By Jacque Lynn Schiller
The minute you walk through the doors of Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, you know you’re in for something special. Built from scratch – just like the pies assembled in the back – the expansive space is enchanting. Everywhere you look there’s an interesting fixture or unexpected detail. It’s like stumbling into a whimsical old saloon, the smell of whiskey replaced with the aroma of pizzas baking and the player piano ousted in favor of an ipod. A well-stocked one at that.
Owner Paul Giannone is as delightful as his creations. Despite years learning the pizza making ropes, he still seems in awe of what he’s accomplished. Cheerful, passionate and eager to share his story – a few secret ingredients, not so much – Paulie Gee will talk your ear off if you let him. We welcomed the opportunity.
NONA contributor Jacque Lynn Schiller pulled up an antique chair and basically sat back and listened. Paulie’s dedication to the craft is inspiring and his enthusiasm, contagious. But don’t take our word for it…take it away, Mr. Gee.
Tell us about yourself – where you’re from, about your family.
Well, I grew up in Brooklyn and moved to central New Jersey almost 28 years ago. My wife and I, along with our two sons, moved to New Jersey to have a little more space to ourselves. I was tired of the subway commute. We wanted to get in a car, drive 15 minutes, then park the car in a lot that didn’t cost $20.
What part of Brooklyn?
I grew up in what’s now known as Kensington. We didn’t really have a name for it – you’d just tell people it’s wedged in between Flatbush and Borough Park.
But now you’re doing the commute again?
I’m doing it, but you know what – I love it. I’ve got some place beautiful to come to. I shop along the way in and that breaks up the ride. And on the way home, it’s less than an hour. There’s never any traffic.
You come in every day?
Every day but Monday.
What got you started in the pizza making business?
I masqueraded as a computer geek for about thirty years. I was doing something that I had chosen as a career but I really wasn’t that talented at it. It was always a struggle. I managed to keep my family provided for but I was dreaming of other things. One of the things I loved to do is cook. I’d invite people over to the house, plan meals and play music for them. I kept on being encouraged to open up a restaurant and I wanted absolutely no part in that. It just seemed too daunting a task to make all these dishes, prepared different ways. And the other thing was if I was going to do something, I wanted it to be very special. I’d be a very small fish in a very big pond in New York. The best chefs in the world are here. Also, I wondered how do to buy ingredients and not go broke throwing out what’s not fresh but still have quality food?
But then about 15 years ago, I became a pizza enthusiast. I discovered a place in Coney Island called Totonno’s. It’s a coal oven pizza place and I became, I don’t want to say obsessed, but I did go out on a hunt for the best coal oven pizza I could find. Before that, I loved pizza – growing up in Brooklyn, you couldn’t help it, like Spumoni Gardens and other neighborhood places that had great pizza. But it was nothing like this, so my sons and I started going on these pizza tours. We’d go to five or six pizzerias in a day. Somewhere along the way my tastes started evolving and I talked to someone about building an oven on my property. I thought that would be a nice idea and realized this is perhaps something I could do.
So you’ve got an oven at your house. Outdoors?
Outside. It was for practice and experimenting. I started telling people that’s what I was going to do. Once you start telling people, there’s no turning back. I got excited about it. I got to the point that I thought my pizza was good. At first I didn’t even make my own dough! I would go to Stop-n-Shop and get some in a plastic bag but I was just happy to build this oven and then have a pizza come out of it. It was a miracle to me.
I like that your sons were involved in all of this too.
My oldest son was very involved in that when I decided to build the oven, he was very excited what I was setting out to do. All his life, any time he wanted to do something I would encourage him and hold him to it. So now, he had a chance to do the same with me. He’d ask, “How’s that oven doing?” I’d bought some materials but was having trouble finding the time to do it. It was mainly on weekends. Then one day he said, “I’m coming home for Thanksgiving with a friend and that oven is going to be ready, right? You say you’re going to open up a restaurant, you got to do it.” I knew that as well as he did, but he challenged me. That was in late September and I had to have a pizza come out of there by Thanksgiving. Lo and behold, that’s what happened the night before.
No, it wasn’t turkey pizza. But that’s what happens when you set goals and commit to it. When you set a date, in this case Thanksgiving, you’re going to do all of these crazy things to make it happen.
When you first built the oven, did you think it would be a hobby or was the intention always to eventually open a restaurant?
I only built it because I wanted to practice then open a restaurant. I didn’t need any more hobbies at that point. I had plenty. I wanted to get out of what I was doing.
This is all self taught?
Absolutely. Along the way I befriended every pizzaiolo in New York City. I looked them in the eye and said I wanted to be mentioned in the same breath with them someday. I asked questions, took pictures and promoted their restaurants on the Internet. They seemed more than willing to share with me.
Are they still nice to you or are you competition now?
No I don’t think so.
They’re fans of you too.
I hope so. And I’m nice to them. I wear their gear all the time. I have a Roberta’s hat, Motorino hat, a Motorino shirt, Bianco. And that’s what I do – I don’t even have my own stuff, I wear theirs! So that’s how I learned. I asked questions and kept experimenting.
What was the hardest thing to learn? Crust?
Yes. I’m still learning but we’re satisfied and not tweaking things anymore.
Did you teach all these guys?
We learn together, actually. My son, Derek, was going to go to school in Italy for four years but came back after one semester. Thank God. He started helping me before we even opened and took over the oven.
How did you go from a backyard pizza oven in Jersey to your own pizzeria in Greenpoint?
What happened first and was very important, was that I had to make a pizza that I thought was decent. When it got to the point where I got a pizza out of the oven, then I knew I had to bake my own dough. That’s the next step. I had been making my own mozzarella anyway – that’s easy. I had this little Pillsbury bread machine at home. I was going to get a Cuisinart or something but I thought I’d try it. It was perfect. I still have it there.
When I was pulling out a pizza I thought was pretty good, I started promoting myself. goodeater.org had just done this feature called “Pizza-Oven Lifestyles, episode one” about a guy in Tierfontain, South Africa who had a chili farm and built a pizza oven. He feeds his family and workers from it. At the end, the writer asked if you (readers) know anyone with a pizza-oven lifestyle, to tell about them. So I wrote him and said, “Josh, we have to talk.” I sent him a link with all the pictures on flickr of my oven and pies I had made. Next thing you know, we’re writing back and forth and I invited him and some friends up to my house. I made some pizzas and he wrote a whole blog post about it. The guy from Slice and Serious Eats, Adam Kuban, saw the piece and posted the link. And he said something – that Josh Levin had scored a pizza tasting at Paulie Gee’s. Right then I knew that it was something that was desired.
So I had to have Adam out there and once he was out there, people started getting excited to visit. It was a perfect opportunity. It’s like people now who go out and get a truck for their food and build a reputation. In my case, I realized I could invite people over to my house, give them a glass of homemade Limoncello before they’ve eaten. I developed a whole network. These pizza tastings became sort of legendary. There would only be eight people at a time so I could make ten different pizzas and everyone could have a little taste of each.
In the meantime I also started looking to open my own place. I was going to do it in Jersey but kept moving closer and closer to New York. At first I was going to try to do this while I still had a job but I talked to somebody and they said if someone is going to invest in you, they’d rather see you focusing 100% on the restaurant. They wouldn’t mind me taking x percent as a salary so that I didn’t have to worry about it. That opened up the floodgates for me. Initially I was thinking Jersey City, since that’s the sixth borough, right? It was a great spot, but I saw what was going on here and was enamored with it. I felt like I was missing out. I’d left Brooklyn and now it was leaving me behind. I had to find my way back. I also realized I only needed wine and beer and here, it was $550 for the year. So that also got me excited.
I love Williamsburg and he whole vibe there and I wanted to be part of something new. But it was prohibitive to me. There were already a lot of pizzerias there with the same style of pizza that I’d be making. All of the owners were very helpful to me and it wouldn’t have been right to open up in their backyard. And it was also expensive. I was a little frustrated by that, like I was missing an opportunity. I wanted to open up a place where I didn’t have to do much to it. I fell in love with Roberta’s. They took a place and didn’t do too much with it, just made it a pizza joint. So that was my model.
I thought maybe there’s an extension to Williamsburg. Maybe Greenpoint? I went on Manhattan Avenue and all I saw was 99 cent stores and Polish restaurants – don’t get me wrong, I love them but I didn’t see the people who were tying up their bikes at Bedford and North 7th. My son came back for Easter; he was in the Air force Academy at the time. I had to have him come home because Adam from Slice was coming up and I needed someone who knew how to work the fire in my oven. It was Good Friday; he was flying in at 6 o’clock, so I said I’m going to Greenpoint to look at some spaces. I looked on Craigslist, found a couple of places. Franklin Street. I’d never been to it. I got here that afternoon and was just smitten. Franklin in Greenpoint – I was blown away. I started looking and this place I didn’t take it very serious because there had been a fire. There was never a For Rent sign outside. It wasn’t listed anywhere so I just assumed whoever was in here was coming back. One day the guy that owns Brouwerij Lane said, “You should go check that spot out. It’s available.”
It’s a beautiful space.
I look around and think about all of the other places that I could have ended up and just thank my lucky stars they didn’t come through. When it’s warm out and I can have those doors open, I can stand across the street and see my oven.
What did you have to change in here?
Everything. Here’s another serendipitous event: I needed chairs. I started interviewing people before I was ready to do anything. I asked someone where to get some mismatched chairs and he told me about this place, Build it Green, in Astoria. On their website was a little notice saying, “Grand Opening Manhattan Inn, built almost exclusively with materials from Build it Green.” So one night I was eating at the great Polish restaurant, Lomzynianka, and I said to my wife let’s go check this place out. I went in and was blown away. Great feel to it. I couldn’t put my finger on the décor. Was it old? Was it new? On the Build it Green website I had seen these great old theater seats with tin sides and they’d used those and some booths to build a piano bar. But the thing that really got me was they had taken old school desks and nailed them to the walls and you could stand there and have a drink. Above each desk is a little sconce: sugar canisters.
I talked to the owner and complimented him. In the back of my mind, I guess I was thinking I couldn’t afford to do something like this. He goes, “One of the guys responsible is here tonight. Would you like to meet them?” Sure. I met Evan Haselgrave (of home-nyc). He and his brother Oliver are the ones who did this. I told him I need some tables. He wanted to see the space first to figure out what the tables should look like. They came in here and I could tell they were licking their chops. “We could do something with this.” Next thing I know, they’re building the whole place.
They had some vision.
I love how they work. They never said, “Paulie, this is what your restaurant is going to look like when it’s finished.” You know why? They had no freakin’ idea. They’d go to Build it Green, find something really beautiful then ask, “Where are we going to put this?” It’s amazing.
It’s really nice work, so many little touches.
That was the other thing, I felt like by getting these guys from the neighborhood – they’re on Franklin – building things in the neighborhood, would create a bond for me. I’m not from the area but that could create a bond with the community. That was attractive.
And here we are.
Here we are.
This all turned out pretty well then. Do you plan to expand or what’s next?
Here’s the problem. I really enjoy doing what I’m doing. At first, I thought I would just be making pizza. Silly me. These guys are better than me, quicker. People want to come talk to me and I want to talk to customers and make sure everything’s okay. The thing is now, I go out on the floor and I make sure everything’s going well. I’ll pull a pizza from out in front of people, bring it to the back and say, “Remake this pie.” Normally they’re very good, but I’m not going to let a pie go out unless it’s perfect. The best tool we have in the whole place, what do you think it is?”
I would think your mouth.
For ensuring high quality – what do you think it is? The garbage can. If it doesn’t look good, right in the can. Or it goes to the back and we eat it.
What’s your favorite?
I only have six or seven favorites. I love the Greenpointer. I love the Delboy, Anise Anephew, the Red, White and Greenberg.
Who comes up with the names?
Me mostly but we’ve had other people contribute as well. More than just the names, contributing to what goes on them. My son came up with the Porkpie White – I came up with the name for it and he came up with the ingredients.
How long before you knew this was going to work?
I felt pretty comfortable that it would work because of the economy. People kept saying “Are you sure you want to do this now?” In New York, we have to have the best of everything. But right now, you can’t have the best sushi every night – can’t afford it. You can’t have the best steak all the time, maybe once a year. I’m not saying my pizza is the best in the world, but the best pizza can be found in New York, maybe Naples. And you can get it for all of $15. Look how many high-end restaurants have closed down but the small ones are doing well.
You also seem to naturally fit into this neighborhood.
There was nobody else here. Ton of bars – you need a drink in this neighborhood? No problem. The neighborhood welcomed me, like they wanted to have a good restaurant and luckily they looked at me that way. Like the back of Roberta’s, I wanted it to be a place where people who work there have a passion. And my restaurant looks comfortable. I’m so glad they designed this place that way. And you look in my kitchen, what do you see but people from the neighborhood.
And really good looking ingredients. Who are some of the vendors and producers you get ingredients from – you mentioned shopping on the drive down here.
I have some secrets. My tomatoes are from a country named Italy. That’s all you get. My wood, I get from a guy called thewoodman. Good stuff, kiln dried. I do get, whenever I can, produce from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. Mostly I get baby kale from them. We’ve made some great pies from that. We marinate it first. I also get some stuff from Brooklyn Grange – they’re actually in Queens. These little places have very noble intentions but they can only produce so much. When it’s available, I get honey from a local beekeeper Megan Paska of Brooklyn Honey. I have a secret source for my mozzarella – a local artisan who has been making it for years and years. I was making it myself at first but whenever I can, I support the community.
The beers you offer are from around here and I heard you’ll be serving Oslo coffee.
Yes. All of the beers are from New York, not just from around here but the state. Dr. Brown’s soda. Manhattan Special Sodas, made right here in Greenpoint. And the flour I get from Italy – from the world’s greatest.
Where did you find some of the specialty items?
I learned from the guys who made this place – I’d come in every week and someone new was here. Interns. So I started doing that, bring people in who were interested and wanted to work here, work for free. Learn it. Come in around 4, practice stretching dough.
A good trade off.
This one customer comes up, his name was Mike, and he said he would come in and bring his condiment. Condiment? Okay, bring it in. The day he was scheduled to come in, he’s like a student on the first day of school bringing the teacher an apple. “Here’s my Hot Honey.” We tried it and it was just a few days before it was on a pie. There’s a pizza, the Delboy, named after my son Derek, and we had this saying of, “Fire up the delboy,” whenever the pie was ready to go into the oven. With the Hot Honey, it became fire up firing up the Delboy. One night a customer said you should call it the Hellboy. There it was.
Another guy, I went to the Greenpoint Food Market. It was a great thing! They had all these people making homemade stuff but then the Health Dept. read this beautiful NY Times spread on it and thought, “Don’t think so.” I met this guy Ross Hutchison who was making Bacon Marmalade. He came by with some of his stuff and we experimented, put it on some pizza. Now he makes it here in the kitchen.
Awesome! Now you’ll have every Foodmaker in Brooklyn trying to figure out how to work their products onto a pie.
There you go. Also, Agatha and Erin of Ovenly are using our kitchen to do their baking in the morning. We don’t open until 6 pm. They needed a kitchen. We’re going to have desserts made from their ingredients. I’m partnering with the community – we’re all one big happy family.
Now it’s time to brag about that gorgeous oven.
I brought very little into this place – two green cash registers, the Coke machine that I borrowed from a friend twenty years ago, and the oven. At first I was thinking I’d build my own, since I had at home. But then I realized if I had a restaurant, I wanted to turn to someone if there was a problem. I might as well get the best oven I could find. I asked around for the best oven makers in the world. They’re in Naples.
Stefano Ferrara is the maker – his family has been making ovens for a hundred years. I said to the guy that reps them, “I want to talk to someone who has imported one of these to know what I’m going to go through.” Forewarned is forearmed. He said, “As a matter of fact, there’s someone not far from you in Hopewell, NJ.” I went down there and checked it out. I’d never seen one like this in person. I took a picture of it and a friend who has a pizza blog went photoshop nuts on it. He knew my oven at home – white, with the sun and ‘
Napoli’ in royal blue. I wanted it to be Italian but not Italian. The last thing I wanted was a red, white and green pizzeria. I wanted Mediterranean colors. I sent the pictures and said that’s what I want it to look like and that’s what he did.
So that’s a custom, one-of-a-kind oven?
Custom tiled. I knew he’d make a beautiful oven but that thing is beautiful beyond my wildest dreams. This whole thing is beyond my wildest dreams. I love it.
Try a slice of Paulie Gee’s dream at 60 Greenpoint Avenue.