"I remember seeing José shoveling coal in the oven, firing it up during hot summer months with only a fan to cool him."
Some sad news just arrived in the Slice inbox, courtesy of NYC tour guide Jared Goldstein:
I am sorry to share the passing of one of America's great chefs—and a great guy—José Jiminez, on December 7, 2009.
Jiminez, who immigrated from Ecuador, was the East Harlem Patsy's pizza chef and cook since 1977. He learned how to make their special pies from the previous pizza master, back when Carmella, "Mrs. Patsy" was alive.
Patsy's has been open since 1937, and Frank Sinatra was said to have its pies flown to him in L.A. It has one of NYC's original brick, coal-fired ovens, reaching temperatures of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. I remember seeing José shoveling coal in the oven, firing it up during hot summer months with only a fan to cool him. The place was packed; the pizza superb.
Patsy's is on 118th Street and First Avenue in what was once an Italian neighborhood but went through some rough times since. In the 1980s and 1990s the area suffered from the crack epidemic. Back then, Patsy's was probably the only pizza place in New York open until 3 or 4 a.m. Certainly in that neighborhood.
I've been going there since 1986 or so, when I was at Columbia College on the other side of Manhattan. In 1989, after seeing Batman late one night, my friends and I took a cab to Patsy's. The cab driver said: "You want to go where? For what?!" We had him wait outside with the meter running and gave him a few slices.
Another time I remember us driving by the projects above 100th Street on First Avenue when we saw people running across the avenue. Screaming. Then, pow! pow! Gunshots.
Another time I was there, it was Fourth of July. In those days, New Yorkers in the 'hoods really took that "bombs bursting in the air" thing seriously. A car was burning!
José was there through all of this. Always smiling, welcoming, asking about my friends, shaking my hand, showing us the oven's flames burning blue hot, and making the best pizza.
Decades ago, I remember seeing José shucking clams by the front window, which had a contraption to catch the shells. He did it so rapidly and efficiently.
José was the master pizza maker for Patsy's, and he would make extra dough for his days off.
José was one of a kind. He was very talented.
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