In the Brooklyn of chef Paulie Gee’s youth, a slice of pizza cost no more than fifteen cents. Though toppings change and prices inflate, New York remains the pizza capital of the world. No one knows this better than Paulie Gee: equipped with a custom Naples-inspired wood-burning oven and egalitarian business principles, the gourmet chef runs his Greenpoint restaurant, Paulie Gee’s, out of a deep love for the slice.
CONVICTS caught up with Paulie to get the story on pizza epiphanies, different types of New York pizza, and the large-looming memory of his father.
We hear you’re not the average restaurateur.
I didn’t want to open up a restaurant because it made my head spin. I was first and foremost a pizza enthusiast.
So how did you get into the business?
I participated on blogs and basically invited bloggers over to my house for pizza tastings. I got them drunk on limoncello and fed them for free. Eventually, they started writing nice things about me and my pizza and I started building this really good reputation. Eventually I started telling people I’m gonna open up a pizzeria. I learned along the way that you have to speak things into existence. I first opened up in New Jersey, but Brooklyn was calling me home. I finally found this neighborhood, fell in love with it and signed a lease. Somehow, by March 9, 2010, I sold my first pie out of here.
Have you always been a chef?
No, and I’m still not a chef. Nothing like that. I never worked in a restaurant in my life. To this day, I don’t really call this work.
Respect. What steps did you have to take to open your restaurant, given your lack of formal background in the business? Did you have to do research.
I love a good old Sicilian-style New York slice and not much more. So I sought out the best. My family and I went on pizza tours where we’d stop into four or five different pizza places in one afternoon until we couldn’t get anymore in with a shoehorn. That’s where the love came from. I went to a place I kept hearing about called Totonno’s in Coney Island. It’s actually the oldest pizzeria in Brooklyn, and as I like to say, I had my pizza epiphany there. They make a very different style of pizza which I really like. They make it with a coal oven and it gives the pizza a different character. So I started seeking out more coal oven places, then eventually wood-burning places.
What kind of oven did you settle on for Paulie Gee’s?
We bake in a wood-burning oven that was imported from Naples. It has a design that goes back thousands of years-they found an oven with this design in Pompeii. It’s built like an igloo, and it really holds heat.
Can you tell us a bit about the cooking process?
We cook at a thousand degrees. That makes the pizza cook very quickly and seals up the outside with a sear like steak and keeps the moisture so you get these nice little char bubbles. We ferment the dough, we have a secret dough recipe, which I’m not gonna tell you, but the dough that we used tonight was not made this morning, I can tell you that.
What else is important to you in a pizza?
Two things: a well-balanced pie, not too much of any one ingredient, not too many ingredients; and a balance of sweet and savory.
What about the sauce?
I have a secret tomato sauce. We take the tomatoes and we mill them, and that’s it. We used to add salt but I changed the brand of secret tomatoes. These don’t even need any salt added anymore. We look to contrast the sauce with other ingredients, rather than cook up a sauce for each pizza.
Do you guys just have your one secret sauce?
We have evolved a bit. We came up with a sauce called Feels Like Bacon Love; it’s infused with butter, onion and bacon. We cook all of it together, then take the big onion out, take the bacon out. The butter you can’t take out, that’s in there, but that’s one sauce that we actually cook.
That sounds dangerously good. Switching gears a bit, can you tell us about growing up in New York? How did pizza fit into your youth?
When I was growing up, pizza was a staple. It was fast food, like a hamburger in other places. It was an everyday, everyman’s food. Not anything special. On Sunday Italian-Americans made these elaborate meals and we never had pizza. Those were always pasta. Pizza was just there all the time. If you were in school, and they let you out at lunchtime, you would go to the pizzeria. I used to get two slices and a soda for forty cents. They were fifteen cents a slice, and the soda was a dime.
That’s a rare deal in New York these days…
One very interesting thing is that, over the years, the price of a slice of pizza and the price of a subway ride have always been pretty much the same. That’s kinda diverging a bit now because slices are 3.50 in a lot of places.
What’s the future for Paulie Gee’s?
We’re opening up a slice joint around the corner from here. We’re gonna charge more than a subway token. Or subway fare. There are no more tokens.
Metro cards just aren’t quite the same are they? Thanks for the chat Paulie, and best of luck with the slices.