Difficult times have often been a catalyst for resilient arts. As such, it will be interesting to see what is created after this enormously trying period. But already, Brooklynites are coming together to creatively express what we have lost: they’re making stages out of their balconies and serenading the community, snapping portraits of those in quarantine, and — in this Thursday Spotlight’s case — paying tribute to a lost neighbor.
Here, actor and illustrator Tony Wolf discusses his cartoon in The New York Times that was published earlier this month and pays homage to the life of Carmine Notaro, the late owner of the beloved Carmine’s Original Pizza. Learn about his process and reflections in our interview!
Greenpointers: To rewind a bit, what was your relationship to Carmine(‘s), as a pizzeria and/or neighborhood figure?
Tony Wolf: Shortly after I moved to Greenpoint in1996, I discovered Carmine’s Pizza, since my apartment was just a block and a half from it. I instantly loved the pizza and the vibe of the place. Over time, Carmine came to recognize me as a familiar face, as I’m sure he did with so many people and customers. He had a quietly reassuring, welcoming presence, and I noticed how many hours a day he worked. We talked occasionally and became friendly. I personally saw him extend such kindness to the homeless of the area, and witnessed the manner in which he treated all his customers.
Carmine sadly passed on April 2; less than a week later, your full page cartoon appeared in The New York Times. Did you immediately know, following the news of Carmine’s passing, that you wanted to create something? Or had you already had some kind of tribute in the works?
I had wanted to do a piece about Carmine as far back as 2014, when I started “Greenpoint of View.” As shown in the comic, I did try to interview him in 2015. Over time, I worked up a pitch, and was thrilled when the Times greenlighted it! The comic was completed in December 2019, and the editors needed to hold it for a few months, since they plan the Food section far in advance. Once Carmine passed away, we quickly made text edits to the last panel.
On Facebook you credit Thomas J. Gryphon with help with the execution. You artistically spearheaded this process, but can you discuss Thomas’ contributions?
Thomas aka Tom has been working with me for about five years now. He also invested me early on, by printing up my first physical minicomics. With my stories, I research, write, illustrate, and hand-letter everything, and Tom does all the coloring, plus lettering corrections via Photoshop, and other formatting work to get it ready for print or online presentation. With the colors, he’ll do a first draft, then I’ll give him notes on that draft, and we’ll trade drafts back and forth until I feel it’s done. If I’m the film writer/director, he’s the cinematographer and lighting designer I collaborate with. Tom also found a way to fit the entire comic on a broadsheet New York Times page, something I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to figure out!
That picture of Carmine napping is so jovial; it really captures the tireless work of our community leaders, no?
Ha, yes! It was really fun to discover that many people had taken affectionate pictures of Carmine napping over the years, and I enjoyed going through instagram to find the ones I wanted to draw in that “napping montage” sequence. Long ago in the entertainment world, the phrase “The hardest working man in show business!” would be used to introduce James Brown and Elton John, and I often thought to myself in the early 2000s, “This guy Carmine must surely be the hardest working man in the pizza business!”, especially given his age.
Your work is such a lovely testament to our small and local businesses during this time. Do you have any words you’d like to share with our neighborhood locales during this difficult moment?
Thanks, that’s very kind of you. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for restaurant owners and workers during this extremely difficult time…and was saddened to hear about places like Cherry Point on Manhattan Avenue having to go out of business. So many wonderful restaurants have gone under; it’s heartbreaking. And we are all, around the nation, extremely grateful for the local businesses and food places that are doing delivery and working so hard to provide those services. The importance of essential workers at this time cannot be overstated.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m just really thankful that I got to tell the story of Carmine Notaro to the world. I’ve always loved the work that Greenpointers does in covering the community, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me. And Carmine’s two sons, Patrick and John, were really helpful with my research, and they gave me some extra information about their dad’s life story.
Most Brooklynites would probably consider themselves qualified to judge a slice of pizza—it’s a skill we’ve all honed over years of hard New York living. When we take that first bite of cheezy ‘za, we’re able to make a detailed analysis in a matter of seconds: we subconsciously measure the thickness of the the slice, the crust’s crispiness, the ratio of the sauce to grease to cheese. And whenever we travel outside of the city, we generally snub our noses at pizza from other places; it can’t possibly be as good as a legit New York slice.
Now, pizza lovers will have another option to choose from on Graham Avenue that’s going to challenge fans of Carmine’s and Tony’s. And if you can get over the fact that this pizza comes to us via Portland, Oregon, then Sizzle Pie (457 Graham Ave.) might become your new favorite neighborhood slice joint. Sizzle’s got a variety of interesting pies (among others, The Gold Ring: white truffle, oil, goat cheese and green onion, and The Stolen Firebird: hatch green chiles, eggs, bacon and hashbrowns) as well as a wide range of vegan and gluten free options. And as far as we know, they’re the only place where you’re able to get a half slice—perfect for when you’ve already had two slices and want just a taste of another slice but don’t want to feel over-the-top full. They’re also serving beer and wine, and by summertime the back patio will be fully open and bumpin’. Check ’em out and decide for yourself who’s got the best cheese slice—Carmine’s, Tony’s or the Portland wild card that is Sizzle.
Sizzle Pie | 457 Graham Avenue
11am-3am Sunday thru Thursday, 11am-4am Friday & Saturday
“After 35 years of serving pizza in the great neighborhood of Greenpoint, I have decided that it is finally time to retire. I thank every person who ever walked into Carmine’s Original Pizza for your business, your conversation and your friendship. I will remember and miss you all. Each day was truly a pleasure because of you!”