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.