If you’ve read Slice in the last three years, you’ve probably heard of Paul Gianonne, aka Paulie Gee. The man has a serious love for pizza, so serious that he’s turned it into his second career–lending hope to unhappy IT experts everywhere. Gianonne lives in Warren, New Jersey, where he raised a family and worked as a self-described “computer geek.” After three years of perfecting his pizza-making in a backyard wood-burning oven, he’s opened his own place, Paulie Gee’s, in the old Paloma space in Greenpoint.
We caught up with Paulie about how, exactly, he made a passionate hobby into a career, and what it’s like now that pizza is his day (and night) job. Check back here tomorrow for the second half of the interview, in which the pizzaiola talks about the worst pizza he ever made, and which New York pies he prefers.
You were a quality assurance engineer before, right? What was your job like?
Yes, well, that’s what I was doing most recently for the past 10 years. Without getting into it too much, I was an IT manager, just software stuff. Believe me, the people reading this are not going to care about this, but I was basically making it easier for people who test systems by automating the process.
So how did you go from that to owning your own pizza restaurant?
For the longest time I always liked cooking for people. We would invite people to the house on a regular basis. We’re very social. And people would encourage me to open a restaurant. But I had no interest. It seemed too daunting: You have to make 30 or 40 different dishes in most cases, for 60 people at a time, all prepared different ways…It was too complicated for me.
But always wanted to do something different than be a computer geek. Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew a lot of pizza places I really liked, but it was basically just New York pizza: DaVinci’s, Gino’s on 13th Avenue…I used to sober up in Bay Ridge at Pizza Wagon.
But then 15 years ago, I heard about Totonno’s and finally made my way over there. And I was really taken in there, by how the ingredients were different, the crust was different, it was cooked in a coal oven. And so I started looking for other coal oven pizza places. My sons and I would go on a quest, on pizza tours, go to four or five different pizza places in one day. And we kept doing that.
Along the way I semi-retired, became a consultant, and I just wanted to find something else to do. So I started to brainstorm, and I saw that I could put a pizza oven in my garden. It cost thousands of dollars, but on the same website, I saw that I could build one relatively inexpensively just following their plans. So along with a friend who is very good with masonry, I decided to do it.
I thought: I think I can do this pizza thing. But I knew I had to practice first, practice makes improvement. So I made a purchase of some bricks in September of 2007, and that was the point of no return, because I had spend a couple hundred dollars on bricks.
So I started building the oven in our garden, and my son, who is in the Air Force Academy–and I’ve always encouraged him to set goals, make commitments–he said: “You know dad, you can’t just be talking shit, if you say you’re opening a pizzeria, you’ve got to do it.” He said, “I’m coming home for Thanksgiving with a friend, and I want to have pizza when I come home.”
So he put me on the spot. Deadlines are great. If you don’t have one, you end up just meandering around letting other things get in the way. And the night before thanksgiving, we pulled the first pie out of the oven. And it was far from perfection, but I was very gratified to be able to make pizza over a wood fire like that. That was something else. I had made my own mozzarella, but got the dough at Stop and Shop.
So after a while, I felt like I could encourage people from the pizza-enthusiast community to come to a tasting, and the first blogger came Thanksgiving of 2008. From there, it took on a life of its own, with the pizza tastings, and people wanting to be invited.
First I looked into opening a place in Middlesex, New Jersey, but I didn’t just want to open a pizza place to make money. This is my retirement. I want it to be a place I can feel good about. Una Pizza Napoletana, Motorino, Lucali–these places are all very special, and I wanted to be mentioned in the same breath with those people. I knew I had to be bolder, so I looked at Jersey City. I was thinking about that for quite a while.
But then, aside from the fact that a beer and wine license is more expensive in Jersey City than in New York, the turning point came when I emailed Amanda at Eater. I said: I’m thinking of opening a nice pizza place in Jersey City, would you come? And she said: No, probably not.
So I knew I wanted to get Manhattan or Brooklyn at that point. I grew up in Brooklyn, and it’s really starting to come into its own again, and I felt left out of it….
….I decided to look for some spaces in Greenpoint, and I fell in love with Franklin Street. This is really the place to be…
And my lease took effect November 1st.
What does it feel like to finally have pizza be your job?
It’s not a job. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a part of me, I’m doing something I love. But it’s also very challenging, just making it all happen: Getting the ingredients I need…I’m still working on getting my wine and beer license, there’s a lot of red tape. There was a time I was up at four in the morning solving problems in my head. Now I can sleep till six, so everything must be alright.
Is there anything that surprises you about being a restaurant owner, things that you didn’t expect?
I really didn’t dream of this place being so beautiful, of the oven looking so beautiful. Every night, I find a minute while it’s busy to walk to the front the place and look back to take it all in. It’s a very satisfying experience.
The biggest bonus of all is that my son Derek said he wanted to work with me. He has the most critical job–taking pies out of the oven. It’s really critical: putting them in, but especially taking them out. He’s become my stick man. He loves it. He feels a part of it, and he’s damn good. He’s only been doing it for two weeks! It’s a beautiful thing. He’s 18-years-old, and he has something here he really feels a part of.
As far as what I’ve been surprised about, it’s nothing I hadn’t been warned about. Well one thing: Most people who do this use a general contractor to get it all done. I became a general contractor. I didn’t have a huge budget! I didn’t realize how complex the whole thing was. People over-promise and under-deliver. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I’m an optimist.
The only people who didn’t do that was Evan and Oliver Haslegrave at hOmE. They came, looked at the space, liked it, and started working on it. They kept on proposing to do more and more work, and next thing you know, they took on this place as if it were their own. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.
Why do you think pizza inspires such devoted following, and such meticulous critique?
Well, it’s a simple food that everyone can afford. And it’s something about New York: People have a bit of an ego. I’m one of them. They want the best of everything. You have to go to Peter Luger for a steak, go to Per Se to spend whatever. But in these economic times in particular, people can’t afford that. But they can still go out and get the best pizza in the country, if not the world. And out of necessity, it’s become uber-popular.