Jonathan Greenberg took the long road to opening a slice joint in Crown Heights. A few years into a career that zigged and zagged between non-profits and dotcoms, he began to chafe at the corporate life. While navigating rush-hour commutes and endless meetings, he found himself daydreaming constantly about the one job he’d ever really loved – cooking in a restaurant in Colorado when he was in college.
Unable to shake the urge to get back in the kitchen, he ditched the job, went to culinary school, and ended up getting deeply schooled in the beauty of simple Italian cooking and the wood burning brick oven pizzaiolian arts at Franny’s on Flatbush and Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint.
This summer, he opened Rosco’s Pizza, where he’s channeling all that hard-won expertise into the context of a totally traditional, old-school Brooklyn slice joint. We stopped by to chat with Jonathan and to try his version of the classic meatball parm hero.
So Jonathan, what should we have?
You know, I’d recommend the meatball parm hero. It’s pretty kick-ass.
Our whole thing here is that we’re a slice joint. We have the same stuff on the menu that you’d find at any neighborhood slice joint in Brooklyn. You’ll recognize everything on the menu. We just put a lot of effort into finding ingredients of a little bit higher quality than you might normally find, to pack a little bit more flavor into every bite.
So the meatball parm looks like you expect a meatball parm to look. It tastes like you’d expect it to taste. It just has a little more going on flavor-wise. Not a lot more – a little more. We don’t want to mess with tradition here. We’re trying to make a really traditional Italian-American style meatball parm hero. We just use the best ingredients we can find.
So we use grass-fed beef for the meatballs. We make the sauce here with some really nice imported tomatoes from Italy. We use a nice mozzarella for the cheese, but that’s not it – we use a nice parmesan, and a nice caciocavallo too, to add a little depth. We searched everywhere for the perfect hero roll – we found it at Caputo’s bakery on Court Street.
The meatballs are based on my grandmother’s recipe. I don’t have a bit of Italian blood in me, but my step-mom is completely Italian. She and my dad got married in 1978, so I spent almost my whole life surrounded by Italian women cooking really good food.
I’m from New Haven, Connecticut. There’s a huge Italian community there, primarily from the town of Amalfi, near Naples, on the coast. My step-mom and step-grandma and their sisters and relatives were all part of that, and even though I wasn’t born into it, I kind of got brought into that world through them.
My grandma’s meatballs were kind of legendary. Not just in the family either – in the neighborhood. She made two kinds. She made big ones, with pine nuts and raisins, which were never served with sauce. She called those the ‘big mothers.’ And she made small ones without pine nuts and raisins, which were always served with sauce. Those were called the ‘little mothers.’
The meatballs I make here are done with basically the exact same recipe she used for the little mothers, with just a few tweaks I’ve come up with over the years. I’ve been making them for years now. My grandmother hasn’t cooked in a long time. One time I was home for Christmas, and I was the one making the meatballs. I made a batch and we sat down to eat. She took one and took a bite and said, “Not bad.” From her, that’s pretty much the biggest compliment you’re going to get. [laughter.] I knew I was on the right track then.
So the meatballs are all beef. I make them with grass-fed ground beef that I get from Paisano’s Meat Market over on Smith Street. You know that place? It’s one of the great old-school butcher shops in New York City. I love the taste of beef, and one of the nice things about the grass-fed beef is that it has a much stronger flavor. It’s leaner and more flavorful, more beefy, than the other stuff.
The meatballs are very basic. I mix the ground beef with some egg, garlic, a little salt, black pepper, parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. You mix everything together, roll them into balls, and fry them in a pan.
I make a marinara sauce that’s also very simple. That’s what I love about Italian food – it’s so simple but so good. I get some really nice imported Italian canned tomatoes from Coluccio and Sons in Bensonhurst. That’s an amazing place. They’ve been importing all kinds of amazing specialty products from Italy since the sixties. They have stuff there that no one else has anywhere. For the sauce, I just cook those tomatoes with onions, garlic, fresh thyme, salt and pepper for about eight hours.
It’s a meatball parm hero, so it’s got to have cheese. Traditionally you might just find mozz on a meatball parm, but I use parmesan and a third cheese called caciocavallo too. The caciocavallo is a southern Italian cheese that’s like an aged provolone. It’s aged, so it has a little sharpness, a little bite to it. We don’t use a lot of it – just a little bit.
And the last part is the bread. The hero rolls are baked fresh every morning at Caputo’s on Court Street in Carroll Gardens. We tested a whole bunch of different hero rolls from different bakeries. You can judge for yourself, but I think Caputo’s are the best you can find anywhere. They’re perfect, because they have great flavor, and they hold up to the sauce in the sandwich. They don’t get soggy. There’s nothing worse than biting into a meatball parm hero and having it fall apart on you. That never happens with Caputo’s.
When we get an order for a hero, we take the meatballs and the sauce and we heat them up together so they’re nice and hot, and so some of the flavors from the meatballs and the sauce have a chance to mix together a little bit. Then the meatballs go in the hero, and we top it with the three cheeses. It goes in the oven, the cheese melts, the bread gets a little toasted, and when it’s ready we cut it in half and serve it.
It’s a really nice sandwich. You’ve got the savory, really flavorful grass-fed beef, with a little kick of garlic and parmesan in the meatball. The little bit of parm in the meatball along with the black pepper gives it a really subtle jolt of sharpness that’s nice with the beef, and it actually melts into the inside of the meatball which gives it a little more juice and fat and lets the flavor really run through the whole thing.
With the marinara sauce you get that classic bit of acidity from the tomato and that herb from the thyme, and those both kind of balance the beefy, savory meatballs and the rich, melty cheese, and you get another little kick of garlic in the sauce too.
With the cheese, you get that beautiful mild creaminess of the mozzarella, and that little bit of sharpness from the parm and the caciocavallo – they’re both a little rich and a little sharp in flavor, but in really different ways. Using them together with the mozzarella adds some nice depth to the whole thing.
When it all goes into the oven for the cheese to melt and the bread to toast, that’s when the whole thing comes together. The cheese melts down into the meatballs and the sauce. The sauce and the cheese soak into the bread a little bit. It all comes together in a way that’s really, really nice.
So like I said, it’s the same thing you’ll find at any slice joint in Brooklyn, but we’re just trying to pack a little more quality and flavor into it without changing it. It’s a meatball parm sub, the same kind we all grew up with. It’s just got a little more going on, but in a subtle way, if that makes any sense. The whole reason we did this place is because I love slice joints. I don’t want to change it. I just want to do it in my own way. We put a lot of care into the food, and we just want people to enjoy it.
So that’s what it is.
So how did you end up here, doing this?
Like I said, I grew up in New Haven. I was born and raised there, and through my dad’s marriage to my step-mom when I was a kid I kind of fell into that strong Italian community. New Haven is famous for it’s coal oven pizza – you know, the places like Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Modern. We were a Sally’s family. My grandmother grew up with Salvatore and Flo. They went to school together and opened that place in 1938.
I got my first restaurant job when I was in college, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I got a job at a place called DiNapoli Ristorante. It was a total mom and pop, red sauce, checkered tablecloth place. Huge portions of pasta, pizza. I started there as a dishwasher and prep cook and worked my way up through making pizzas to working the line and I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved working there.
In college I majored in environmental conservation and I planned on working in politics and non-profits. I did that for a while, then worked for a dotcom startup for a while. After a number of years in that world, I realized I was becoming less and less satisfied with working in an office. I didn’t like the commute. I didn’t like sitting at a desk all day. I didn’t like the office politics and all that stuff. I kept thinking back to that job at the restaurant when I was in college and how happy I was there.
Eventually I decided I wanted to try going back to that world. It wasn’t an easy decision, but one day I thought, “If I don’t do this, ten years from now I might be on this same career path, doing fine, saving for retirement, but I’ll never know.” I figured that if it didn’t work I could always come back, but if I didn’t try it I’d never know.
So I decided to try it. I went to culinary school up at C.I.A., and when I finished I moved back to Brooklyn. I trailed at Franny’s over on Flatbush, but I thought I should go work someplace big and fancy, a fine dining place in Manhattan. I did that and realized it wasn’t for me. I learned a ton, but it was too stressful, too intense. I wanted to find a place that did great food but was more casual.
After a few more stops I ended up back at Franny’s, and it was like, perfect. I learned more about how to cook and how to season and the power of simplicity while working there than I ever had anyplace else. It was the most invaluable experience of my life, cooking there. I made pizza there, and that’s where I really started thinking about what pizza could be.
From there I went to help Allison and Matt Robicelli open their gourmet shop in Bay Ridge. I kept thinking about pizza. When the economy tanked and they had to close the shop, I got a job at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, and really continued my education in pizza. Paulie and I got along great. I had made pizza and worked with a wood burning oven at Franny’s, so I didn’t have as much to learn as some guys, although with pizza, there’s always a lot you can learn. I became his sous chef and ran the kitchen side of things. All his recipes, of course – I just made his food, and learned a lot doing it.
I ended up here in Prospect Heights because I took a job up the street at Barboncino when they opened up. They’ve got a wood burning oven, and I taught the guys there how to use the oven and make the pizza.
While working there, I became friends with the guys who own Guero’s, a taco place across the street from here. They own Dram Shop, a bar in Williamsburg too. We talked about doing our own pizza thing together. Of course, we had been thinking of doing a wood fired brick oven pizza place, but one day they walked in and said, “What do you think about doing a slice joint?”
This space had become available. It’s a beautiful corner spot. I love the neighborhood. It had been a slice place before and it had all the equipment in place. It wasn’t what I had been thinking of, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of taking everything I’d learned in culinary school and at places like Franny’s and Paulie Gee’s, and using that in the context of a totally traditional old-school Brooklyn slice joint; of staying true to that classic Italian-American food we all grew up with, but using really good ingredients and putting a lot of care into it.
It seemed right. It fit right in with my experience growing up in that Italian-American culture in New Haven and with that first restaurant job that I loved so much at the Italian place in Colorado. It all made sense. So we did it.
Rosco’s Pizza is located at 685 Franklin Avenue, at the corner of Prospect Place, in Crown Heights.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.