Paulie Gee's Pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Paulie Gee, On Living The Dream (From Pizza-Questing To Pizza-Making)

You do your best every day to realize your dreams. But how many people get to see their dreams come true? And if and when they come true, how does what was dreamed measure up to reality? There’s man in Brooklyn making pizza who may be best suited to answer these questions, Paul Giannone. Or as New Yorkers are starting to know him, Paulie Gee.

As recently as February 2009, Paulie was profiled by talking about a pizzeria as a ways off. Last week he broke from making Neapolitan pies to discuss Paulie Gee’s, his pizzeria in Greenpoint.

Paulie, you’re living a dream here, aren’t you? How did this come to be?
Paulie: I always loved to cook, I’d invite people over my house just so I could cook for them. You know, for the past 25 years, people have been encouraging me to open a restaurant. What I did for a living wasn’t what I really enjoyed. But opening a real restaurant always seemed daunting.

And so…pizza?
About 15 years ago I become a pizza enthusiast after visiting Totonno’s. Me and my sons started going on quests for good coal-oven pizza. You know, pizza is very challenging to make, but it’s also very simple. And I started to realize that serving it to people could be very simple.

How did you go from pizza-questing to pizza-making?
Up until about three years ago, I didn’t take it very seriously. Then I built an oven. I started in September 2007, I was going to buy one, and then I saw that I could build one for one-tenth the cost, and I went out and took one of the steps that was the point of no return: I bought a couple of hundred dollars worth of bricks.

How did you know how to make your oven?
I found a plan on Forno Bravo. You can buy ovens through their site, and there’s a pizza enthusiast community there also. But they also just put the oven plans out there. A friend helped me a little. I mean, I did most of the work, but my friend did some of the more complex masonry. I had him build the chimney. My son challenged me to get it done in time for when he was coming home from college for Thanksgiving. He was like, “You can’t just talk shit.” He threw the gauntlet down.

“Just the fact that people want to take my picture, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. It’s becoming something I didn’t know it would become. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.” — Paul Giannone

Did you make it in time?
If you look on my Flickr page, you’ll see the progress I made, step-by-step. There’s one where I put up a tent, cause it was raining. No excuse just because it’s raining, right? I pulled my first pie out the night before Thanksgiving. I always taught my sons to set goals. Setting goals is a very important thing. If you set goals you can make things happen. That was my first pizza. I bought the dough at the Stop & Shop.

So then you had an oven. Then what happened?
Every few weeks I’d have people over. I kept on having tastings [check out the tasting attended by Slice’s Adam Kuban]. I started making my own dough.

How did you develop your dough recipe?
I bought a book called American Pie by Peter Reinhart. He’s a master baker. He wrote a famous book called The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, all about his adventures seeking out great pizza. And he had a couple of Napoli done style recipes. It’s a very simple recipe that I use. There are four ingredients: water, salt, flour, and yeast, and that’s it.

Is there someone’s pizza that you try to emulate?
I love Motorino’s pizza. He makes great pizza. Kesté makes great pizza. But I love Motorino. Mathieu Palombino was also very helpful to me, he answered a lot of questions. But other people have helped me as well. Nomad Pizza in Hopewell, New Jersey.

One place I love is Roberta’s. I love Roberta’s, absolutely. When I opened up my chef called in sick on days one, two, and three. I called Chris [Parachini] and his girlfriend Sarah, and they got two of their best people to help me out on friends and family night.

How did you settle on Brooklyn as the site for Paulie Gee’s?
I was going to open in New Jersey. I was thinking about Morristown and Madison, but I really wanted to create something special. I didn’t want to create drudgery. To make money selling slices of pizza. There are a few people that sell slices that can be proud of what they’re doing, but this was going to be my retirement. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, I knew that wasn’t going to happen in Madison, New Jersey.

Brooklyn is still pretty far from Morristown, no?
As I told Adam Kuban, I want to be mentioned in the same breath as Chris Bianco and Anthony Mangieri. I got him to mention me in the same breath [laughs], but I can’t compare myself to them. I’m just starting out. But I wanted people to know me and know me as someone who is creating a real pizza experience. I was thinking about Jersey City, and I started looking around there. It didn’t have quite the same buzz as Brooklyn. I was driving with my son and he said, “Well, Brooklyn’s the pizza capital of the world.” You know, Brooklyn’s coming into its own again, and I wanted to be a part of it.

And Greenpoint?
I love Williamsburg. But Mathieu is there with Motorino and I felt like I’d be stopping on his toes. Same thing with Fornino. Someone advised me to check out Park Slope. But I kept on being drawn back to this part of Brooklyn. I love the people here. They’re younger and they have more attitude. And I knew that people would remember me a lot longer if I did this the right way.

And you continued your job while you worked on the restaurant?
First I wanted to see if I could get this thing started without giving up my job. Then I just realized that that would be too much split focus.

There’s a great feeling in here. It’s very Roberta’s-like. How did you come up with the decor?
I didn’t want to buy all matching cane-backed chairs. I mentioned this to someone I was interviewing, and she said you should check out Build It Green. And my wife and I ate at Lomzynianka, the Polish restaurant whose name no one can say, which Frank Bruni reviewed before retiring as critic. Great food by the way. And I said, come on honey, let’s go check out Manhattan Inn, which “was built almost entirely from stuff from Build It Green. I walked in and it just blew me away, how nice it was.

What was it you liked so much?
It was old, it was new. The perfect example more than anything else was the sconces. They had sconces on the wall that were made out of sugar canisters. They just did all kind of ingenious things to reuse things. I was thinking small. You know before you think big you think small. It helps you get up the courage to think bigger.

I had them build tables for me. They came here they looked at the space, and they really loved it they said we’d like to do more for you. This place, I look at it now, and I’m just astounded how much they transformed it. Even if I have something special here, even if I was making the best pizza in the City, and I’m not yet, I think what they created here is going to outshine the pizza.

And the oven?
At first, I wanted to build it. But I wanted to have an oven that was built in Naples. Eventually, I hunted down an oven maker, Stefano Ferrara, who I thought was very good. I sent him a picture of my oven at home, and that tattoo I had on it.

So how did you make this all happen?
I got to where I got by setting a goal, and telling people I was going to do it. Once you do that you can’t change your mind. And I knew that, and that’s why I did that. And that’s how I got here. I really didn’t want to do what I was doing anymore. I had no place else to turn unless I wanted to keep on masquerading as a software geek.

But this is beyond my wildest dreams, it really is. But I have very carefully promoted myself. You know, I didn’t have the money to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a PR firm, I was a pizza enthusiast. The pizza tastings I held took on a life of their own. People wanted to drive to my house. Some of them were willing to drive 40 miles to come to my house, or more. Like Pizzablogger.

So, are you going to work in the Dom DeMarco mold? Making every pie yourself?
I thought I was. I thought Dom DeMarco is the one guy that makes his own pizza. Chris Bianco is the one guy who makes his own pizza. I’m going to be the guy who makes all his pizza too. And I stood there on Friends and Family Night and I was overwhelmed. I started doing the math, and every one of those places has about 30 seats, and I have about 65.

So what’s the plan?
My son, Derek, has become my stick man. That’s all he does. And that’s critical because if you undercook or overcook it that’s it.

At Da Michele in Naples, they have a guy whose sole job is to be stickman.
You need a good stickman. I stand there, I watch every pie that goes out, but the most important tool…I’ve told everyone here, the most important tool here is the garbage pan.

Where do the names of some of your pies come from?
The Mootz is from Mikey Mootz. That’s what we call my son Mikey whose in the Air Force now. The Marianna, for my wife’s name. The Delboy is our nickname for our other son, Derek, that’s a long story, but that’s my most popular pie.

And the King Harry?
The King Harry is the most important pie. I had a friend named Harry Glenn. He was a king of a man. And Harry, I learned a lot from Harry. He called me his mentor, but believe me, I learned more from Harry than he ever learned from me. He was on the 97th floor of Tower on on September 11th. I wanted to have a pie for Harry.

And Motorino is your favorite pizzeria in New York?
My favorite pizza is a tie between Lucali and Roberta’s. New Park Pizza in Howard Beach is my favorite slice. It’s just great pizza. I love Spumoni Gardens too.

So lemons are big on the Amalfi Coast, but what’s your story with them?
My pizza is Napoli-style. One of the things you get in that region on the Amalfi Coast is limoncello. I’ve been making my own limoncello as long as I’ve been doing the pizza tastings at my house. Unfortunately, I can’t serve it here because it’s illegal.

And your liquor license? What are you planning to serve booze-wise?
Just beer and wine. I’m going to tell you Chris Bianco’s secret. People have told me this. People go to Pizzeria Bianco, and by the way, that guy spent an hour with my son and I before service— Adam Kuban arranged for him to spend some time with us. When I thanked him he told me, “Just pay it forward. That’s all. Someone else comes to you wants to talk about pizza, pay it forward.” It was one of the greatest conversations in my life.

What’s the secret?
The secret is that you make people wait on line for two to three hours. Which is what happens when you’re there. And you supply them with alcohol along the way. You get them famished and drunk. We’re going to serve six local beers. I may change it up but that’s what we’re starting with.

Why do you think pizza is so popular now?
New York City is a funny place. People think they have to have the best of everything. You’ve got to go to Peter Luger’s for steak, but you can’t afford to go to Peter Luger’s for steak. But people can always afford the best pizza.

You plan to do a lot of specials?
I have a basic menu that we’re pretty much going to keep the same. Then we’ll rotate some stuff based on what’s available. We have the Off The Hook Pie. You know The Meat Hook, right? Well, when they have their sweet Italian sausage I’ll do that. I want to try to find local people and support them. Rooftop Farms is in action again. I’m going to go there, and find out what they have. And we’ll have a Rooftop Pie on more than seldom occasions.

You used to take a lot of photographs in pizzerias, what’s it like being on this side of things?
It’s very interesting. I love taking photographs, and you know I did that so much. It’s one of the things I love to do. But I haven’t done it for months. I’m moving on. I don’t know how to describe it. When people take pictures of my pizzas, I wish they just wouldn’t take them with flash, because it doesn’t represent the pies. But just the fact that people want to take my picture, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. It’s becoming something I didn’t know it would become. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.

Paulie Gee’s
60 Greenpoint Ave,
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(347) 987-3747
Subway: G

This post was originally published March 20th, 2010, on the now-defunct, James-Beard Award-nominated blog

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