Is your pizza better in San Francisco than in New York?
I don’t know about that. I think I fool myself into thinking it was better there. Some nights I’m really happy with it and I’m like, “Oh, it’s amazing, it’s fantastic.” And then other nights I’m like, “Ah, it’s not where it should be.” Or, “It’s not where I want it to be.” One of my best friends who worked with me in New York one day a week since I opened, and even when I had my place in New Jersey, used to eat it, he comes out here and works whenever somebody can’t work…He’s like, “Dude, it’s better than it ever was.” “I don’t think so.” He’s like, “I’m telling ya. It’s better.” I don’t know. People come in here and they’re like, “It’s not as good as it was in New Jersey,” or whatever. How can you remember that? I eat my pizza every day of the week. I can’t remember if last night’s is as good as last Saturday’s. I care just as much as in New York, and in a way, probably I care even more because I’m living an even more straight and focused life. New York was a stressful environment. I wasn’t married. I was really all over the place. I was really exhausted, and it was also my first exposure to people liking what we did, and media, so it took me quite a few years to adapt to all that, because when I opened in New York, it snowballed into this huge thing for me, which was beautiful, because I was able to make money and never did before. At the same time, I didn’t really want to do anything differently than I ever did. I just wanted to be able to be able to make a living, but it exposed me to things I never dreamt. I was pulled in a lot of weird directions, and I had to keep trying to stay focused and everything. Also being into the outdoors, it was difficult for me to get to the outdoors, being in New York City, so I was just torn all the time. Also the people that worked there, some of them were great, and some weren’t. Some of the people I worked with were an extra burden to me. I kept trying to be there for them and whatever they were going through, but here everybody who works here is solid, good. [points to an employee] He’s married with a kid, and the girl who works here is married with a kid. We’re like adults now. We come in, do our jobs, “See you tomorrow.” We’re not going out afterwards and getting drinks, not that I drink anyway, but if we did, in that sense it’s better.
Is there such a thing as the perfect pizza and have you made one before?
Yes, to both of those questions. Probably not tonight though, so if you guys are eating, don’t blame me.
What does a perfect pizza mean to you?
When they come out of the oven, I know that they’re great, instantly. You can just see it. It pops in the oven, in a way. It has life. It’s magical. Everything about it is perfect, the way it chews in your mouth, the scent, the balance of the ingredients, you can see it instantly. And I would say, seriously, there are pretty close to perfect pizzas, a few a night, on a good night. Last night was a good night. The dough was good last night. Wednesday, the dough was not so great, cause this space is so big, I’m still trying to figure out a way to control the environment in here on the days that we’re closed. New York’s such a small space that we basically left the air conditioner on the entire winter, cause the oven was right next to the kitchen and it was always hot in that little back corner. Here, even though the temperature barely changes outside, only like 10 degrees, somehow it’s more dramatic and it affects the dough more than it did in New York City. This space is so big and it’s concrete, it can get super cold in here in an instant. We’re not here, say on a Saturday night, we leave and it’s like cold and bitter out on a Sunday – which is like 55 degrees, it’s not really cold – it will turn like an ice box in here. We come and get the starter going again on a Tuesday, it’s hard, so Wednesdays have been off, but on a good night, last night, there are a few, close to perfect. Tonight there are going to be a few.
Can a pizzeria be great if more than one person makes the pizza?
Yeah, for sure, but everybody who makes the pizza has to have real experience. That’s the thing. That’s why these places all stink. First of all, there are very few pizzerias that have opened in the United States that are run by pizza makers. I’m a pizza maker because since 15 years old, this is all I do for a living, pizza making…It’s a lifetime journey. It’s like making good bread. There’s no way around it. It’s got to raise a long time. You can’t shortcut making good bread. It’s got to sit and raise.
Can you see adding bread to your repertoire?
No. That’s even worse than making pizza. That’s hard. I did that before I did pizza for three-and-a-half or four years, I had my bakery. I wanted to do pizza, but I couldn’t afford to have a place with tables and a public restroom, so instead, my dad and I, he helped me and got all this stuff from where he worked in Atlantic City, from his friends, and we built everything ourselves…To do it really good is really difficult. That’s really a tough, tough way to make a living. You need to wholesale to make a living.
I didn’t realize you had a bread bakery before.
Yeah, that’s how I started. That was my first place. It was in New Jersey, in Red Bank. Sant’Arsenio Panificio Artigiano. It means artisan bread bakery in Italian, and Sant’Arsenio is one of the towns my family’s from near Naples.
How important is water to the success of the pizza?
It’s just one element. I think this East Coast/West Coast thing about the water is bologna. I do. There are so many things that make great pizza. And with us, it would factor in more than most places, but because people use yeast, the water is so far down the line, there are so many other things that are factoring into the way that baked product is getting made. There’s pizza or bagels or bread or whatever, because the yeast is going to be giving everything the main push and the main flavor. Even if you make a starter, that’s the key to what’s going on there. With this kind of dough, which is naturally leavened – there’s no yeast in it – the water’s going to play more of a factor, but there are so many other things that add into it, I don’t know that I can pinpoint the water being the issue.
What sort of water do you use?
I use San Francisco tap water. Right out of the faucet.
Not even filtered?
If you could only go to one city to eat pizza…
I would go to New York City. Di Fara, I love what he’s doing and I love that man, and what he’s doing is beyond what all these guys can do with the brick ovens. They’re never going to do what he can do because he’s a pizza maker and genuine. And Patsy Grimaldi, who is one of my best friends, is about to reopen his place in New York, which for me would be a great reason to go to New York over anything here. San Francisco, there’s nothing here that’s historic or would give you any insight pizza-wise. Maybe Tommaso’s in North Beach, but eh. Italian stuff in California is not the same. I mean, you’re from New Jersey. Even if most of the stuff in New Jersey is crappy, there’s still something. Here you can’t even go and get cannolis, for god’s sakes.
If you had to eat a pizza that wasn’t yours, where would it be?
Da Michele in Naples, still, just because what it meant to me as a kid. I would go to Naples, I would eat there like four times in one day, and I swear to you, it would be totally different every time I went in, which was beautiful. I love that. Different people, the dough is raising throughout the day, because their dough is naturally leavened, also. That place was everything to me. That was my major influence, that and Totonno’s in Coney Island, and then Grimaldi’s when Patsy Grimaldi ran it, before he sold it. Those places were huge, you know, and exciting, so probably there.