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Paulie Gee on Belief, Baltimore, and Being Your Own Boss (Part 2)
Last week, we ran Part 1 of our in-depth interview with Paul Giannone, pizzaiolo extraordinaire and owner of the acclaimed Brooklyn pizzeria Paulie Gee's. In the midst of readying himself to open a new branch in Baltimore, Paulie agreed to sit down with us and talk about his whirlwind journey from IT desk jockey to pizza legend. Today, we pick up with Part 2!
In my experience, once somebody opens a place they usually don't have the time or inclination to eat a lot of other people's pizza, but according to your Twitter, you're doing it all the time.
Well, I love pizza. And I'm only around one kind of pizza every day. Typically you won't see me go out and have Napoli-done or Napoli-inspired pizza. But I love it. And that's why I think things went so well for me in the first place. You know, my restaurant opens at six o'clock so there's plenty of opportunity to do that. People see me and ask me all the time, "Oh, are you doing research?" and I say no, I just like to eat pizza.
You collect shirts and ballcaps from different places, right? Which one's your favorite one?
I stopped collecting t-shirts because I like to wear a shirt with a collar and most of the time you don't find those at pizzerias. But I do have a favorite hat. I mean, I have so many I like but I have this Cane Rosso hat and it just looks so good on me, no matter what which pair of glasses I'm wearing. I just love that hat.
What's the place again?
Cane Rosso. It's the only place that has a pizza named a Paulie Gee. Not even here.
What's on the pie?
It's hot soppresata, caramelized onions, and Calabrian chiles. The reason the guy, Jay Jerrier, named it after me is that I've always been a proponent of using soppresata on a pizza rather than pepperoni.
...Steve Menna was here for like two days.
Yeah, I like the guy, but he wasn't here very long at all. But there are a lot of people who come through here and I do that intentionally. I find that you get a different work ethic from people like that. They're not doing it for the money. I mean, you don't make a lot of money making pizza. If you're here for the money...it's not gonna be too good. And typically I start by paying them nothing. People are willing to come here and work for free and it doesn't last long but that's what I do. And they work hard at learning and getting better because they want to do this themselves.
So who do I have to kill to get a Paulie Gee Los Angeles?
You don't have to kill anybody. I'm workin' on that, pal. But when I do something I want to do it with people like Kelly, a pizza enthusiast. Legally, I had to form a franchise company, but I am not lookin' to sell franchises to people. I'm looking to find other people who want to be like me, and for a price I'll teach them everything I've learned along the way so far. But I want to be able to help people experience what I've experienced. I want them to feel the freedom and the happiness that I've been able to bring into my life. But it has to be the right person.
I also look for a neighborhood like this, where it's a community. I was curious if something could work in Miami and I what I found were neighborhoods that have restaurants and bars like we have around here, but they don't have any residents. People would drive there, it was sort of like a destination, but it wasn't a community. Where we're opening in Baltimore is very much Greenpoint. I have a few cities where I want to do something and when I find the right person, I mention it to them. I tell them where to find me if they're interested, and if I hear back from them then I know maybe I found the right person. Maybe. And we go from there.
You mentioned that you never wanted a partner, so what's it been like working with Kelly? What makes that different than a partner in your own place?
It's Kelly's restaurant. For him to do what I do, it has to be his. I give him advice and I tell him some of the stuff that I learned, but he's dealing with the building department, he's dealing with the community, he's doing all of those things, and he's learning along the way. I'm helping him be his own person. I'm giving him the tools to do it and it's exciting. I just let him go with it, otherwise, he's not going to go at it the way I've gone at this. What I enjoy is getting people pumped up about this.
Going back, it wasn't about the pizza as much as creating a job for myself, that's really what I did. I was tired of working and worrying about where my next paycheck was going to come from, so I created my own job. Not enough people do that these days, not enough people are willing to take care of themselves. I think they're afraid, more afraid than ever, because they think that the economy is bad, and if they do take a chance and things don't work out, where do they have to turn? There are fewer places to turn than, say, 20 years ago. But to do something that I enjoy that's effortless for me and reaps rewards, it's an amazing thing. And I'd like to encourage more people to do that.
Two of the greatest things that came about through this thing are, number one, I got to go to the Columbia Graduate School of Business and speak to those students. How ironic is that? Here's someone who didn't finish high school, and they're there looking to me for advice, and...I couldn't talk, Lance, I couldn't talk. I was too choked up. It was very difficult for me to get through answering their questions, but I was showing them through my example that this is what you do with your life. You create something that people want and you make sure that they're happy with it. And hopefully some of them got it because a lot of them are wasting their parents' money.
The other thing I got to do was I was on The Today Show. Jane Pauley does this thing, "Your Life Calling." The purpose of it is to show that there's life after 50, and sometimes an even better life than you had in the first place, and it was great to be a living example of that. I felt really good about being featured on the show and then they invited me to New Orleans to speak at the AARP conference to talk about experiences there. It's such a satisfying thing to be able to talk to people and let them know that whatever it is they're doing, they can do something that's going to make them happier. Doing those two things was very satisfying.
Do you think you could have done this at 25 or 30? Or do you think you needed the experience of your life to get here?
What I needed was the things that I learned along the way. One of the things I did before was I got involved in multi-level marketing. And as it turns out...it didn't work. But along the way, one of the things they do is they encourage you to be positive and go out and make commitments. And you go to these conferences where they bring people in to talk about things like belief and commitment. And those are two very powerful things for me. They teach you how to speak it into existence and I did a lot of that. I also learned to smile when I talked to people, and I was encouraged to read.
The greatest book I ever read, and I never wanted to read it, was How To Win Friends And Influence People. From the outside it just seemed like this old book that was teaching people to be manipulative, but once I read it, it really taught me a lot. And it's just so discouraging that when kids go to school, especially high school kids, they're at an age where reading books like that could really help them. And you never, ever see anything like that taught in the high schools.
So I learned a lot from that whole experience: setting goals, going out and saying you're going to do something. And the same thing in the corporate world, they had me doing corporate training and a lot of it had to do with believing in yourself. They send you out for these training sessions. And that really helped me when I finally did this.
I should have asked you this before. When did you actually start making pizza?
The very first pie I actually made, and I used store-bought dough, was Thanksgiving Eve, 2007. I'd never made pizza before. When I decided I wanted to open up a pizzeria, that's when I built an oven at home. I used to buy Boboli or something and I'd put sauce and basil and fresh muzz on it, that kind of thing, but I never ever made pizza. I was making the fresh muzz from day one, but I was buying the dough at Stop & Shop.
That was easy, but then I said I had to start with the dough. Like I said before, you need to believe. And I didn't have that belief yet, but I told myself I could do this, I could actually make a pizza in an oven. But when I was actually able to build a fire in an oven and have a pizza come out that actually tasted decent, the flood gates open.
People now talk about your pizza in the upper echelon. That's a pretty quick and meteoric rise from 2007. How did you get it to such a high level so quickly?
I was very determined. I kept on testing and experimenting for a couple years until I got it right. Every two weeks, on average, I would have a pizza tasting year-round, and I kept playing with the dough recipe. When we opened up, we were very fortunate that the community wanted us to succeed and they were willing to overlook a lot of our blemishes. You go back and look at some pictures from when we opened up...the dough wasn't stretched far enough, I was leaving too much dough in the crust.
I had a kid come in and volunteer the summer of 2010, his name's Tom Kirton, he opened up a place in New Zealand called Tommy Millions...he had some tricks with the dough. And there was another guy in Austin now, Clint Elsmore, this attorney who had studied in Naples with Enzo Coccia, who contributed. But for those six months I really had to play with it. The guys at Nomad, they told me that the longer you can keep the dough, the better it's going to be, but it gets difficult to work with. So I kind of pushed the envelope on that, I pushed it an extra day. I wish I had known ahead of time because my walk-in's not big enough to keep an extra day's worth of dough now.
It's perception, as well. I'm a good story, I'm like other people. People see me and it wasn't like I went to school in Naples or was some guy who came over from Naples with a red neckerchief around my neck, or this expert pizza guy. I was just another guy like everybody else. And I think a lot of people liked that. I think that helped, they accepted it more, they looked at my pizza with a less jaundiced eye, I think.
So the fact that you weren't throwing your credentials in anybody's face was a plus?
One of the things that shaped the pizzas that I serve now is that I very much did not create an Italian pizzeria. My oven isn't red, white, and green, I don't have any quattro formaggi pizzas on there, I don't call my pies "pizze," anything like that. And also with the ingredients...I mean, I put guanciale on a few of my pies, and I use hot soppresata, but I use combinations that the Italians would never use like pickled grapes because I wanted to get away from those standards. I like to contrast sweet and savory when I can, so I came up with a different kind of menu because of that. You go into my restaurant and it does not look like an Italian place at all and that was intentional. The oven is certainly Italian, that's where it was made, and it says Napoli on it, but I don't have a Napoli soccer flag hanging in back of it. That doesn't have anything to do with what you call my "meteoric rise," but it made me a little different.
How much do you think your personality and your story affected the reaction to your restaurant and do you think anybody else can learn from that? Or do you think it was just you being you?
Here, it is. My entire corporate career I suffered from extreme stage fright. I'd be sick to my stomach the night before I had to make a presentation in front of a big crowd or even a meeting. Sick to my stomach! But it's because I was talking to people that knew a lot more about what I was talking about than I did in a lot of cases. But I feel really comfortable talking about what I've done because I'm talking about me and my journey, I'm talking about the pizza that I make, and I love doing it now. I look forward to it. I've been on TV and I've never, ever gotten that feeling in my stomach. I had Jane Pauley talking to me, I knew I had millions of people watching and it never crossed my mind because I'm comfortable talking about what I'm talking about. And I think that helped. Does that answer your question?
Do you think it applies to other people though? How important is a story to a pizzeria now? Or do you think you can get by just on pizza?
First and foremost you have to make a good product because that's what people are looking for. But they're also looking for more. I don't know why people like "the story," I never got that. I don't give a damn about a story when I go to Motorino or whatever. But obviously it is important. The other thing that's important is, I did not create a restaurant to sell pizza, I created a dining experience. I wanted to be a part of North Brooklyn and what was going on there. To do that, I had to fit in with people that are not like me. And I was very fortunate to seek out the Haslegrave Brothers. I knew that if I could get them to contribute to my restaurant—I didn't think I could afford for them to do the whole thing—but if I could get them to contribute to it, then I would be more accepted in the neighborhood. I also thought that they had a lot of friends, and they'd come to the restaurant and want to hang out there, and that would help it be more successful, so I went out of my way to get them involved so I could bond with the community. Along the way they built me a restaurant that's incredibly seductive and that was not my plan at all.
What did you have in mind in the very beginning?
My inspiration was Roberta's. You go to Roberta's, it was a cinder block space where they used to fix cars. Now it's a cinder block space without the cars and some cheap tables. Obviously they expanded out in the back, but that's what it was. And in spite of that, you go in there and it felt very special. I said, "Ya know what, I don't have to worry about spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars...if you just focus on the pizza and everything will be fine." So I didn't go overboard on that, which financially could've crushed me. The restaurant could have been owned by someone other than me. Now I'm using that model with other people. Down in Baltimore, the only way Kelly could afford to do this was to take the space down there the way it was, and leave it that way. It happened to be a very cool space and the irony of Napoli-inspired pizza being made in a Republican Club has pretty great.
It obviously turned into something more.
I thought I was just going to take the restaurant the way it was and throw the ovens in. They created something that, fortunately for me, is just incredible. People want to come to my restaurant for a dining experience, not just to get pizza. There's plenty of people doing really great pizza. You can go to Forcello, you can go to Motorino, you can go to Keste. But there's something a little different when you come into my place. I'm very fortunate that I was able to team up with the Haslegraves. I owe them my life.
And here's the other thing. I loved the neighborhood atmosphere, the community atmosphere at Roberta's. I was infatuated with that, I really was. You go in there and you feel like you're someplace special. And part of that was that it wasn't some restaurant where the guy's just trying to make money. I know people who will hire really cheap labor wherever they can get it, but those aren't the people that come in the restaurant, and it doesn't feel like a neighborhood place that way. I love going to a place like Roberta's, where the employees are like the same people coming into eat.
So I love hiring local people. Not because I'm going to save the world by not having some guy drive 30 miles to the restaurant every day to work, but because if we have a problem they can walk to work. Plus, they're part of the community, their friends are going to want to come in, and it just works that way. You walk in my kitchen and it's the same people as out front. That was very important.
Your menu is big and pretty creative.
Eh, it's not that big.
Who else is doing, like, 20 pizzas?
Look at Fornino's menu. And I also don't really let people make up their own pizzas, I come up with pizza that I think works so I gotta have a selection. We started with a specials list of like four pies, and whenever we came up with a pie that we liked it went on the regular menu to the point where I said, "let's forget the specials menu." And you get a pie that's really a hit, what am I going to do? Take it off to make room for another one?
It's very difficult. It's very dark in here, which I will not relent on, and I have to make the print on the menu very small, but that's what I gotta do. And it's kind of frustrating because now there's really not room for more pizza without taking off a pie that people love. The Regina (Fresh Mozzarella, Italian Tomatoes, Pecorino Romano, Olive Oil and Fresh Basil), I wish I didn't have to have it on the menu because everybody says, "I have to have the Regina to compare you to other people." And to me, that's nonsense.
Compare what I do well to what other people do well. Compare my strengths to their strengths if you want. But I wish people wouldn't compare...just eat my friggin' pizza. I hate when people say, "I like your pizza better than here or there." That's not the idea. I love wearing other peoples' gear to send that message across. I'm not doing this to be better than somebody else, I'm doing it to make good pizza.
Are there any crazy combinations that you thought were going to be amazing but that ended up being horrible?
I never think that anything's going to be amazing, but last night I put some cashew ricotta on a pie pre-oven and put in the oven to see how that would work because I don't really like putting Daiya on the menu. I was looking to see if we could do something for vegans who want melted cheese on their pizza and it tasted like bad mashed potatoes.
You recently took a pretty amazing trip to Italy. How important do you think that pilgrimage to Italy is for a pizza person? What are you going to get there that you aren't going to get here, and where do you think New York stacks up now?
It really is apples and oranges. I found that pizza there is not taken seriously. It's just sort of there. And people make it well, but it's not like here where pizza has this cult status. However, the best pizza I ever had in my life I had in Rome. It wasn't Napoli-style pizza, it was pizza al taglio from a place called Pizzarium, and it was on a re-heat. They make these big long pizzas, they cut 'em by whatever size you want, and they re-heat it and it was out of this world. I was really surprised. But the other pizza I had in Italy was not remarkable—except for Da Michele. The rest of it was very good, but I've had just as good here.
There's this Anthony Mangieri quote where he says by the time he went to Naples he was already making pizza better than they were over there and since then it's been ten years and he's a million times better. And when I read it I thought it was kind of outrageous...but I kind of understood what he meant after I went there. Maybe not to that extent. But his pizza is better than the pizza I had in Naples. I had pizza in Capri, and Naples, and on the Amalfi Coast...and the pizza was all very good. But it was not better than anything I've had here in New York. Except for Da Michele. I didn't go to every place, but it's just like Tom from Nomad said, "It's just pizza."
I have this weird obsession with identifying the most important step in the pizzamaking process. Like there's concept, recipe, sourcing, doughmaking, prep, stretching and topping a pie, and cooking it. They're all important, but what's the most crucial step in your opinion?
Well, the oven. Because how well you prepare everything and how much you spend on ingredients, a few seconds too long in the oven and it's in the garbage can. In fact, that's the most important thing, the garbage can. Don't be afraid to throw it in the garbage can.
I can't imagine you're doing a lot of that now.
No, the pizzamakers have gotten to the point where they can do four pies in the oven and they get them out when they have to. The dough, once in a while we get some holes. We carry the dough over sometimes—there's no waste in the pizza business by the way—and it tastes better the next day but it's more delicate so sometimes we'll rip them. If they go in the garbage, that's typically why. The most important thing is that oven, but first you have to do all those other things to get you there.
Some pretty great Neapolitan places are still opening and doing well in New York. In other cities they're opening but maybe they're not the best quality. Where do you think pizza is going in the next 10 years? Do you think a new style will catch fire or is Neapolitan just going to get more creative as people stop worrying about orthodoxy as much?
I think something new's going to emerge. This Roman style pizza I had at Pizzarium has a lot of potential if you're doing it right. The crust was just amazing. And Tom from Nomad is opening up a new place in Philly, a Roman style place. That's where there's room for creativity and going in a different direction. But I think that if the economy ever gets better, I think you'll see people going away for pizza and more towards more expensive fare. But for now, pizza and burger and mac 'n' cheese, and other comfort foods are king, and it'll stay that way as long as the economy sucks.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.