Paul Giannone loves to cook — and he loves pizza.
“I’ve always enjoyed a good New York slice,” says the 58-year-old Giannone, who turned his passion for pizza into a new career two years ago when he opened Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The pizzeria has garnered rave reviews and a huge following among New York pizza lovers, who hold their pies to a very high standard.
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The hordes that wait in line to feast at Paulie Gee’s would probably be surprised to learn that Giannone wasn’t always a restaurateur. Starting in 1980, he spent three decades in the IT industry, working for large organizations like the New York Port Authority and AT&T, doing everything from managing to consulting. Though he moved steadily up the career ladder, he never felt fulfilled by the work.
“I wanted to have more out of life,” he says.
In 1995, a slice from a Coney Island joint that served pies cooked in a coal-burning oven set him on his current path to the perfect pizza pie. Soon after, he built his own wood-burning brick oven in his house. From his hearth, he’d pull out steaming hot pies with crispy, airy crust and serve them to friends who raved.
“They would always encourage me to open a restaurant,” he says. The idea seemed crazy, but he made it his goal. Two years ago, the grand opening of Paulie Gee’s fulfilled his dream.
We spoke with Giannone about his second career, and the winding road that took him from the IT desk at the Port Authority to the kitchen at Paulie Gee’s.
I love pizza. It became a new passion for me to go on a quest for some of the best pizza in the New York area from both coal- and wood-burning ovens. I would start planning these little outings with my sons, we would go on the weekend to various pizzerias, maybe four or five in one day and have a slice or two in each place. Although it was challenging to make really good pizza, it was simple; you have one dough recipe and a bunch of toppings that you can chop up, maybe sauté them, put on the pizza, shove in the oven, and voilà, you have a pie.
What is your favorite pizza at Paulie Gee’s?
I have about 10, but I’ll tell you three. Anise and Anephew: fresh cow’s milk mozzarella — fior di latte — fennel caramelized and braised in chicken broth, Berkshire guanciale, and when it comes out of the oven we add sweet anisette cream sauce and some fennel fronds for appearance.
I also love the Greenpointer, and the Delboy. Greenpointer: fior di latte, baby arugula, olive oil, fresh lemon juice and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. And the Delboy: fior di latte, Italian tomatoes, Berkshire sopressata piccante and Parmigiano Reggiano.
How important has Brooklyn been to your pizzeria’s success?
I discovered Greenpoint and I was smitten; I knew this was the neighborhood for me, and there were no pizzerias. The people were eager to have more places to eat that they could call their own. They really embraced me.
A lot of your success also came from your participation in pizza blogs?
Starting around 2004, I’d go to pizzerias and take pictures to post on blogs. I knew if I was going to open up a pizzeria I’d have to impress these bloggers. Once I felt good about my pizza, I invited other pizza enthusiasts to my house where I had constructed my first oven. I continued having pizza tastings until I got the most respected pizza bloggers to come to my house. This strategy started a snowball effect.
What advice can you give to someone starting a small business?
Do it. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
Do you have plans to open another Paulie Gee’s?
The restaurant and I are one. I realize I can’t open up a second place because I can’t do something half the time. What I can do instead is just pay it forward. I’ve had a lot of success inviting people into my restaurant to work for free so that they could learn how to do this for themselves. If I could find someone that has the same passion as I, and wants their own place, I could help them do that and we can both prosper.
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