's not to say that I don't love a classic New York–style slice from places like J&V in Bensonhurst or Pizza Wagon in Bay Ridge. And lately I'm loving more traditional Neapolitan-style pizza we're seeing at places like Motorino and Paulie Gee's.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
I was born and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. It's known as the Little Italy of Brooklyn. My first slice was at J&V on the corner of 18th Avenue and 64th Street there. My mom used to take me there as a kid, and we still go eat there together from time to time. Joe, the owner, is a good friend of mine. We started going there when his father ran the place. It's that classic walk-up-to-the-window type of Brooklyn pizzeria that we all grew up with in Brooklyn, where you can get an amazing slice or a square. Back then in my nieghborhood, you had two great pizzerias on 18th Avenue: J&V and DaVinci. People used to take sides as to which one was better. Me and my friends always felt J&V was much better and still do.
And I take it you still frequent the pizzerias around there, even though you're probably eating a lot of pizza on the tours? Favorites these days?
J&V, L&B, Europa, and Pizza Wagon.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
I like salamino piccante as a topping. A lot of places are now doing hot soppressata, which I like as well. I also like anchovies or sausage. Depends on what mood I'm in.
Do you make pizza at home?
I used to make pizza at home all the time. Now I just go out for pizza with all the amazing pizzerias in Brooklyn.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
I was never a fan of pineapple on pizza. I just never understood that.
Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?
It was called a Cold Smoked Salmone Kotzone. It was Finland's entry in the America's Plate International Competition earlier this year. I was one of the judges, and it just didn't work for me. It was folded over like some kind of pita pizza with a whole wheat crust and topped with smoked salmon, red onion, salad, spinach, cheese, sauce, lemon, honey, and balsamic dressing. No, thank you.
Now as far as interesting toppings, I have to give a shout out to Paulie Gee. That man is doing some amazing things with toppings. Every time I go, he's got some new combinations. Things I would have never dreamed of together are absolutely out of this world when he combines them. I don't want to give away the ingredients, but some of the names of my favorite pies are "Cherry Jones," "Honey Jones," "Anise and Anephew," "Great Egg-Specktation," and my newest favorite, "Bacon Marmalade Piccante."
LOL. I don't think Paulie's that shy about ingredients. He shared the recipe for the Anise and Anephew with us here.... Um, anyway ... what's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
Naturalmente! ... Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
We're living in an amazing time if you're a pizza lover in Brooklyn. Besides the all-time favorites, there are now amazing newcomers in Brooklyn, like Motorino, Paulie Gee's, Saraghina, and Roberta's. Proving once again, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Brooklyn is the superior pizza borough. Like my company slogan says, "Manhattan? FUHGETTABOUDIT!"
Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?
We've got him on the slate for a Pieman's Craft session. I suppose it would be easy enough to but him in the hot seat for a Q&A at the same time.... Thanks for playing along, Tony! And congrats on your fifth anniversary of the tour. And again, Slice'rs, if you're looking for more info on Tony's tour, see asliceofbrooklyn.com.