Pizza Obsessives: Frank Pinello of Best Pizza
If you were at Sandwich Fest two weeks back, you most likely picked up an amazingly delicious meatball sub from Best Pizza. After running into Pizza Obsessive alum amusebouche1 at the festival, I couldn't get those hot seat questions out of my mind. Luckily, I was able to find a willing interviewee in pizzaiolo and Best Pizza (reviewed here) owner Frank Pinello. —MS
Name: Frank Pinello
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Best Pizza Pizzaiolo/Owner
What type of pizza do you prefer?
I prefer by the slice Sicilian pizza. I grew up eating square slices from J&V, which is a popular pizzeria on 18th, right by the train in Bensonhurst. That was my childhood go-to.
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 don't remember my first slice of pizza, but I fully agree with that; that the childhood memory of pizza is so powerful. My first slice of pizza that I remember as a kid is the focaccia pizza that my grandmother makes, and still makes to this day. It's a really fluffy, Sicilian-style pizza made in a pan that is made with semolina flour. Every time that she makes it I go nuts for it because it brings me back to my childhood.
I always tell people in my neighborhood that I always wanted to have a great neighborhood pizzeria. And I always wanted the same kids that were growing up in the neighborhood, when they would come how from college in 20 years, I want them to race back to Best Pizza because that what reminds them of home.
You want to be the pizza memory maker.
I do. I want to be that guy that the kids come back to and say we miss your pizza.
I grew up in a time when pizza was in its glory days, especially in Brooklyn. I think that the quality of by-the-slice pizza really started getting lower and lower as I got older. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to open a pizzeria. I really wanted to revisit the days when all those old Italian immigrants were coming in and applying the old values. They played by those rules even when they came here. Their's was a style of making pizza that existed, but it started to go away and I want to bring it back.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
My favorite topping combo is pepperoni and raw onions.
I have this thing about cured meats. I hate that nitrate taste. For Best, I went crazy looking for a classic pepperoni— not a soppresata or cappicola. Not a fancy salami, but rather a classic pepperoni, and we finally found it in Salumeria Biellese's pepperoni. They're actually here today. They have a table a couple of booths down. They have classic pepperoni done right.
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
I have two places that I like pizza. I love Roberta's Pizza, and I'm not just saying that because they're my partners. They make a special pizza, and I really love it. We have a lot of the same ideals. It's a personal pizza.
My second favorite pizzeria by the slice is Di Fara's. Domenico is a craftsman and he's been doing it for years. Owning my own place, and now into the first year, I know what it takes to be there every day, and for him to be doing it for so long, I respect that. He's one of the gods in the game right now.
This is the part where we usually ask if you make pizza at home and what recipes you use. Since you make pizza all day, maybe a better question is, how did you settle on the recipes that you use at Best?
I knew one thing. When we were opening the pizzeria there were a lot of people out there, especially Roberta's, that were doing really wild stuff. I love that, but I wanted to focus on classic combinations. I wanted to focus on combinations that I grew up eating.
I didn't want to come out of the blue with these crazy, wild pizzas. Our white pizza is really classic in terms of Sicilian food where you have ricotta, and it's matched up with caramelized onions and sesame seeds. And then when we did the grandma sauce... You know grandma pizza started being replicated all over Brooklyn, Long Island. We tried to take it up a notch with some anchovies and then make it a little more funky. And then our veggie pizza, people think it's crazy, but it's just pickled fennel. (Check out the recipe here.) It's what I grew up eating. I always loved those acidic flavors.
We wanted a by the slice pizzeria, you always get a white slice, a regular slice, some kind of a square, which is the Sicilian or grandma, garlic knots, soda. We try to do all those things in a way that is affordable, but we really care about the ingredients.
What's the difference in your Sicilian and thin crust dough?
The difference in dough between the Sicilian and thin crust is just the proofing process. It's the same dough, it's just a matter of how it's treated after it's made. All of the doughs are made into rounds that we keep in small round aluminum trays. The guys from Ducali's use the same ones. If you've ever been there you might have seen them. It's sort of an old school New York way of holding dough. For rounds we just take them straight out and make the pizza. For square, we take them and pat them dry and stretch them on the marble. Then we transfer them to a half sheet tray and press them in a little and let them rise.
So what do you think should NEVER go on a pizza?
I've got so many. I'm not a big chicken guy. I see people putting all types of weird sh*t on pizza. It's not for me. I'm much more on the traditional side of thing.
What's the weirdest pizza you've eaten?
I can't shake the image of the Philly Cheesesteak slice I once had.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
I've been to Sicily a lot, but more for family. I mean, sure, I eat pizza too. So, I guess you could say I've been to Sicily for pizza. I've been to France for pizza! I went on a crazy trip to Spain and France to eat. The crazy guy that I was with decided that he needed me to eat French pizza, which I was disappointed with.
I'll go up to Harlem to Patsy's for pizza. That's a big trip.
Speaking of family, what does your family think about your passion for pizza?
I come from this amazing food family where every single day revolved around what we were eating. When I woke up in the morning, the questions were: what do you want to have for lunch; what do you want to have for dinner; what are we having for dinner tomorrow? It was very food-centric childhood. My mother and grandmother were always slaving in the kitchen, cooking for us, but happy to do it.
I'm lucky to have my family really close by. At least once a week I have a family member in my pizzeria. They embrace it totally. And my grandmother, who is my idol as far as cooking goes, is my biggest fan.
Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?
I'm disappointed in corporate America. I'm disappointed in food that's shoved down America's throats. I'm really angry at the quick service industry and fast food industry. I know that there are decisions being made on a higher level that are unhealthy decisions. That they continue to market shitty food to people that can't afford good food.
On the pizza side of things, there are crooks in NY, taking shitty products: waxy cheese, sauce that comes out of cans; dough that 90% of the time isn't being made in their restaurants. And it all has to do with the stronghold of certain companies making it easy. It's not hard to do good food. But it's really easy to do bad food. A lot of people get in the quick service industry just to make a buck, so they take the easy route. It's frustrating when I walk by those kind of pizzerias and see what they put on a plate. It's uninspired.
Who would you like to see interviewed next?
You know who I love? I'm really fascinated with Chris Bianco. I'd work down there with him for free for a week if he would let me.
Thanks to Frank for taking time after a long day on Governor's Island to answer our Pizza Obsessive questions. You're the Best.