The view from the Staten Island Ferry is pretty amazing, especially at sunset when the great golden ball retreats to the West, to be closer to you, dear Austin. The ferry is packed w/ commuters returning from Manhattan to the fifth borough. They sit on the benches, not staring at the beautiful vista, not looking out at the bay where Ellis Island still stands, haunted still by the thousands and thousands who passed through it, carrying paper packages tied with string. We lean over the railing, catching the breeze in our hair. We are headed to Denino’s, and we are hungry.
Addie, short for Adeline, greets us with a loud shout over the packed restaurant, over the tables crammed with regulars, each of whom would later tell us: “I grew up at this place”. The Homies in Staten Island are legit, Austin. Friendly and fearless, so totally at ease and at home in this family shop stacked w/ a century’s worth of tradition and comfort. We sit at two long tables in the back room and try to remember to pace ourselves as the salads are followed by the wings followed by pizza after pizza after pizza. Their dough is so good; each pizza is perfectly round and cooked just right. They use gas ovens like ours, cooking directly on stone: no screens, no short-cuts – and every time nothing but net. Denino’s is like that old man at the playground who schools every hotshot by hitting three-pointer after three-pointer. Practice, it is clear, makes perfect.
I walk outside to call my sweet wife back home. It’s maybe 10:30 on a Wednesday night and the ice cream shop across the street has three lines, four deep, that constantly stay that way by the cars pulling up and the families getting out. The New England houses are simple and practical two story buildings. The trees that line the street are thinning; Fall is close. When I go back into the shop they’ve put “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” on the juke box in our honor. A few of us move to the makeshift dance floor between the tables in the main dining room and two-step. Nano takes a middle-aged Staten Islander by her hand and dances with her. She is giddy, her ruddy cheeks blushing. We are not the first to dance in this way, impromptu and joyous, in this shop. I can tell it has happened a thousand times before, and will continue on forever. As this is that kind of place: where the neighborhood ties of family mean something, where the heart of that neighborhood is that shop. We, as a group, are honored in that moment for being recognized and named as family. I miss my wife, at home w/ you Austin, more and more. Being in the center of a family like that reminds you of the family you have, the neighborhood that is yours. I sure miss you, Austin.
We meet the next morning and walk uptown to Madison Square Park with Shake Shack and EATALY in our sites. We go into EATALY first. This is the huge, and I mean like big-as-a-city-block-and-some-five-stories-high, super market. And I mean SUPER. It is like an old school European Market w/ constellations of counters and mongers of every type and kind. I stand dumbfounded in their bakery where three guys are cutting down a huge piece of dough, folding it into loaves. One of the baker’s apprentices off-handedly picks up a handful of flour and tosses it against the glass, where I stand. He smiles at me with the kind of playful irreverence we love and value at Home Slice. I love this guy. I make my way to the drawers of dried mushrooms and smell each, thinking about the earth they came from, the people who picked them, the travel they made to come here in the middle of Manhattan, and the vision of the great Chef Mario Batali who is the genius who knew that EATALY was exactly the sort of thing New Yorkers needed: a place where artists could work, and where the community would benefit from that art. Each department of the store is like an old Roman City State, separate and independent brought together by Caesar’s Road. Batali is that kind of Caesar. Hail Batali!
The line at Shake Shack is already curving the South End of the Park, already a good 30 people deep before we double it w/ our crew. There are probably 30 employees inside of the tiny building, each moving fast and fluid. There is no room inside for any kind of loose elbow, no space for any slumping body. The woman at the counter is cheerful and kind, her Bronx accent thick and lush. She doesn’t blink twice at the size of our crew, or of disorganization. She smiles sweetly as we bumble through our order, making changes as we go. Minutes later we are sitting in the park, being harassed by the pigeons, eating burgers and fries, each one equally as beautiful as the next. There is nothing slapdash in what they are doing. We are inspired by their stamina, and their dedication to excellence.
That evening we went to Lombardi’s on Mulberry in Little Italy. It’s just a short walk from the hotel, Austin, just a few blocks. Lombardi’s is THE OLDEST pizza shop. The apprentices from that shop, way back at the beginning of the 20th century, went on to open Totonno’s in Coney Island, John’s in the Village, and Patsy’s uptown in Harlem. Lombardi’s oven is bigger than your car, Austin, and runs close to 900°. The guy working the oven wears safety goggles and heavy gloves. The peel he sticks into the oven to move the pizzas around is as big as a Viking Oar, and heavy to boot. These guys in the kitchen are moving fast but quiet. There is no room for error, there is no space for indolence. They open up the coal feed and I stare into the fire. I swear, Austin, time stopped for me when I got close to that fire. I got as close as I could, feeling the heat come off the coal, staring into the white hot void. Feeling the skin on my face tighten, I could hear only the fire in front of me, where the coals have been burning for the last 100 years. I was transported, Austin, as if I were staring into Vesuvius. They pulled me away from my trance, as I would not have moved any other way. I went upstairs to join the crew.
The pizzas that came out were crisp and charred, each burn a birthmark, a badge of honor. Their tiny pepperonis curl up like the Grinch’s smirk. Their ricotta, so beautiful and scalloped, is charred at its wispy tips. The flavor of that oven is undeniable. The coal’s accent lingers on the dough. I walk Jenna, one of our cooks, over to the chimney that is built into the wall that runs down to that huge oven below. We put our hands on the brick and feel the heat. It isn’t so great that we are repulsed by it but rather so comforting that we both find ourselves moving closer to the stone wall, embracing the heat that feels like a warm hug, that feels like the sun baking your body after you just get out of Barton Springs. We hold hands while holding on to that wall. It is amazing how current runs through us humans, transferring at the fingertips and palms. We are conductors, all of us. I feel it in each slice of pie I eat. I feel the work and pride of Lombardi’s Army. I feel the history and careful dedication to excellence. It comes through loud and clear, above the din of the other diners, beyond the cacophony of Little Italy on the precipice of the San Generro Feast.
The weather has turned on our last day, Austin. The thick humidity has fallen even heavier on the concrete. The storm clouds rolling in from the West are menacing and serious. The light in the city is dim even at mid-day. Traffic is thick. We march West to the Highline, a beautiful park along the West Side Highway, built on the skeletal remains of the El Train. It is planted w/ wildflowers and herbs. It is strange, Austin, to be standing three stories above Manhattan, with a nose full of Sage and Rosemary. We wait on a few pizzas from the new addition of a respected shop from the East Side. We are tired, Austin, and the pizzas can’t really come soon enough. Soon enough for our bellies, which still demand more pizza. Soon enough for the threatening sky, which will open up sooner rather than later. They quote us a ½ an hour for the pizzas, which is respectable. The guys behind the line kind of balk when they see the size of our order (4 pizzas), and grumble amongst themselves about this weird pop in the otherwise slow morning. One guy shrugs his shoulders while building a large salad into a pizza box. “It’ll be done when it’s done,” he said to no one. The order takes double the amount of time, a full hour after all is said an done. The sky opens up as if on cue when Terri & Jen step out onto 10th Avenue to head up the stairs to the highline. The rain comes down w/ the intensity of a Central Texas gulley-washer. The rain is thick and fat, cold and heavy. We scramble, along with everyone else (including Alec Baldwin) to cover under a building built above the highline. There are stalls along the side with people selling coffee, or juice, or prints, and now umbrellas. We’ve lost Jen and Terri to the rain. Nano goes off in search and returns shortly w/ Jen, Terri, and the pizzas that took too long.
My Goodness, Austin, those pizzas just weren’t that good. I could tell from the cuts on the pies alone that the cats working that shop just didn’t care. The cook quality on each pizza varied wildly. Even their signature Artichoke Pie was flawed and runny. In that moment I felt so sad for those cooks who don’t know the satisfaction of continually pressing past the line of excellence. They don’t know the joy that comes from making a stranger happy. They don’t know how a promise is a promise, and thirty minutes means thirty minutes. I thought about my small gang of cooks back home, tending those ovens and making the magic happen. I thought about how each cook works to maintain quality above quantity, and how deeply they respect the customer they can not see. Each pizza, after all, is a kind of gift. It is that thing you open on Christmas morning. Wrapping paper strewn, boxes ripped asunder, revealing either that thing that was given with love, or that thing that was simply a quo following someone else’s quid. Those guys, at that shop, on that day, did the bare minimum and gave what little they had to offer. So sad for them. So sad for those who will go unsuspecting and receive only what money can buy. I think again of our shop there on South Congress, and the staff that continues to delight themselves by exceeding what had been possible. I miss my cooks, dear Austin, almost as much as I miss you. But I am happy, here on the West Side Highway, that you have each other.
It is our final dinner, Austin, at Rubirosa in the heart of Little Italy, on the opening day of the San Gennero Feast. Rubirosa is small and intimate, a kind of warm rabbit warren of a shop w/ twisting turns of hallways that lead to the back room where our group sits. The courses come with Italian timing, perfectly lazy with plenty of space in between for conversation and more wine. We are chummy, Austin, there together in that space. The dishes are large, family style; it suits us perfectly. Each of us makes a plate for the other. We feed each other in this way, course after course. Though our service skills are sharp it is our love that really makes this happen. We are all so happy to be together in this way, sharing ourselves and our meal.
Nano gives the final speech of the trip, raising his glass to the group. He breaks down “enjoy” linguistically and gets to the thesis that it really means BRINGING JOY. As he looks around the room, from cook to host, from host to waiter, from waiter to concierge, from concierge to manager, from manager to owner, he sees that unifying trait: each brings joy wherever they go, like the tiny tinder Prometheus stole from the bottom of Vesuvius when Zeus wasn’t looking. I am surrounded, dear Austin, by this gang of lovers, this team of caretakers. We raise our glasses to the work we’ve done in the past. We raise our glasses to the work we will do in the future. We raise a final toast to you, Austin. We are ready to come home.
We landed at JFK tired, a little confused, and hungry. We were right on track following the steps of the Italian immigrant history of pizza, here in old New York City. It’s 28 of us, Austin. Some of us have gone every year for the last six; some of us have never been to New York before at all. Some of us worked until about three hours before the plane took off @7:00 AM yesterday. Some were too nervous too sleep. All of us, dear Austin, came here on our pilgrimage w/ a piece of Austin in our hearts. It is the graffiti we leave behind here in this concrete canyon, here is this tall city w/ small strips of sky. We come like the immigrants before us, with our native Texas soil in the crease of our shoes, to New York so that we can learn more than we know, test what we believe, and, unlike the immigrants, to return home to the soft and rolling hills, the clear and wide sky, the sweet and cool rivers and greenbelt, of the City that is our home, the place where our ovens burn.
We went straight to L&B Spumoni, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, just spitting distance from Bensonhurst. It is an aging Italian community and there, for 63 years, is this pizza shop: L&B. It has a wall of ovens, 3 triple stacks in a row, w/ a fourth in the corner, a pounding table between it and the long line of shiny, metal deck ovens. Out front there is a large patio, lined w/ long rows of bench tables. The locals outnumber the tourists 2:1, and tourists arrive in busses for the famous Sicilian Square pie. The accents are amazing, Austin. They are sharp, and lyrical, and hard nosed. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about “Dis Guy” or “Dat Guy”. Everyone was advising the other: “fuggehdaboutit”. We could not fugghedabout their pie, their famous Sicilian. Its lift is something else, Austin – like pound cake. The sauce is sweet, not quite like cake icing but somehow not quite not like cake icing. The pizza men carried pie after pie out of their kitchens into the patio, to the waiting groups of families, and strangers who had become friends. I can’t lie, I think our Sicilian is different – crisper, lighter, less saucy, but saucier in attitude. Confident and sexy. Just like you, Austin.
We later went to Lucali, in Carroll Gardens. This little shop is just over seven years old (remind you of any other pizza shops you might know?). The owner and pizza maker, Mark Ionoco, is a neighborhood guy who made good and took over a failing candy store and converted it into a shop which is, in its own way, an homage to Dom DiMarco @ DiFara’s Pizza. Mark is cooking in a 900° wood fired oven. He hangs his kitchen mandolin on the parmesan grinder mounted on the corner of the thick marble slab where he hunches and stretches his dough. His pies cook in just under three minutes, with minimalist but bona fide ingredients. Oh, Austin, I wish you could meet Mark. We’re trying to convince him to come visit. He’s dying to do so. He’s heard so much about you. Mark opened his shop to us, and talked pizza w/ us. He was kind of stunned at what we knew, and that there were so many of us. It is simply him and an apprentice, in his shop, with three very, very pretty women working the front of house and lavishing us w/ hospitality. We shook hands when we left, pleased to meet a brother in arms, and friend in a strange place.
Today we took pizzas from Ben’s, pizzas from Prince Street Pizza, Italian, Meatball, and Eggplant subs from Faccio’s (est. 1932) and carried the entire picnic across the island of Manhattan to the piers on the West Side, with the beautiful Statue of Liberty directly South of us, and New Jersey to the West. We stared West, past that industrial skyline, and knew you were past that horizon, Austin. We ate slices, sharing bites. We fed each other sandwiches, careful of the messy and downright sexy marinara sauce on the meatball and eggplant parms. Their Italian Assorted was brilliant in the contrast of the spices in the cured Italian meats, and the zing of the vinegar dressing the lettuce and tomatoes. The picked peppers are an amazing touch. The bread, so soft and deep in texture and flavor, is dusty w/ flour, and split up the side like a taco.
There are no Breakfast Tacos here, Austin. It is hard to believe. It’s most hard to believe in the morning, when you really want a taco.
We leave in a couple of hours for Staten Island, to Denino’s Pizzeria. It’s a home grown, family shop now run by ex-fireman Mike. Mike’s great grandfather John (American born and Sicilian Immigrant’s son) opened the shop in 1937Mike also has a room full of ovens, like L&B, satisfying the community that grew up eating that pie for special occasions of celebration, or simple occasions of families joining for food. Their pie is special, Austin. Crisp and perfectly cooked. Served w/ a kind of Staten Island sass that warms your heart, and tickles your ribs.
We are two days in, Austin, w/ two more to go. There is so much to see, so much to try to learn. So many great cooks and pizza makers. And, I have to tell the truth: the people here are really, really nice. New York has been kind and loving to us.
But we look forward to coming home, Austin. To be with you, day and night. To feed you the pie we make with love, in the town that is our home. We are immigrants no more, Austin. And in two days, we will be home.
Homies, that time of year has come again! In just a few short days, your favorite Pizza Dudes will be taking the flight to the Home Land in pursuit of the greatest pizza on earth! You know deep down that you are curious what we’ll be up to, and the good news is that the itinerary is right here (NYC Schedule) waiting for you! We’ll be hitting up some old faithfuls, as well as grabbing some grub at a new place or two. Stay tuned for more details and a trip wrap-up in the coming weeks, this year promises to be an awesome trip!
Get Hip to the Square!
Thick, airy, saucy and complete with a crisp, oil-fried bottom, the legit Sicilian slice you’ve been craving is now available at Home Slice! A staple of most NY slice places, Sicilian-style pizza has always intrigued us, and this past spring we started developing our own recipe in earnest. Now that it’s perfected, we’re serving it on Mondays only – by the slice or the whole pie — until we run out. Please come try it out and tell us what you think!
The Home Slice Sicilian is
- A square slice, with 9 slices in one pie.
- Made with an artisan dough that takes longer to rise
- Similar to focaccia, airy and has body.
- Is soft with a crisp, olive oil fried bottom.
- Worth the wait; it cooks longer than a normal pizza – 13 minutes in the pan and two minutes out of the pan, directly on the pizza stone.
- The plain is topped with Home Slice house sauce, provolone, thinly sliced mozzarella, Romano and oregano – and in true Sicilian style the cheese is underneath the sauce! And the pepperoni has all that and…well… loads of our delicious pepperoni.
- $3.50/slice plain; $3.75/slice pepperoni; $22 for a whole plain pie and 24.50 for a whole pepperoni pie.
- Like all Home Slice Pizza, made with love
Our poetic kitchen manager, Phil, rolls his sleeves up yet again to share how our Sicilian slice fits into an illustrious history:
This craggy bit of rock sticking out of the Mediterranean, flaunting the smoking tip of Mt. Etna, is on the other side of the Italy, separated by the Straits of Messina where mermaids were first sighted. Sicily has been consistently invaded and abandoned, every hundred years or so, since about the 4th century BC. The population, generation after generation, became stronger and stronger, more and more reliable upon themselves, cherishing their independence and freedom as only an occupied people can.
Then they came to America. Italian Grocers began putting ovens in the back of their shops. Locals stopped in for food from the old country, community in the new neighborhood, and for this new thing they were making: pizza.
When the Atomic Age hit, pizza became undeniably American with the advent of Industrial Ovens using gas instead of coal, made of steel instead of stone. The old school Italians, of course, kept using stone to cook on. Pizzas went from being Neapolitan, small and puffy, to New York Style – Large, crisp, and divided into slices. This meant that what had been a food designed for one person became food designed for one family.
It was in the 50s and 60s that the Sicilian Pizza was born. The Sicilian, so named for that romantic bit of rock in between Africa and Italy. The Sicilian, the left-handed cousin. Luka Brasi was from Sicily. That huge, loyal, dependable killer: Sicilian.
The Sicilian Pizza is a different dough from New York Style. While the New York style is strong and springy the Sicilian is soft and lush. While each goes through a 48-hour proofing period, the proof for the Sicilian is mostly at room temperature, while the New York Style is cold fermented the majority of the time. While New York Style is round, the Sicilian is square – dependable in its right angles and geometry.
Sicilian Pizza is called everything from “Sicilian” to “Square Pie” to “Upside Down Pie” to “The Grandma Slice”. It carries all these different monikers because each time it was conceived it was brought about by someone’s personal affection. These were Italian Americans who had moved to Brooklyn and Staten Island from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Italians who had settled in Jersey. Each shop began making its own version of the square pie, invoking the Grandmother for luck. “The Grandma Slice” says it all. The Grandma is the one who can make use of everything extra in the kitchen. The Grandma is the one who will find a way to take dough that is old, and make it useful. The Grandma is the one who will take sauce, which is the most loved and cared for of all recipes in an Italian kitchen, and bring it to the forefront of attention by making it the centerpiece of the Upside Down Pie, the Square Pie, the Sicilian Pie.
We started working on our Sicilian Pie about a year ago. We researched the authentic methods. We spoke to the Maestro, Dom DiMarco at DiFaras in Brooklyn. We spoke to Tony Gemignani on the West Coast. We contacted pizza makers in Boston, in Nashville, and back home here in Austin. Each shop, each pizza maker, was free and giving when it came to sharing information about how they go about making this pie, and why. What was similar for each was this: do it with love.
So we did.
We worked w/ a dough recipe until it became unfailing and delicious.
We worked on topping it so that it would be balanced and beautiful.
And then we hit upon this thing that doesn’t exist here in Austin, doesn’t really exist anywhere close to us. It’s similar to the Maestro’s. It’s similar to the beautiful Sicilians Gemignani makes in North Beach, San Francisco. But ours is definitely our own. Our own homage to those pizza makers in the 50s who originated this pie. Our own homage to Italian Americans who make the best out of everything, and in that way make everything better. Our own gift to our neighborhood, our community.
The 7th Annual Carnival O’ Pizza has come and gone, and as usual we packed just about as much fun as we could possibly have into 7 hours. There were contests, games, dancers, marching bands, artists, countless activities, and of course…. PIZZA!! While just about everyone who came through the midway had the pleasure of enjoying a slice or two, there were a handful of folks who got just a little bit more full than the rest.
The Extreme Pizza Eating contest proved to be just as heated and disgusting as usual, and in a twist of fate, we actually had our very first tie!
Yes, history was made as Chris “Chompy” Floyd and Randy Harrison consumed exactly the same amount (almost 2 large pizzas) in 30 minutes, resulting in both guys receiving the sweet reward of free pizza for a year! This is Randy’s second consecutive victory, and an incredible 5th title for Chompy!!
In a slightly less slobbery spectacle, pizza makers from local pizzerias squared off against our kitchen crew in challenges to throw not only the largest pizzas, but to make pizzas as quickly as possible. Taking the cake (ahem… pie) in this year’s size competition was Sergio from Austin’s Little Deli throwing a pie that was an incredible 38.5 inches in diameter, way to go Sergio!! In the blinding speed competition, Rockland from Austin’s Mellow Mushroom took down his competitors throwing 3 pies in an incredible 58 seconds!
As the evening cooled down, the competition heated up as the masters of endurance in our Hands on an Eggplant Sub (HOES) contest powered through the day. People came and went, bands played, dough was thrown, massive amounts of pizza was consumed, and the constant throughout the entire day was a small group of die-hards holding onto a 3-foot eggplant sub for dear life. In a shorter contest than years past, Chad Garyet took home the title as the last person standing after just over 16 hours. Chad is the proud recipient of a year’s worth of free pies, and has quickly become Home Slice’s most eligible dinner mate.
The finale of the day was our grand prize raffle drawing. Among countless prizes raffled throughout the day, one lucky person became the most eligible dinner mate (sorry, Chad forgot you have a girlfriend) at Home Slice. Pacifico Gouge became the only person on earth who can make a reservation at Home Slice this year. Unfortunately, kids, we can’t share his digits with you, but if you see him out and about, you may want to buy him a drink or something.
While we crowned many champions at the Carnival, the real winners of the day were the kids supported by our awesome charity, Austin Bat Cave. We are so proud to say that the Carnival O’ Pizza raised 19,000 dollars to help this incredible organization. The efforts put forth by the ABC team to help kids are mind-blowing, and we are truly honored to play a small role in the wonderful things that they do.
Of course, the Carnival would never be possible without our sponsors:
And most importantly, none of this happens without all of you, and your incredible dedication to Home Slice and your community. We are sincerely humbled and grateful beyond words to serve you. Until next year, keep your parm shakers high and your wine glasses full!!!!
As an effort to raise more money online for our awesome charity Austin Bat Cave, we have started an online fundraising campaign for our Hands on an Eggplant Sub contestants. Check out their pages, send them some love, and keep up with their progress!
Big Chicken is competing courtesy of our Homies at Fresa’s Chicken!
Pradel is competing courtesy of our Homies at Bird’s Barbershop!
Teajay is competing courtesy of our Homies at Bird’s Barbershop!
Zarina is competing courtesy of our Homies at Austin Motel!
I met with Chad Garyet and his girlfriend Nagisa Takahashi on last Wednesday at Home Slice. I met Chad for the first time at the 2010 Hands On a Eggplant Sub Contest, where he placed 3rd. We went out to the back patio and discussed his participation in the 2010 Carnival, and his intentions to take the title on this upcoming Carnival 2012.
Phil: Can you recall your fondest memory from the 2010 Carnival O Pizza?
Chad: There are two, really. The first was when my Mom brought Battleship. I played anyone. I played my Mom, my Dad, the other competitors. Everyone.
Phil: Nice. What’s the other memory?
Chad: It was that second morning you came by to watch over us from 4:00 AM – 6:00 AM and brought your guitar. It was really fun. You told us all those war stories from when you were a bartender in New York. Like the time you set yourself on fire…
Phil: Those were good times. Hanging out with you guys. Not so much the setting myself on fire part. Any moments of craziness in your time with the hand on the sub?
Chad: Midnight of Sunday. This woman came by with a yappy little dog. You know, one of those tiny yap-yap-yap dogs. So there we are, where we’ve been for about 30 hours at that point, and up comes the woman with the dog. I pet the dog. So there I am, one hand in the sub and one hand petting this woman’s yappy dog and up comes this big German shepherd. The German shepherd starts barking at the yappy dog. The yappy dog starts freaking out. The German shepherd starts lunging for the yappy dog. And there I am in the middle of it with one hand on the dog, and one hand on the sub.
Phil: How about a moment of clarity?
Chad: It was when I knew I wasn’t going to win. It was down to the three of us: me, Sonia, and Lauren. It was right after the point Lauren started feeling sick. She went white. I mean, WHITE. I thought for sure she was done for. But no. Lauren just kept on. Stoic. I realized then and there I wasn’t going to beat her; and I realized second gets nothing better than third. I mean, I’d already won the bottle of wine for raising the most money. And I was staring at the tip jar. I kept thinking that I’d done enough, competed long enough. It kind of felt that taking second and losing was less honorable than walking away with third place on my own volition. It was like a tactical move.
Phil: Any advice you want to give this year’s crop of competitors.
Chad: I’m going to compete this year so I’m going to have to take the fifth.
Chad and I talk off record regarding some alterations he’s making to his approach this year. He’s been busy thinking about this, people.
Phil: Can you tell us anything about preparation?
Chad: I’m going to stay off my feet until the last minute. Also, I’m not coming to the event until the last minute. Last time around I got to the Carnival right when it started @ noon. The competition didn’t start until 5:00. That was five extra hours of standing I didn’t need to do. The Carnival was really fun; don’t get me wrong. But I’m in it to win and I’m not doing any extra standing this year. I’m also going to stay up late and wake up maybe an hour before the competition. The sleep thing is a pretty big deal.
Phil: What about footwear?
Chad: I’m not going to tell you about this year (he told me; it’s pretty cool but confidential) but last time it was sandals and bare feet.
Phil: And how’d that work out for you?
Chad: Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.
Phil: Why is this competition special to you?
Chad: Because before it was just a restaurant, and now I really know what Home Slice is all about, and that’s because I got to know it through that competition. I mean, everyone who works at Home Slice really seems to love it, to love the thing they’re doing. I know people who say it’s just another pizza shop, but they’re wrong. Home Slice is really pretty special.
Phil: I gotta say, your support team was pretty impressive.
Chad: Yeah, my parents and friends are really awesome. My Mom spent like 10-15 minutes every day just rubbing my legs. Scott, my high school friend hung out through the entire first night while my parents went home and slept. Scott also took care of Miyaa (Chad’s cat). But that’s fair because I’ve taken care of his cat too.
Phil: Nagisa, are you prepared to stand by and support Chad through all of this?
Nagisa: I can’t drive. But I’ll get a ride from his parents and support him.
Phil: What frightens you in a competitor, Chad?
Chad: Sonia’s huge family for sure. I mean, there were ALWAYS there. Just so much support. That was pretty intimidating. And Lauren’s stoicism. Her strength and perseverance. I’m pretty sure I’m going to win this year because Lauren isn’t competing.
Phil: What inspires you?
Chad: That same strength and perseverance. It was so amazing when she came back from feeling sick and just stuck with it. It was totally inspiring.
Phil: Even though you took third, do you still consider yourself a H.O.E.?
Chad: Absolutely. I’m infamous at the place I used to work for being that crazy guy who did that crazy thing. When I was doing the competition I started posting a pic an hour on face book. By the end I had tons of people following it, following me. People still look at those pics. People still recognize me from it. But it’s bigger than that. Being a H.O.E. showed me what I could do, what I was capable of.
Phil: What was it like when you put your hand in the sub?
Chad: It was like cleaning dog poop. Except without the bag that you put your hand in to pick up the poop. It wasn’t anything worse than I’ve dealt with before, really. And, actually, afterwards my hands were really soft for like a month. Like really nice and soft. People remarked on it.
What’s up Homies, as you know, the Carnival is going down on Saturday November 10th at Home Slice! You might be wondering, “What even happens at this ‘Carnival’ thing I keep hearing about?” Well, friends, wonder no more, here’s the run-down of the day’s contests and entertainment. Come on down on Saturday, its going to be a blast!!
- Gigantic Grand Prize Raffle Drawing (6:30 pm)
- Pizza Eating Contest (5:00 pm)
- Little Stolen Moments (4:45 pm)
- Minor Mishap Marching Band (4:15 pm)
- Big Don (3:45 pm)
- Little Stolen Moments (3:15 pm)
- Dough Tossing Speed Competition featuring pizza wizards from Little Deli and Mellow Mushroom attempting to take down Home Slice’s very own. (3:00)
- B-Boy City Break Dancing Group (2:45 pm)
- Dough Tossing Size Competition featuring pizza pros from Little Deli and Mellow Mushroom attempting to take down Home Slice’s very own. (2:00 pm)
- The Love Leighs (1:30 pm)
- Hands on an Eggplant Sub Contest (1:00 pm)
- Box Folding Competition (1:00 pm)
- B-Boy City Break Dancing Group (12:45)
- Poetry readings by kids from Austin Bat Cave throughout the day!
- Raffle drawings all day long!
- M.C Jon Stringer serving as your guide through all the zany activities of the day!
I first met Tony Villani, the owner of Little Deli and Pizza, at the 2011 Carnival O Pizza. Tony came with two of his pizza makers, David and Caesar, both of whom competed in the Pizza Tossing Contests with tenacity and pride and was so inspired by the scene that he ended up writing a check to Austin Bat Cave on the spot. Tony will be one of our celebrity judges for the 2012 contests. He graciously let me into his kitchen last week, fed me like family, and spoke with me like the friend and comrade in arms that he is.
The inside of the shop is pretty small, maybe 1000 square feet total. There are lines drawn on the door frame of the entry into the kitchen. These lines mark the height of neighborhood children, accompanied by their names and birthdays. The lines begin at two to three feet and reach to the top of the doorframe. Hundreds of horizontal benchmarks, each telling the story of a family that had come to this shop to celebrate and annotate. As I looked around I saw each table, inside and outside, was occupied. Groups of three, groups of four, couples looking lovingly at each other, families with kids in strollers, young men with pitchers of beer. Everyone happy, everyone with food at their fingertips, it doesn’t get any better than that.
I went into the kitchen where there are a couple of tables next to the dried goods and sat down w/ Tony and his right-hand, David. His pizza makers were maybe six feet away, working the Marsal oven like they were born to do it. His sandwich makers were maybe 10 feet away in another direction, knocking out these amazing subs that are packed with some of the finest fresh cut meats I’ve seen in a while. As each customer passed through the restaurant, they caught Tony’s eye, which sparkled with each customer he saw. He knows them all by name, and with each customer who passed, I could tell they all felt the same thing: Home.
“It’s a hole in the wall,” Tony told me, “but it’s my five star hole in the wall.”
Tony’s commitment to quality and integrity is pretty amazing. He sources his ingredients from everywhere, never cutting the easy corner to get to the end. He buys what he loves, and why would you buy anything else, really? Tony told me, “When I finally decided to do this thing, to buy a running restaurant and follow my dream I knew I could either work a ‘job’ (he had been working at Dell) or do what I love.” He’s right; it’s kind of a no-brainer.
He’d been putting things into his “My Dream Restaurant” file folder since he was 18, growing up on the Jersey Shore in Seaside Park, which is spitting distance from Seaside Heights (“Jersey Shore” filming location). Tony worked the boardwalk as a kid, and what he wanted more than anything, all these years later, was to open a legit Jersey Shore Pizzeria. His “My Dream Restaurant” file had grown to be over two inches thick some eight years ago, before he even knew that the original Little Deli Owners (Jonathon and Lucretia) were interested in selling.
Tony grew up on his Grandmother’s cooking. She is, I suspect, exactly the Italian grandmother you are picturing. The little woman who puts out a mountain of amazing food made from simple ingredients every Sunday, with an extra platter of pork chops just in case someone is still hungry. He knew that was something he wanted to be associated with, something he could be proud to do.
“If you wake up in the morning, roll over, and say to your wife, ‘I know how we can make a lot of money,’ “ he told me, “this is the wrong business for you”.
That mentality comes from Grandma’s cooking. If you are interested in making food to show off, Italian cooking isn’t going to satisfy you. If you are interested in bringing people together, sharing and loving and being family – then you are doing something worthwhile. The food is an expression of the love, passion, and commitment to family and community. The quality of ingredients and the care of preparation shout that from the mountaintops.
As we’re sitting in the back room we get a pizza delivered to the little four top nestled a foot away from the walk in cooler. The crust on this pizza is OUT OF SIGHT, the crunch is legit, and the flavor on the dough is deep and intricate. As I look around his tiny kitchen I see two “bigga” starters he has working for the next day’s dough. A bigga is a kind of bread sponge that is made hours in advance of the actual dough. It is a painstaking and tedious process that most people in the business discard as being antiquated and useless. Not Tony. This is what gives his dough that depth. Sure, it’s hard; but why would you do it any other way?
As we eat his delicious pizza, (which is followed by an mind blowing gyro with a home made tzatziki sauce and a side of their home made “Hot G” hot garlic sauce) we talk about the kind of work we do in the pizza and deli world. We talk about how we have noticed that hoity-toity “culinary trained” chefs tend to think of the thing we do as sort of low-brow and disposable, at which we both have a laugh. As Tony says, “I may be a Chihuahua, but I think like a pit bull”. Sure, neither of us have a bag of knives (and we certainly have respect for those cats that do), but for us it comes down to what the shop can do, not what we individually can do. When talking about his shop, he is never really talking about himself but the thing that’s bigger – his crew, his community. He sums it up perfectly in one sentence, “There’s something special here”.
Tony is an admitted Pizza fanatic. He started working on his recipe in his house on Wednesday nights, years ago before he had a shop. While he’d worked in restaurants for years, knew grill, knew fry, he didn’t know dough. Although he didn’t know how to bake, he knew he wanted to. He wanted to know how dough was supposed to feel. Like how a grandmother makes dough without a recipe or a cookbook. There’s a phrase for it: Salt of the Hand. Tony wanted to be that grandmother, wanted his hand to have that salt, so he started cooking for a couple of friends at his house.
“You bring the beer, you bring the ingredients,” he told a couple of close friends, “and I’ll make the pizza”.
Within six months there were 25 people showing up to his house on a Wednesday night. He made pizzas on screens, pans, and pans with holes on them. And then he cooked on stone. There was no turning back from there.
He was cooking in a convection oven that just wouldn’t get hot enough. He figured out he could fake out the oven by turning it to the “CLEAN” setting and then killing the cycle half way in. This got his oven hotter than the oven thought it could be. With this he was able to get closer and closer to the kind of pizza he wanted, that Jersey Shore pizza he had grown up with when he was eating his Grandmother’s endless supply of Sunday dinners.
It was his neighbors, Jonathon and Lucretia, who were the original owners of Little Deli. They had a buyer in line when he found out they were letting the restaurant go. They hadn’t asked Tony if he was interested in buying them out because he wanted a pizza shop, not a sandwich shop. Time passed, the buyer fell by the wayside, and Tony was in line to pick up the space.
He lost 20% of the clientele when he took over, despite not changing anything for two years. And then he found a way to put a pizza oven into his tiny 1000 square foot shop.
He moved walls, sacrificed seating, did everything he could do, and in the end brought his vision to fruition. This is Tony’s way… He is that guy. It’s like his “flat grill”, which is actually an 18” Panini press. Regardless, he’s kicking out Philly Cheese Steaks w/ provolone not to mention the gyro that is seriously better than any other gyro I’ve ever had. He’s cooking in a tiny space, but with wide vision. More importantly, he expands his menu to his taste, his love, and not to his seeming limitations. Honestly, it’s a kind of crazy person who looks at a Panini press and believes it will be a working flat grill. Crazy like a fox.
When we talk about sauce, or “gravy” as Tony’s grandma might call it, Tony’s truest self comes alive. He talks about the quality of tomatoes, and the integrity of the people he gets them from. He loves how they rotate their crops in the blends and the honest simplicity of ingredients. “Simple is the best. Consistency is everything”. While he had made sauce in every way possible he finally settled on a basic sauce that isn’t heated until it hits the oven with the pizza, due to the carmelization that occurs upon heating. Too much carmelization, and the sauce can be too sweet. No matter what, though, the sauce has to sit for a full day before it’s good to serve, which allows the spices have time to mix and marinade. Sure, you have to wait; but honestly, what’s the rush?
And that’s the thing about Tony, and about Tony’s shop: each thing in there has a kind of care behind it that belies respect. It takes time and patience to cut prosciutto razor thin, to make a bigga for dough, to make a “My Dream Restaurant” file folder two inches thick, to grow a shop into the place that a community depends upon and thrives with.
While Tony talks fast and still carries a definite Jersey Boardwalk energy, he is in no rush other than to make someone happy, make them feel at home, make them feel welcome, like they are sitting at his Grandmother’s table. I am truly grateful that he sat me down inside of his shop and let me feel what that is like. I am blown away by the kind of deep knowledge he carries about dough. He definitely has the salt of the hand, and I am deeply, deeply honored that he has agreed to be a judge at this year’s Carnival O Pizza. I can’t wait for you to meet him.
Hi there. I’m Phil. I’m the Senior Kitchen Manager here at Home Slice Pizza and I am the luckiest guy in the world. The world. Two years ago I met Lauren Shugart, winner of the 2010 Hands On an Eggplant Sub (H.O.E.S) competition. When she was being interviewed prior to the competition, she was asked what set her apart, what made her think that she could win this challenge of endurance and will. Her response was short, sweet, and to the point: “I’m a champ.” She IS a champ. She was a champ before she competed and took the title for H.O.E.S. 2010. She was a champ when she won it. And she was still a champ last night when we met at Home Slice to have some slices, drink some wine (the Salice Salentino that was recommended by Ross. Thanks, Ross!), and chat about the Carnival past, and the upcoming Carnival O Pizza, which is coming up on November 10th, 2012.
Phil: Lauren, what is your fondest memory from the Hands On An Eggplant Sub competition?
Lauren: There are really two memories. The first was the cup of coffee. I love coffee. I tried not to drink much of anything during the competition and so I hadn’t had any coffee for the length of it. That cup of coffee that someone, I can’t even remember who, handed me that morning, it was delicious. The second memory was when you brought me into the kitchen, opened the oven doors, and you had me smell the bread that was baking.
Phil: I LOVE that moment. I recall it fondly too! It was early in the morning, hours before we open, and we were baking off the bread for the day. Both of my ovens were full of our bread. That smell, that smell of freshly baking bread, man, it just smells like hope, like anything is possible, like life is amazing. Because it is. I was really grateful to have been there when you took the title, and to share with you the thing that bakers get to experience every day before dawn breaks.
Lauren: It was really nice.
Phil: Was there a moment of craziness?
Lauren: Craziness? No. Crazy laughter? Yes. We laughed so much. So much. The Chad (Chad Garyet) was hilarious. Maybe we were giddy from sleep deprivation. At one point I had thought that the table we were standing at had moved. I mean, I thought that the table had been at the back of the restaurant, then at the side of the More Home Slice, then in front of More Home Slice.
Phil: Maybe your brain was inventing movement because you had been standing in the same place so long.
Phil: Did you have any moment of clarity that came from all of that? Any kind of sweat lodge epiphany?
Lauren: Not really. There was a moment towards the end when I was feeling pretty nauseous. I was standing there, hand in the sub, and trying to figure out what I was going to do. Do I just lean away and hope for the best? Do I take my hand off and give up? It was pretty uncomfortable for a little while. I came pretty close to giving up right then and there, and I was pretty far in. It was only Chad, Sonia (Sonia Arellano) at that point. I really didn’t think I was going to make it and I’d come so far already. But then it passed and I was okay. Then I knew I was going to take it all the way to the end.
Phil: Which you did.
Lauren: Which I did.
Phil: Because you’re a champ. What kind of advice could you give the contestants this year?
Lauren: You don’t need all the stuff you think you want to bring. I brought an iPod; I never listened to it. I brought books; I never read them. I did bring a shoe box full of dog food.
Phil: A shoe box full of dog food?
Lauren: Well, a taped shoe box full of dog food. My dogs were pretty confused when I was putting it together.
Phil: Okay, what’s up with the shoe box and the dog food?
Lauren: Well, if you’re going to be standing for a long period of time it helps to shift your weight from leg to leg and to elevate your feet back and forth. I chose the shoe box because I could change the height by putting it either horizontally or vertically and change the position of my foot. I used the dog food because I needed to weight it down and I had a lot of dog food available. You know, because of my dogs.
Phil: That’s brilliant! Did you have any fear of attracting roving bands of feral dogs?
Lauren: No. But I think that could have worked in my favor.
Phil: How did you prepare for this kind of competition?
Lauren: I didn’t, really. I decided to do it a couple of weeks before the event. I had seen it on the Home Slice website and thought it would be a cool thing to do. So I signed up. Then the Sunday before the Saturday of Carnival I decided I should probably try standing for a little while to get a sense of what I was getting myself into. So I stood for an hour, and then I stopped. It was standing just like I remembered standing. No big deal. Bring on the competition.
Phil: What about footwear?
Lauren: Footwear is really important. I love camping and I’ve got this awesome pair of blue hiking boots I wore. They’re really sturdy w/ great support. And they’re blue. I do have to say that the fact that they’re hiking boots and have ankle support made a huge difference. Also I brought I yoga mat to stand on. I think Seth (Seth Mazow, Champion 2008, 2009) did that as well.
Phil: I had heard that Seth had BUILT his own yoga mat for the competition.
Lauren: That sounds like Seth.
Phil: So I gotta say, one of the things I love about your win was how Sam supported you throughout. You and she are just a great couple. Sonia’s family was supportive to her. Chad’s folks were for him. I know your Mom came and supported you as well, but it really seemed to me that Sam played a pretty big role in your support, which lead to your championship title.
Lauren: Yeah, she’s great. She put up with my mood swings. That was really a great comfort. That last day she was heading to work really early and she had stopped by the store to pick up some bananas for me. But the bananas weren’t ripe enough. They were green. I kind of lost it. I mean, I was really tired. But all I wanted was a banana and the bananas she brought I couldn’t eat. It really bummed me out. I sent her away and she was really sort of bummed out that I was so upset. But she kept texting me afterwards and kept encouraging me to keep on, even though I was clearly at my wits end.
Phil: Do you feel differently about pizza now then before? I mean, having eaten pizza free for a year did your discover anything about pizza that you didn’t know before?
Lauren: I’ve always loved pizza. Really the difference between then and now is the relationship with Home Slice that happened during that year I was Champion. When I would come in once a week, because I came in at least once a week, everyone was really cool, really nice. It was never like “Oh, here’s the girl who gets free pizza”. It was always like, “Hey! It’s Lauren!” That was really great. Also I got to see how you guys approach this really simple food for the art that it is. You care so much about every part of it. It’s so clear. So many people look at pizza as just disposable food. Just the kind of thing you order in the morning when you’re hung over (not that I’ve ever done that). Whatever. Point is that it’s more than that. Food is more than that. It’s kind of sad that people don’t really stop to eat, or stop to eat together, to share a meal, to share the experience. You guys do that really well. You guys love the food, the experience, the whole thing. It’s bigger than pizza.
Phil: Thanks! So are you going to compete this year?
Lauren: I was thinking about it but it falls on the same weekend as Field Biology Trip. It’s a bummer. If it weren’t for the conflicting schedule I would do it again.
Phil: What frightens you in a competitor?
Lauren: Nothing. There’s nothing in a competitor that would frighten me. Annoy me, maybe.
Phil: What inspires you in a competitor?
Lauren: Super annoying people.
Phil: How do super annoying people inspire you?
Lauren: Some people just need to be taken down a couple notches, Phil. Some people just need to be taken down.
Phil: Do you still think of yourself as a H.O.E.?
Lauren: Yeah, but I don’t want to be that guy. That “remember when” guy. That “remember me, wasn’t that cool” guy. But it’s definitely a big part of who I am, and what I can accomplish. The competition came around at a pretty pivotal part of my life. I was only really starting to make smart, adult decisions. And then I did the contest. I made a decision and I stuck by it. I followed through with it. I believed in myself. It was the decision to do things that are cool and not shitty. That served me well ever since.
Phil: What did it feel like the first time you stuck your hand in the sub?
Lauren: It was gross. I thought it would be hotter but it wasn’t. It just felt gross.
Phil: Did you choose left or right hand?
Lauren: Right. There had been some discussion about it. I’m right handed. A lot of people said that I should go w/ the left so I could keep my dominant hand free. But I thought that if I had to think about what I was doing w/ my left hand it would be better, keep me more alert. I thought I could control my dominant hand better and keep it in the sub. Of course it got tricky putting on and taking off my headphones. HEADPHONES, by the way. Use ear buds. They’re crappy headphones and bad for your ears, but trying to put on proper headphones w/ only one hand is pretty challenging. That’s why the robe was so awesome.
Phil: The robe! Right! I had forgotten that robe. It looked like a 50s housewife robe.
Lauren: It may not have been the cleanest robe but it added to my mystique…
Phil: No, I mean it just looked hilarious. Like you looked like The Dude.
Lauren: Right. It was pretty comfortable. And easy to put on and take off with one hand.
Phil: Is there something you would have done differently if you were going to compete this year?
Lauren: I would just bring less stuff. Robe. Shoe Box with dog food. Ripe bananas.
Phil: Why is H.O.E.S. special to you?
Lauren: Because of the relationships. Because of Home Slice’s relationship to its neighborhood. It’s commitment to quality. (You guys should open a shop up North, you know). Because of what it showed me I was capable of. That and every time I come to More Home Slice I get kind of sentimental when I go to the bathroom…
Lauren: That’s the bathroom we got to use for our bathroom breaks. It became this very special and safe place for me. I could move my arms. I could spin around. I could stretch and breath. I could be alone. I still feel really romantic about that bathroom. I love it so much.
Phil: What’s your favorite topping on a pie?
Lauren: I love the clam pie. It’s amazing. I mean it’s so good. Also the pepperoni and mushroom is Sam’s favorite. Those are the two we normally get.
Phil: What’s the craziest pie you’ve ordered?
Lauren: There were some friends of mine who ordered this super over topped pizza even though I advised them against it. It had every ingredient. When it got to the table I looked at it and said, “No. No way I’m eating that”. It was just too much.
Phil: What combination doesn’t work?
Lauren: Anchovies, for sure. I mean I love them in your Caesar Dressing. But anchovies all by themselves? No. Broccoli is too bulky. Also, and I hate to say it, Fresh Mozzarella. It’s just too much. It’s too thick. It throws off the balance of the pizza.
Phil: What would you tell someone who knows nothing about the Carnival O Pizza?
Lauren: That it’s an amazing charity event, run by a local pizza shop, doing cool things that are unexpected. Phil, you always talk about the families, and the kids playing with dough, and this vibe of a bunch of people sharing this experience all at once. That’s what I would talk about. I’d talk about how it’s all these people who don’t know each other but who are really connected. And that it happens. It’s kind of amazing that it happens at all, really. But it happens for everyone, all at once, so they can share this thing, altogether. That’s what I’d say about the Carnival.
Phil: Thanks, Champ. You’re the bomb.
Lauren: You too, Phil.
With that, we ended our conversation. We had killed the bottle of Salice Salentino (again, great recommendation, Ross!) and went back to More Home Slice to grab a couple of slices of pepperoni for her to take home to Sam. We held hands for a second while she looked wistfully at the bathroom she loves so much. I said goodnight to the Champ and she went home to her loving girlfriend and dogs, who are still confused as to why she taped up that shoebox full of dog food.