There it was, dropped in passing during a conversation about Joe’s Pizza with its founder’s grandson Sal Vitale: “I’ve never been to it, man, but I’ll tell you something, my grandfather, whenever he tells me stories, it’s always about Pino’s.”
Sal Vitale’s grandfather, if you aren’t steeped in New York City pizza lore, is Pino “Joe” Pozzuoli. As in the Joe of Joe’s, the Greenwich Village institution many consider the quintessential New York City slice.
“His pizzeria in Boston was called Pino’s Pizza,” Vitale continues. “It’s still open. He went to Italy, he left it to his partners, and then he came back and his partners told him pretty much, you know, ‘You’re out of here.’ They’d bought him out. And he moved to New York in ’74 and opened Joe’s.”
As an ardent Yankees fan and pizza nut, it is perhaps more a reflection of my own calcified sports tribalism that this resonated so strongly. The very food culture sidewalk of New York City felt like it was crumbling. It gave birth to a realization – halting and dripping with reluctance – the words forming with the same cringe every Yankees fan gets when hearing the Fenway faithful sing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” before the bottom of the eighth.
“Wait, if you want to go to New York City’s original Joe’s, you have to go to… BAW-ston?”
Queue ominous music: DUN-DUN-DUNN.
For those to whom the importance of Joe’s to the New York City pizza scene isn’t clear, consider this. “Joe’s” is the answer to the question asked by any visiting tourist of their New Yorker friends: “I’m coming to New York City, I’ve never eaten pizza there, I have time for one slice, where should I go?”
You can argue there are better spots (some do), and there are other acceptable places to begin (classics like Patsy’s, Totonno’s, DiFara, L&B, and the like). But to understand the city’s cut-and-sling slice culture, Joe’s is pizza 101—the foundation slice any New York City pizza education should be built on. And not the recent expansions—the Village original (which, of course, actually moved from the corner three storefronts down in 2005).
Given that, Joe’s has been written about ad infinitum. So it’s surprising that with all that press, it’s rarely noted that Joe’s legend started elsewhere. And why’d Joe return to Italy anyway?
“My grandmother didn’t want to stay in Boston anymore,” Vitale says laughing. “She didn’t want to stay in Boston, and he told his partners, ‘Listen, I’m out of here, just send me money monthly for five years and the store is yours,’” Vitale said. “And he came back in five years and they said, ‘Listen, you passed your date, this is your money, we’re buying you out.’ So he left Boston and he came to New York.”
Okay, but why would Joe continue to tell stories about Pino’s?
“I think because it’s still open and the way he lost his store, he’s never lost a store like that, you know?” Vitale said. “It was taken from him. But that’s what it was back then. Back then, Boston, rules were rules if you know what I mean. And that’s it, that’s what happened. Thank God, ’cause I think what happened over here in New York is a blessing.”
So Pino’s is the one that got away… from Joe Pozzuoli? The sultan of slice shops?
That’s how I ended up on a train to Boston.
Pino’s is in Brighton, a suburban neighborhood in the city’s northwest corner, about a 25-minute drive from downtown (if you’re taking the T, it’s the Red Line to Park Street then the Green Line to Cleveland Circle). We’re talking Boston College’s backyard.
I have several hours on the train to go over what Sal said, and to research Pino’s. While the Boston origins aren’t widely repeated, they have been reported. In his book, Pizza City: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Favorite Food, Star-Ledger food writer Peter Genovese corroborates much of what Vitale said in an interview with Joe, noting Pozzuoli opened Pino’s in 1959, and that other stores followed, including one on Washington Street in Boston.
It turns out a gent named Michael Valero worked there before opening his own shop nearby in 1961, Piece O’ Pizza. In 1968, Valero changed the name to one that may be more familiar if you know New England’s pizzascape, Papa Gino’s, which at last count numbered some 100 stores.
Who knew you could trace that pizza chain’s lineage to Joe Pozzuoli, too?
But this is all one side of the story, right?
Wicked Local, a local Boston site, interviewed Pino’s owner Feliciano (Phil) Petruzziello in 2009 (Petruzziello took on longtime employee Norman Osmani as partner in 2002), who tells a different story.
“I learned that this place in Cleveland Circle was available to rent,” Petruzziello explained. “It was called Pino’s. I befriended the owner, who had decided to go back to Italy. The business was only a year old. He sold it to me….I worked for him for no pay for about a year. I was his apprentice. By working, I learned the business. At that time, the space was half the size it is now. I made some mistakes at the beginning, but I tried different things.”
As I disembark, there are questions. What was the understanding between Pozzuoli and Petruzziello when Joe left? Did Phil really apprentice for Joe for free for a year? If so, wow! Was Pino’s really “taken” or had it just been lost? And given the perpetual line at Joe’s on a busy street in New York City, why would Joe still talk about a little shop in a quiet corner of Boston?
Pino’s is sandwiched in between a hardware store and a deli. There’s a white facade above the entrance with jumbled letters filled with lightbulbs, “Ristorante Pino,” as well as the restaurant’s phone number, almost as if an internet ad had escaped into the real world. “Serving Boston since 1962,” small print claims.
It’s well-lit inside and filled with blond wood booths that make it a warren for private pizza eating. The windows are filled with wrought-iron and a sign that proclaims “Pino’s path.” The mural to the right features a wood-burning brick oven and a pie man in chef whites wearing a poofy chef hat and a kerchief around his neck. The short-bearded cook holds a long peel in perspective, slinging a pie that looks like it’s just been removed from the oven and is about to land on the actual table in front of him. “Pino,” says the nametag on his jacket.
The cook looks nothing like Joe Pozzuoli.
Pino’s serves dinners (stuffed shells, ziti, and the like), salads, subs, and apps. There are 11 specialty pies (all conventionally topped save a minor outlier, an alfredo pie with grilled chicken) and six standard slices.
I order a slice, which is slipped into the oven for a reheat. It’s still early in the day, but the bucolic surroundings are a far cry from the hustle of Carmine Street outside Joe’s. There’s no line and so, no fresh pie, the hallmark of the West Village stalwart. Still, there’s an art to the reheat and the slice comes out molten hot, as at Joe’s.
The first thing you notice is how wide the slice is—unlike in the West Village, where slices stretch an inch over the side, Pino’s slice takes up nearly the entire paper plate, tip barely over the lip. It’s very thin to the point of near floppy, like Joe’s, maybe even thinner, but with no real air or crumb to the cornicione. The slice oozes cheese, there’s a bright, salty tomato flavor, and a grease drip at the tip.
I’d be lying if I said I could pick it out of a lineup of just better-than-average New York slices but a Joe’s slice? No. It’s not as cheesy and it’s thinner with less rise and color to the crust. It’s a good neighborhood slice. A short square features more sauce and a light cheesing. It’s reminiscent of a Sicilian pie served at Phil’s Pizza on Varick Street in New York’s Greenwich Village.
I ask if it’s possible to talk with Feliciano Petruzziello and a long-distance call is made. Phil is 86 and on vacation in Avellino, Italy, about an hour’s drive inland from Naples. He’s halting and understandably wary of questions surrounding a business deal that took place a half-century ago but pleasant and chatty, though he never mentions Joe by name and doesn’t let on that he’s aware of Joe’s success.
“He ran it for a short time when I took over,” Petruzziello says of Joe at Pino’s. “My heart went into it. This gentleman, he’s in New York now? I did buy from him. I was always working. I had a year as an apprentice with him.”
I ask about him coming back to Boston after leaving for Italy.
“He came back to Boston?” he asks. “I never heard of him coming back. He was a decent guy. Pino’s was a small space when I took it over. Very limited. I enlarged the matter. Listen, I came over when I was 18 years old. I was born in the Old Country on a farm. I was always by my mother’s side. That’s where I learned my love for pizza and the idea to do it. I was young with plenty of energy. I enjoyed the pizza and the quality I produced. You start a business, it takes a long time. The process, either you know it or you don’t. I’m pretty proud of it. My partner now is a hard-working guy.”
In the ultimate irony, Feliciano goes on to say he used to send packages of par-cooked pizzas to former customers who had moved to New York City and missed Pino’s. He contests the idea that there’s a repeatable standard pizza recipe (“There’s no such thing!”), notes that “anybody can mix flour, water, and yeast,” but that “a dough without levitation burns in the oven,” and disputes Pino’s being New York-style pizza. “This is Brookline!” (Pino’s is on the edge between Brookline and Brighton).
By the end of the conversation, Phil has remembered that Joe did return. “I lost track of him,” he says. “I think he’s from Naples. He came back a couple of times, but we lost contact.”
When he came back, had Joe wanted to take Pino’s back over?
“Not as far as I know,” Phil says. “I bought it out. When you sell something you sell something. Thank god we’ve been successful. The rest is history.”
Indeed. I thank Phil, walk outside, and start the trip back to New York City where Joe returned in 1975, settling into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with dreams of opening a pizzeria on the prime corner of Carmine and Bleecker in Manhattan. “I liked the location,” he told Genovese. “But I was going in green. People told me I would never last.”
Thirty years later, with his lease was up, and unable to afford the rent increase, Pozzuoli scrambled for a nearby location. “He got lucky—a vacant storefront three doors down,” Genovese wrote. “It once housed Golden Pizza; it turned into a gold mine for Pozzuoli. A competitor moved into his original location; he didn’t last a year.”
So much goes into the success of a business, the making of legends and legacies. And how much of it, ultimately, is unplanned? An unhappy significant other, a relocation and subsequent return, an available lease on an open corner in a busy city, and the steady persistence of a dedicated owner in the quiet corner of another.
You celebrate the successes you have and lament the ones you don’t.
Both Petruzziello and Pozzuoli found success and have proud stories to tell, and with places like Stoked, Regina’s, and Galleria Umberto, Boston does have its share of good pizza.
Still, when the cheese stops pulling and the grease dries, here’s what it comes down to for Beantown, even after winning four World Series this century.
First, they lost the Babe, then Joe “Pino“ Pozzuoli.