At Paulie Gee's, Crust Never Sleeps
What lingers in your mind after a meal at Paulie Gee's pizzeria in Greenpoint isn't the homemade fior di latte or the tomato sauce, both of which are tasty, though not good enough to cross boroughs for. It's the crust that burrows into your brain—a stretchy, bubbly, char-spotted pillow of a bread, the thought of which makes your stomach growl days later. It smells so sweetly of yeast you want to bury your nose in it, and leaves a floury residue on your hands as you reach for another slice.
It's hard to write about pizza these days without wading into the obligatory, tiresome land of "the best." A pie does not need to be the best in the city to be compelling. So let's get comparisons out of the way: Paulie Gee's isn't serving the best pizza in the city—not that it's entirely clear to me who is. Within the smaller (but growing) Neapolitan market, Gee's crust holds its own against Kesté's. But unlike, say, Co., Paulie Gee's isn't a full-fledged restaurant with appetizers and pastries.
New York is filled with engineers who wishfully think of painting, or bankers harboring the next Great American Novel. But most stay put, either for financial reasons or because dream jobs usually involve more hard work than dreaminess. For decades, Paul Gianonne, a/k/a Paulie Gee, counted himself in their number—working in information technology, raising his two sons, and spending his spare time cooking. A Brooklyn-bred Jersey-ite, Gianonne knew pizza as the good stuff you got from the slice joint. But 15 years ago, he visited Totonno's for the first time, and suddenly his notions about pizza changed: He became obsessed with coal- and wood-burning oven pies.
Before you knew it, Gianonne had built a Neapolitan-style wood-burning brick oven in his Warren backyard, and was inviting pizza bloggers to taste his wares. (Note to other aspirants: That's one of the smartest things he did.) At an age when others' minds turn to golf, he quit his job, leased the old Paloma space in Greenpoint, and worked with the design firm hOmE to revamp the room, using reclaimed wood and other antique materials.
The result is an appealing place that seems like a fantasy barn. There's a high, beamed ceiling, and the walls are contrasting colors of beige and brown woods with textural, just-so wear-and-tear. Each of the tables is a bit different, one constructed from lacquered thick blond planks, another from dark, rough oak. Everything has the feeling of being worn in. The whole room is suffused with a warm glow; antique-looking lampshades perched high on the rafters throw a diffuse light. It's a faddish look, but a very beautiful one. An igloo-shaped, white-tiled pizza oven from Naples smolders at the far end of the restaurant, and that's where Gianonne stands, assembling each pizza while his son, Derek, mans the oven with a long peel. It's hardly a retirement in Boca Raton, but Gianonne seems to be enjoying himself.
The menu offers nine pies (ranging from $13 to $17) and usually three pizza specials, which change seasonally. There are also two salads, one with Gorgonzola cheese, candied walnuts, and dried cherries, and one of arugula, lemon, and Parmesan. The ingredients in those salads show up again as toppings, probably as a way to simplify operations. All of the pizzas on the main menu are some combination of cheese, tomatoes, garlic, basil, speck or prosciutto, red onions, and arugula.
The pies are about 10 inches across, with a puffy, soft crust and moist, molten center, in the Neapolitan style. But they're not goopy or underdone: Though the tip sags and drips tomato sauce and cheese, making you want to eat the first half with a knife and fork, each slice is sturdy enough to be picked up about halfway through. And, yes, that crust is delicious, pulling and stretching under your teeth, with char to give it a woodsy flavor.
Paulie Gee's other strength is the tomato sauce. It's loose and fresh-tasting, invigoratingly tart and sweet, mellowed by that dark savor that characterizes really good summer tomatoes.
The regina is the simplest option, with a good smear of tomato, mozzarella, and basil. It's all about the tomato and the crust. We also enjoyed the "delboy," which adds spicy sopressata, singed around the edges, sweating pork fat. A special that involved dried cherries, prosciutto, Gorgonzola and mozzarella, though, was a case of dairy overkill. Meanwhile, the "spectacle" makes good use of the smoky German ham, along with red onions.
The onions were particularly welcome because we missed other vegetable options. Arugula shows up on three of the pizzas, but it's inevitably spritzed with so much lemon juice that it overwhelms everything else. Eating the parma d'or ($17), topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, arugula, and that citrus, practically all we could taste was tart.
One night while we waited for our food, Gianonne, clad in apron and Yankees cap, came and plunked down beside us, holding a pizza. "I usually wouldn't send out a pie like this," he confessed, gesturing to its slightly irregular shape. "But," he said, pointing to ample bubbles and a stippling of char, "this is a nice one." We shook our heads vigorously: No, we didn't mind that the pizza was a bit misshapen—we just wanted to eat it. We could also have reassured him: Keep your new day job.
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