Paulie Gee & The Brotherhood of Pizza Entrepreneurs – Part I: No More Takeout
Editor’s note: this story is presented in five parts, stay tuned!
Part I: No More Takeout
To live in Greenpoint is to know Paulie Gee’s pizzeria. Since the restaurant first opened on Greenpoint Avenue in 2010, Paulie Gee’s became first a neighborhood institution, then a dining destination, and now an ethos unto itself, captained by none other than Paul Giannone himself (a.k.a. “Paulie Gee”).
Dining at Paulie Gee’s is truly an experience, if you can get in. Like many Brooklyn institutions, Paulie Gee’s does not take reservations. These days a line will form as early as 4pm for a table on the weekends. After 8pm? Fuggetaboutit. But if you do manage to get in, entering the restaurant is like entering a rustic pizza palace, a candle-lit cathedral of pie.
Built out by the prolific, award-winning Evan and Oliver Haslegrave brothers of design shop hOmE Studios, Paulie Gee’s interior is a patchwork of exposed brick and patterned wood walls with a small, elevated bar at the entrance before an expansive great room hosting a collection of bespoke, wooden dining tables and a bricolage of seats and chairs. The high ceilings allow for a shallow shelf on which sits a collection of household table lamps with a variety of lampshades. Paired with the table candles, Paulie Gee’s dining room glows warm and welcoming as the custom-built Stefano Ferrara brick pizza oven watches over everything from its perch in the back of the restaurant.
And like any pizzeria, that oven, orange flames peaking out the opening, is the life-source of the restaurant. An investment unto itself, the oven was imported from Italy and meticulously installed.
Inevitably, while dining at Paulie Gee’s, enjoying his rotating repertoire of unique and original pies like The Hellboy, Ricky Ricotta, or Anise and Anephew, Paulie Gee will shuffle up to your table. Wearing thick black frame glasses, a ball cap from another pizzeria – he collects them – and an open flannel over a T-shirt, Paulie Gee holds a to-go coffee from Oslo Coffee and speaks in a mild Brooklyn bravado, tinged with a jovial cadence, something like Martin Scorsese meets Woody Allen.
“Are you enjoying your pizza?” Paulie asks, somehow both sheepish and proud. He genuinely wants to know.
In all the years, as all my friends can also testify, we’ve never eaten at Paulie Gee’s without Paulie stopping by our table. In fact, one date night with my girlfriend we decided to order three pies so that we would have leftovers for the next day and Paulie came by with a bottle of Limoncello and three glasses, saying, “We have to have a drink every time someone orders more pizzas than heads at the table.”
Paulie truly loves his customers.
“When I opened the place,” Paulie says, “I knew I was running it in a way that required me to be here. And I believed that I needed to be here. And I knew I was giving up the opportunity for growth by doing that. But I was just happy to be able to have my own place, one place, no problem…”
And yet, as the pizzeria grew more and more popular, a small problem did arise: Take out. “I never liked what a pizza box would do to take out, ya know,” says Paulie. At first he didn’t do anything about it, even though the take out was beginning to impact the service, especially on a busy night: “You come here,” Paulie says. “‘Oh, how long is the wait?’ ‘An hour and a half.’ ‘Ok, ok, can I get take out?’ ‘Oh yeah, sure!’
“So now you have people sitting here, they wind up waiting longer for their pies because we’re trying to slip in the take out, then you have the people out front waiting longer for their table, and for what? People were going home. Were they drinking my beer? Were they drinking my wine? No. They were drinking the beer from the bodega. Did I get to sit and talk with them, chat with them, whatever… No.
“I didn’t do anything about it at first and it got to the point where we were making enough money that I could afford to take the hit for a little while, thinking I would make it back in other ways: more people coming in at dinner time during the week, perhaps drinking our wine and beer… and that didn’t happen! But I really felt good about doing that, I really did.”
Paulie Gee’s discontinued take out in October, 2014 and ultimately, Paulie was “leaving a lot of money on the table,” but the integrity of the pizza pie came first. “Everything else was secondary,” says Paulie.
“I want people to enjoy it fresh out of the oven and I want people to enjoy the experience. And people weren’t enjoying the experience nearly as much because of the take out,” Paulie says. “The last straw was interesting: one Saturday afternoon I saw somebody with seven pies to go. I was curious, so, ‘What’s going on? You got a party?’ ‘Oh no, I work for Postmates.’ ‘Oh… Postmates?! So, um… where you going with those pies?’ He’s on a bicycle. ‘Stuyvesant town.’ ‘Ok… you going by helicopter?’
“I said, these pies are going to be totally ruined. They’re ruined in ten minutes. Forget about going all the way to Stuyvesant Town on a bike. And I was really upset about that… Some people would say, ‘I just want to take it to the park,’’’ Paulie says with a shrug. “Ya know, I wanted to accommodate them but it’s a slippery slope, and I had to stand my ground on that. So I got this idea: well, why not open up a slice joint?”
And that’s when Paulie began his quest to find a space to open a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant. The search started as a conversation with the owner at Franklin’s Pizza, just around the corner from Paulie Gee’s. “I didn’t even know that the place was for sale,” says Paulie. ”I went up to him and, ya know, I kinda asked him, ‘I’m sure you’re doing very well, I’m sure you’re very happy, but if, ya know, if you’re ever thinking about moving on, please let me know.’”
But that deal just wasn’t moving forward. “He basically strung me out for at least half a year,” Paulie admits. “So finally I said to him, I said, ‘Look, you wanna do this? I would pay you X amount of money in key money and, ya know, this would be it.’ ‘Argh, I gotta get back to you…’ ‘Look, if you don’t do this, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna find another space nearby here and quite frankly it’s going to hurt your business.’ And he wouldn’t budge. But at that point I was determined. I saw, ya know, the neighborhood is blowing up, there’s a need for it here, there’s a demand for it… I have people.”
One of those people is Andrew Brown. “Drew Brown if you’re his friend,” Paulie adds. “Andrew Brown if you’re, ya know, his boss. “
Andrew Brown has been making pizzas at Paulie Gee’s for “a couple of years now,” and initially came to work for Paulie because he wanted to open up his own pizzeria.
“Ya know, he’s the one who wanted to do this slice shop with me,” Paulie explains. “And once I knew I wanted to do this, I started picking the brains of different people. The first person I talked to was Frank [Pinello] at Best Pizza.”
Paulie had previously sent some consulting business to Frank: “a couple of guys from Toronto, a guy in LA who wanted to do New York style pizza, a guy in England,” Paulie says. “And I think Frank helped all three of them.”
But when Paulie went to Frank for advice and direction on opening up a slice shop, “He kinda scared the shit out of me,” Paulie says. “Made me think, ya know, it’s really rough and I was trying to get ideas about how you go about different things and he kinda questioned what I was doing, so, I didn’t feel really good about what I was doing when I walked away from there.”
But Andrew was still very much excited about the idea. And encouraged Paulie.
“I said, ya know, Andrew, after talking with Frank I’m kinda, ya know, uh… I don’t have a real good feeling about this, I have to focus getting our other locations opened.” Paulie says. “And he said, ‘You don’t worry about anything. We’re gonna do this, I got it covered. You don’t have to worry about anything.’ Because he has a real passion for doing this. And in about 15 minutes he turned my head around.”
Slightly deterred but ultimately determined, Paulie kept looking for spaces: a small place just like Franklin Pizza was all he wanted but he couldn’t find it. And then he saw 110 Franklin Street at the corner of Noble Street, just two and a half blocks from Paulie Gee’s pizzeria. “I could’ve taken the back or the front,” Paulie says. “They really wanted to break it up. They said, ‘If you want it, you really gotta take the back.’ I wanted the front, not the back.” Paulie pauses and finishes with a shrug, saying, “Finally I just said, ‘Ya know what, I’ll take the whole thing.’”
But it felt like a bit of a risk, the space was just too big. It’s a great corner space with visibility, “Where ya wanna be,” and Paulie talked with Mike from Mike’s Hot Honey about doing something in the space, but that didn’t work out. He talked to “a number” of ice cream places but they weren’t interested. And then Red Star, the sports bar on Greenpoint and West, rebranded as a Brazilian steakhouse so Paulie saw the potential need for a sports bar in the neighborhood. Thinking he could do pizza in the front and a sports bar in the back, Paulie signed a lease on the whole space. “And now the Brazilian steakhouse or whatever it was is going back to being a sports bar,” says Paulie. “But that’s ok, as he just said to me yesterday, there’s room in the neighborhood for everybody.”
Paulie’s vision for this new venture is to open an old school New York slice joint. “I like to keep things simple,” he says. “I don’t try to reinvent the wheel or whatever.”
Referring to The New York Pizza Project book, and paying homage to some of his favorite slice shops like Best Pizza, Joe’s, or Prince Street Pizza, Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint’s menu will be fundamental: white pie with garlic and Romano cheese and basil, plain pie, some Mike’s Hot Honey, an upside down square pie, some vegan squares, pepperoni, maybe something different. “I would never put pepperoni on a pizza at Paulie Gee’s,” says Paulie, “but there I would.”
But there’s more to the forthcoming Slice Joint than pizza. Paulie’s vision is to give the place a 1960s vibe and atmosphere, inspired in part by the pizza shops he frequented in Brooklyn or took his children to near their home in New Jersey. “The closest town to me where there’s a slice joint is Martinsville, New Jersey, ok?” asks Paulie. “And we’ve been going there to this slice joint for 30-something years. My kids grew up getting their pizza there, sitting in that place. So I went to talk with the owner, the owner’s son, Jerry, and I started telling him what I was gonna do and I started asking for advice, what do you do about this, what do you do about that, yada yada… and I showed him a picture, I said, ‘Yeah, I want it to be an old school slice joint. I wanna get seats like this,’ and I had taken a picture of Elegante’s Pizzeria in that book The Pizza Project and I showed him these orange bench seats with the tables attached. And he said, ‘I have those!’ I had forgotten that he had remodeled his pizzeria about four years ago maybe, but I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I got six of them’ – he didn’t even know how many he had – he had eight of them. And I said, ‘What do you want for them?’ And he said, ‘Want for them? My wife’s gonna kill me if I don’t get those things out of my garage immediately. I was about to chop them up in a few days!’
So Paulie rented a U-Haul truck for $68 and his son and he went to pick up the orange pizzeria bench seat tables. “I think we made two trips,” Paulie remembers. “It was rough – those things are really heavy, my back hurt for a long time. My son’s back hurt for a day or two, but my back hurt for a long time.”
But these Slice Joint seats, from the 1960s, are not just old school seats. They’re not just antiques. “They’re antiques that my children grew up sitting in,” says Paulie. “And I’m gonna have them in my restaurant. That just blows my mind.”
Paulie also bought a Cornelius JetSpray JT 20 double five-gallon bowl beverage dispenser. “I’m gonna have punch in one and orange in the other,” he says, proudly. “And the things go around and around, we gonna do that. It’s gonna look like a place from the sixties.”
Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint will begin with take out pies and slices and eventually do delivery. Paulie’s also excited about the sports bar in the back: “Thinking of having 18 taps,” he says. “Four or five with wine, cider, and the rest beer. No bottles of wine, just tap.” And soda too, Coca-Cola products, unlike Scarr’s Pizza on Orchard Street, who’s vibe is also very 1960s. “We had the same idea at the same time but his theme is Pepsi,” says Paulie. In fact, Scarr Pimentel gifted Paulie a vintage Coke sign when they last met. “It’s not exactly what I wanted,” says Paulie. “But I think I’m gonna work something out because I like the idea of having that gift and using it.”
Paulie’s currently thinking on more signage for the slice joint while waiting for the landlord to complete the turnover work in the space. “Everybody asks me, ‘When ya gonna open?’” Paul says smugly. “The first thing I ask them is, ‘Have you ever opened up a restaurant before?’ Then they say, ‘No.’ And I say, ‘I can tell. Because if you did, you’d know never to ask that question.’”
But one thing you can rest assured on is that 110 Franklin St. will soon be home to Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint. Or maybe it’ll be called something else? “It’s gonna be Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint,” Paulie insists. “We thought about Slice Spot but that didn’t quite roll… I didn’t want to call it Slice Shop because I also want the name to connote the bar. A sports bar! A joint can be a bar, but a shop can’t be a bar. A spot could be a bar, but I think we’ll go with Paulie Gee’s Slice Joint. Though I reserve the right to change it.”
Part II: The Beginning will be published at Greenpointers.com later this week.