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Paulie Gee on Belief, Baltimore, and Being Your Own Boss (Part 1)

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

If you've found your way over to Slice, there's a good chance you've heard of Paulie Gee; if you've ever considered opening up your own pizzeria, it's a virtual certainty. In less than six years, Paulie Giannone made the leap from corporate lifer to backyard pizzaiolo to bona fide pizza superstar.

His pizzeria in Greenpoint is critically acclaimed (especially here on Slice) and wildly successful. Most recently, he's partnered with Pizzablogger to open up a branch in Baltimore. In short, he's a man worth listening to on the subject of pie.

Paulie's done plenty of interviews about his rise, and he's even answered questions directly from Slicers, but he's rarely as candid as he was when he opened up to us about his amazing journey. There's a lot of pizza talk to be sure. So much, in fact, that we'll be running our interview in segments. So keep an eye out for part two next week; in the meantime, here's Paulie on the joys of opening a restaurant, the importance of hiring locally, and why he thinks more people ought to open their own business.

So Paulie Gee's Hampden seems to be days away from opening.

Eh. Not days.

Has anything changed since you gave the lowdown to Adam six months ago? Are you still doing two ovens?

Yeah, everything's the same. It won't be long at all, there's not that much to do. The ovens are on the high seas. Everything's bought and paid for. As frustrating as delay is, the great thing is that it seems to have built up a really good level of anticipation and curiosity. So hopefully that'll help.

Editor's note: Strike that, the ovens have arrived!

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[Photograph: Francesca Ferrara]

Going way back, I know you made the rounds to a bunch of shops before you opened Paulie Gee's. Was there one person or one piece of advice that really stands out in hindsight?

I guess the person who instilled more belief in me than anyone was Mark Iacono. He was a 30-something construction guy with absolutely no formal training who opened up a place and literally overnight became the most popular pizzeria in NYC (Lucali's). I sought Mark's advice and I continue to do so to this day. He was really generous and encouraging. One thing he said that I remember to this day was, "It's not a foot traffic business," and I certainly proved that in Greenpoint.

But I got so much good advice from so many people. Tom Grim from Nomad Pizza, I always remember him saying, "It's just pizza." He's right. It's just pizza.

You've been in business for a little over three years now. Is running a pizzeria pretty much what you expected it to be like?

It's really beyond my wildest dreams. I remember people telling me how tough the restaurant business is, and it took me two years to realize, "Hey, people used to tell me the restaurant business was tough." To me it's not because I'm just doing what I love, you know what I mean? I'm not doing it for the money—I mean I'm doing it for the money, but I'm not doin' it for the money. I'm here to feed people, entertain them, and that just comes naturally.

My whole life I worked for somebody else and now I have no boss and I couldn't be happier about that. I consciously didn't take on a partner and I just love being the decision maker. I don't have to second guess whatever I do or answer to anybody. My investors are friends and family and whatever I do is fine with them.

But I never thought I would get the accolades that I have. I would've just been happy to open up and keep the place going, and it's gone far beyond that. And I can't believe people wait as long as they do to eat my pizza. I never imagined that. On a busy night the wait's up to two hours. And people are willing to wait, that's the thing. So I couldn't have imagined any of this. I did imagine myself being the one to make the pizza all the time. Thank God I was able to get out and not do that because then I think it would have seemed like work.

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

You're definitely the most famous civilian to go pro. I imagine people come up to you all the time and say, "I want to do this, too." What do you think made you successful?

My personality was suited for talking with customers. And I love to cook so I enjoyed that part. But I don't think everyone can just go out and talk to people in a restaurant. The reason I did this is because I had to make a life for myself. I also had a freight train coming at me and that made me push harder.

I was just talking to someone recently who's really into pizza and he said he always wanted to do something but he was waiting until it wasn't that much of a risk, or until he could at least afford it. Well, you really work your hardest when you can't afford the risk and you gotta make it happen. And that was it for me. I had to make this happen. It wasn't just a hobby.

What was that freight train?

Debt. And I had to do something with my life that I enjoyed. Being where I was, I spent a lot of money, my family was very happy, we had a nice home to live in, but I wanted to feel good about what I was doing. If ever I was to go to a high school reunion, I wanted to feel really good when I went back. Not that I'm goin', I didn't finish high school anyway, but I always wanted to do something that made me feel like I maximized my potential. Finally, I put myself in the position where, you know, I just had to step out and walk through that wall of fear and make things happen. Another thing that was a big motivator for me was Glengarry Glen Ross. Have you seen it?

Oh yeah, I love it. I've seen it about eight times.

You remember the Jack Lemmon character?

Of course. Shelley Levene.

I deathly feared being that character. I tell people all the time...I masqueraded as a computer geek. I'm not making that up. I grinded it out, but I was competing with people who had a natural talent and thirst for the tech world. I didn't. It's just the career I chose. I thought that eventually I could end up scrambling around for money, sitting in some office trying to sell somebody the leads like Shelley. So that propelled me. The other thing that was a motivator for me was my children. They have within them what I have within me, so I had to show them what I had within me had great possibility. I can't tell them to do something with their life without me doing something with mine.

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The Triumphant Return of Moe Cheeks. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

It's funny you bring up a movie character because I know you're a pretty big TV guy. What's a hidden gem someone could find on Netflix?

You know, I love Enlightened on HBO. Everyone knows about Portlandia. I love The Americans and Magic City. That just started up again. There's just so much out there now, my guys in the kitchen were talking about Breaking Bad and as we're talking I was thinking I should try watching it again.

Are you serious? Yes, you have to!

We'll see what happens. There's only so much time in the day. The stuff that I love to watch has to do with me. I love Enlightened because I'm not in that world anymore and it makes me feel so good to know that I did something to get out of the mess that I was in. There's also a movie that's been on cable I can't stop watching, The Company Men. It makes me feel so good. Thank God I had the balls to go do something like this. A lot of people know they should but they don't for whatever reason, they're not in the position to make it happen, but it makes me feel so good that I was able to figure it out and push my way through.

The most important thing about this whole pizza experience is that it has nothing to do with pizza It's standing up on your own two feet and not being afraid to make something happen for yourself. Pizza gave me courage because I knew it was simple. I didn't have to have a pastry chef or a sous chef or this and that. It emboldened me to find a way to be self-sufficient. Don't choose a career just because it's going to be lucrative. I tell people all the time, when you're working for someone else, you're working for someone else's dreams.

There are exceptions to that, I'm not going to say that about a teacher. Yeah, you're working for the Board of Ed, but you're really working for the satisfaction of broadening minds. If you're a doctor or a nurse and you care for people, it's a noble vocation. But me? I worked for ATT and Lucent, and what the heck was I doing? I was making it easier for them to bill customers. I was trading my time for money. I wasn't getting self-satisfaction out of it. I thought I was—"Oh, I got a promotion." Big deal. But with this restaurant, I created something that's an extension of me.

People ask me if I'm going to open up another place. They say, "You could make a lot of money in Manhattan." Well, no. I am one with this place. Without me it would just be an asset to generate revenue. Look at my Yelp reviews, it blows my mind how many talk about how the owner came up to them. I had no idea it was so important to people. So why would I open up another place? It's not going to be the same. I knew that there were limitations to what I set out, and I accepted that.

At the same time...there's Paulie Gee's Hampden.

I did want to make it grow, but I learned you help yourself by helping other people. I met Chris Bianco. We drank together on an empty stomach, me, my son, and him, so I don't remember every ounce of wisdom, but he validated a lot of things I did already which made me feel great.

But the other thing was, after I thanked him profusely for spending time with me and answering my questions he said, "Paulie, don't thank me, just pay it forward." I always remember that and I've been keeping up my end of the bargain. It's been impossible for me to turn down anyone's request for advice.

Now, when people come and ask me about stuff I tell them. I was in Fornino the other day, talking to him and wishing him luck on his new place here in Greenpoint, and we got to talking about dough recipes and this and that, and it's like...everything's a big secret. Lou T and Adam Kuban are working here on Sundays during the day, and I've got this kid Jimmy Coponi coming in to hang out in the kitchen.

I told him about Adam and Lou and he got all excited and, you know, people are like, "don't let him see anything." But you know what? You can't hide that stuff. I have the recipe written down on a piece of paper for my dough. If somebody wants it, I'm not here all day. Somebody could take it, make a copy of it, whatever. You can't do that. I play around and talk about my secretly sourced tomatoes, but it's not about that. It's more than just being able to make a good pizza, so I help people. I encourage them, if they wanna do something—like with me, like with Kelly—that's great. If not, so be it.

Want to see the rest? Click here to read Part 2 of the interview »

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About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.

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