#1/52: Bleecker Street Pizza

What is it, exactly, about Pizza?

pizza

There's something about pizza

 

There is an almost indefinable quality to this one-man-show of a foodgroup.

A slice of pizza conjures up playful images from our youth. Eating it make us feel devilish, childlike and almost naughty. It evokes memories of birthday parties and grammar school classroom celebrations. And there is, certainly, no replacement for that quick and easy phone call to our favorite local pizza joint for a speedy delivery of both pizza and good time  – especially during game night – especially during the World Series!

But, in actual fact, there is nothing naughty or devilish about pizza. On the contrary, it is quite good – and good for you – if you use the right ingredients.

I know this because I spent 13 hours with my hands in dough—as well as chopping and browning the onions, stirring the sauce, finishing it with olive oil, basil, oregano and Parmigiano cheese and even delivering it to your doorstep. Let me tell you about my day…

Getting my hands dirty - Putting the mozzarella on the Nonna Maria Pizza

By days end I was making Pizza- Placing mozzarella on a Bleecker Street favorite: the Nonna Maria. Photo by Sandy Hechtman

 

I arrive at 10am and I am immediately put to work. Very quickly I learn that before one can cook, one must clean. See, I always thought it was the other way around – I always thought we needed to clean up our messes after we made them. But this is not the case today.

I am handed a roll of paper towels and some windex – and I proceed to wipe down everything I see – the tables and chairs which will be filled with hungry eaters by noontime, the counters where our customers will eventually lean their elbows and press their noses in search and in study of the perfect slice, the windows, the glass soda cases and lastly, the plastic sign out front which boasts, “Best pizza in NY – 3 years running!”

Greg Greenwood and I are a tag-team operation. He brings out the chairs for our sidewalk cafe, I wipe them down. Greg is the brother of the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza, Doug Greenwood,  so this is a family operation. It is a nice and sunny day and Greg happily does his work. He is not quite whistling a tune, but he certainly seems like the type of guy who might do just that.

Greg came out of retirement to work here and keep an eye on things for his brother. He worked, for over 30 years, at a desk job for NY State Tax. He’s not quite sure which is harder: pizza or taxes, but he remembers fondly that he had an easier time finding a lunch hour in his old gig. Here at Bleecker Street – it’s always lunch! He is very funny and very sweet. Throughout the day you can hear Greg instruct customer after customer to, “watch your step” so they don’t trip on the stairs as they leave. It doesn’t matter if you are a first-timer or if you are a regular here. No matter how many times you have walked up the steps to Bleecker Street Pizza, Greg will kindly part ways with you with a simple, “watch your step.” It’s just his thing. What you don’t know about Greg is that he knows you are a regular – and he wants you to watch your step anyway. That’s just the kind of guy he is. And Bleecker Street is better for it.

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Watch your step!

 

I keep my eyes on Greg for most of the morning. Even when I am off doing other work, I feel the need to know where Greg is at all times, just in case I need to watch my step.

Greg tells me that he chose to come out of retirement because he gets bored after a few days at home with his two friends: Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. That being said, after a few days of Pizza and Pizza-hungry customers, Oprah’s not looking so bad to him. So Greg and I give everything a once over and I am eager and anxious to get started with the real work. I know I can always run back to Greg if I need a break or if the heat of the kitchen gets to me.

Greg has a warmth about him and his work means something to him. Greg is the kind of guy that gets to work at 9:30, when he doesn’t really have to be in until 10. And he teaches me a valuable lesson: He shows me that before I can make a mess out of something (pizza, for example), I need to clean up from the night before and start with a fresh slate.

While windexing the last of our 4 outdoor tables I realize: Greg’s lesson about cleaning before cooking can be applied more broadly.

I think about past and present relationships. I think about how I sometimes come to new relationships without having cleaned myself up and wiped myself off from those that came before. I remember a date I went on – only 3 weeks after a recent breakup – and I later realized that everything I was saying to him (the new guy) was really meant to be said to him (the old guy). You’ve got to wipe the counters down before you get yourself cooking – in life and in love – and in pizza.

After cleaning I spend about two hours doing nothing. Well, seemingly nothing. Nothing only to the untrained eye. For two hours I watch… and I watch… and watch. I only later discovered that all that nothing was indeed – turning into a something.

I find myself a little perch in the corner of the pizza place. I am nestled in between a burning hot oven (I know this because my wrist accidentally grazed it a few times) and an even hotter pizza-maker. I watch Tony ever so gently and delicately make pizza. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.

Tony works for 10 hours a day and he makes pizza the entire time – one after the other after the other. While he is doing this, he has his ears tuned in the every aspect of the operation at Bleecker Street. He hears and he knows everything that is going on behind him – but his focus remains on the pie.

Tony has quite a gentle and artistic way with his work. And as the pressure from the kitchen heats up and the lunch crowds pour in – Tony is anything but tense. He is calm and cool – a man in control of his pizza.

While Tony technically resides in the fast-paced city of Manhattan, his heart and his rhythmic and calm pace are an echo of his former existence in a place that is far away from here. While he makes pizza (Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.) he paints me a picture of a land where people don’t run from one appointment to another and where food choices are much more limited. He reminisces about a simpler life. Tony speaks of a place where just one meal a day is enough to pleasure and satisfy a person, all the while he is serving up pizza to the masses – for their lunch, and their dinner and their late night snack.

So, after I wait and watch – and watch and wait – Tony finally turns to me with those dangerous steel-blue eyes and says one simple yet powerful word, “ready?”

Tony decides I am ready to go to the back kitchen after watching him make pizza for two hours

Tony finally decides that I am ready to go to the kitchen after watching him make pizza for 2 hours. Photo by Sandy Hechtman

 

All that waiting and watching and finally, my time has come. I later learn that Tony was teaching me my second lesson for the day. Sometimes we do have to watch and wait and take it all in… and learn.

Sometimes we can’t win the jackpot on our first pull of the lever. Sometimes we can’t score a home run with our very first swing of the bat. Sometimes we can’t even make a lasting marriage with our first walk down the aisle. Life is funny that way. Sometimes we have to watch and wait.

I have a habit of always wanting to jump right in to everything I do. I want to make things happen and make them happen quickly. I want to fall in love, and find the perfect career and make fast friends instantly upon first encounter. I want to get to the end, before I even try my hand at the beginning. I want to move in and marry you, before I even know your name – or at least before I even know who you really are and who I really am as well.

Tony’s slow and patient pizza making lesson is a lesson for life. And when I think about my life, with Tony’s simple lesson in mind, I realize that some of the best things in my life are those that took a bit of time. I have three best friends – we are a foursome all together. There is no one I trust more deeply and can lean on more closely than these girls, who I have known since 3rd grade. And while I have met some fabulous people in this great city, Tony reminds me of the lesson that good things take time and patience – with friendships as well as with pizza.

So now, it is time.

“We go to the back” Tony says with a smile and a nod. We walk, like a death march almost, to the kitchen in the far back of the restaurant. Tony opens one-half of the swinging kitchen door and says to Miguel, “This is Amy. Show her what to do.”

Now I am officially nervous. I look for Greg one last time but he is now far away from me, up front by the register making sure people are getting in and out of the door without tripping all over themselves. So it is just me – cooking in the kitchen with Miguel – tripping all over myself.

Miguel speaks little English but he has kind eyes and a tender way about him. He apologizes for his lack of language skills – and that is the last time for the entire day that it feels like there is any language barrier between us. I am in a tiny kitchen with tight quarters, with Miguel and we are joined by 6 other young guys. They bump into each other, get in each others way, borrow each others knives and drop packages on the floor. But not once do they fight. Not once do they seem to get frustrated with each other. Not once do they stand angrily on top of one another. They all seem to get along. And they all seem to know their first and only priority – to get the job done.

The very first thing we do has nothing to do with pizza. I also thought it had nothing to do with ANYTHING of any importance – but I would later find out that I was wrong.

We begin assembling the salads. Most pizza places have a salad on the menu as an option – so this is where we start for the day. We fill our clear plastic containers to the top with mesclun greens, 4 tomato slices, 5 cucumber slices, a handful of sliced black olives and cubed red peppers. We add a slice of purple onion for flair.

Then something happened to me in that moment when that very first salad came together. Mind my raced – from thinking that this task was meaningless and hoping to move on to more important matters like dough, sauce and cheese – to all of the sudden realizing the importance of what I was doing – however large or small.

The idea that someone – some random person – was going to eat the salad I had prepared for them kept me going. Don’t get me wrong, I have made salad before – all types of salads with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts and all sorts of fun treats on top. But the realization that I was making this salad for someone to enjoy – for someone to find pleasure in – that alone made it worth it.

We all do our jobs for different reasons. In that moment, as a salad maker, I found pleasure and satisfaction in the idea of feeding people. To help someone’s day go more smoothly, to give them a bit of pleasure, to allow a busy mother to enjoy a quick and heathy meal – that made it all worth it. When you begin to make food for others, especially if you (like me) have never really done so, it takes on a meaning and a life of its own. It becomes quite maternal. I don’t cook much, just like many single NYers. But the chance to make a simple salad as my first task in the tiny kitchen in the back of Bleecker Street Pizza helped me to understand the true value of feeding another human being. I realized the purity of real people (not real machines) making real food – even something as simple as a house salad.

After salad prep, we chop onions and garlic for the marinara sauce. We let this brown for a very long time in a pot that is larger than any I have ever seen with a wooden spoon that is, quite possibly, larger than any you have ever seen. Every time one of us passes by the big pot with the big spoon on our way in and out of the kitchen or in and out of the refrigerator in the back of the kitchen, we give it a good stir. A few hours later – with the addition of tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper, oil and few other secret ingredients – WE HAVE SAUCE!

So after several hours of salad and sauce and a little bit of a roll in the dough, I have indeed graduated. I only know this because when I looked up from that steaming pot of thick and hearty red sauce, I see those steel-blue eyes checking on me to gauge my progress. Miguel and I peacefully part ways. I tell him he is a great teacher. I’m not sure he understands me – but he smiles just the same.

With Tony by my side, I return to the front of the house – to the stage where Tony makes his pizza. And it is indeed a stage – elevated just enough from the common pizza eaters. Tony’s perch sits on a pretty nice piece of real estate – complete with a large window view. He often gazes out the window – and if you’re lucky, you get to gaze back in at him. I say this because I can see how very valuable Tony is to the neighborhood people. As the workers of Greenwich Village are going about their day – they never neglect Tony as they shower him with warm waves and winks. Tony never neglects them either and no matter how busy things are inside our little pizzeria, Tony appears, to the outside world, to be connected and in tune with the beat of the neighborhood streets. Greenwich Village practically has a mayor on every corner – an old timer who has survived the decades or a young shop owner who is treated by all like royalty – waving hello as he goes. That is the way Greenwich Village is – and that’s the way we like it. Tony is like a king – of the corner of Bleecker & 7th at least. But he’s a good king and a benevolent dictator – I think this is one of Tony’s favorite things to do – to watch out the window and be one with the people.

Tony’s other favorite thing to do – make pizza. And he’s good at it. Tony gives me a look and I know my time has come.

We start, of course, with the dough. We slowly work and stretch the dough – by rotating it and pressing it on the marble slab countertop. Tony slides his gently against gravity and into the air – and i try to do the same. We stretch and manipulate the dough until it grows into a full size pizza crust. My dough comes out a little thinner than it is supposed to be. Tony tosses it, without malice, into the garbage.

Out of kindness, and a bit of sympathy, he hands me his dough and I continue my work with that. I sprinkle some cheese – maybe a little too much – on the pie. Tony takes off the extra cheese and puts it back in the cheese bin. Time for sauce. Tony hands me the ladle and he patiently guides my shaky hands as I place each dollop of sauce in the correct quadrant. Tony then tries to move the sauce around, with his hands,  so it is placed more evenly throughout the surface of the pizza. Tony and I have a back and forth rhythm now: I make, he fixes. Finally, I sprinkle the oregano, Parmigiano and my favorite ingredient, some extra virgin olive oil on my pizza. And we have liftoff! I pop the pizza in the oven and I breath a sign of relief. High fives all around. I have learned that it is not at all easy to make pizza and it is even harder to make good pizza. With the right ingredients – and maybe 1,000 more lessons from Tony & Miguel I might just get the hang of it. Take a look for yourself:

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Watching

 

_GWW1302

Follow

 

_GWW1307

Study

 

_GWW1310

Practice

 

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Practice again

 

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Finale (photo series by Gary Winter)

 

All this pizza making had me curious. I wanted to know more about the Man Behind the Curtain. With my new found knowledge that pizza-making is not an easy task and that running a pizza shop is an overwhelming project,  I needed to explore what it was that would compel one man to take on such a feat. He had to have a good reason.

Doug Greenwood is the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza. Doug is a charming man. He is warm, inviting and almost seems a bit of a softee. He has that paternal quality of generously yet forcefully pushing food on those around him. “Eat, eat” he said several times until I was forced to enjoy a salad and a slice.  

I think this is an important quality in a restaurant owner. But a softee he is not. Doug is a retired NYPD Captain. He served for 26 years. He may be soft hearted but there is certainly a strength and a sense of leadership about him – uniform or no uniform.

Cops, firefighters – they are all welcome here – and they know it. In fact, at Bleecker Street Pizza, anyone who comes in wearing a uniform is treated with a certain respect and a sense that they are not taken for granted here. Besides having great pizza, it is a good place to be for a man or woman in blue. There is a sense of fraternity and comraderie on the corner of Bleecker & 7th. And I suddenly feel even safer.

I spent a little time with Doug last week. He took me to the back and through the kitchen into the refrigerator. With childlike excitement Doug shows me all of his fabulous ingredients. He points out, with enthusiasm, the Basil from Israel and the real ParmigianoReggiano cheese. “Not everybody uses this”, he says. Quality – and sometimes costly – ingredients are what make the pizza great. That – and an italian grandmother with a perfect recipe for sauce.

My night at Bleecker Street Pizza ends with a delivery. I was having so much fun working with these guys and making people smile with a slice, that I neglected the fact that there were some hungry mouths to feed just down the street. Good thing the boxed up pie was sitting on top of the oven – cold pizza is just not the same.

This season’s 30 Rock says it best:

(After you have watched it: click “Continue” and then “Pause” – these clips tend to run on for some reason.) 

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Much like a schoolboy, Tony grabs his backpack and gives me a nod. It is 10:36. We have put in a full day and it is time to go home. It’s funny to think that he spent his whole day participating in this seemingly simple task – but that he brought so much pleasure to so many. 

I’m not actually a pizza person. At least I wasn’t until I tasted the house favorite a few years back: The Grandma Nonna. I am a thick crust kinda girl and this square slice just does it for me. The Nonna Maria is pretty life changing as well. They are both knee-buckling bites to eat.

And while I didn’t consider myself a pizza-craving fanatic like most manhattanites, lately, I have been dreaming about hooking my arm up to an intravenous drip of that Bleecker Street marinara sauce. Yes, I have been dreaming about pizza – and Tony and Miguel and Greg and Doug and the rest of the boys at Bleecker Street. I have been thinking about how hard they work and how much heart they put into each and every slice. If you happen to find yourself wandering around Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue – I beg you to pay them a visit. If you can’t get down that way, give them a ring for delivery. You just might get me at your doorstep.

Play me – Pizza Delivery Girl:

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “#1/52: Bleecker Street Pizza

  1. I really liked your blog and the intimate look at the restaurant biz. The photos and videos had me salivating. Looking forward to next Thursday!!! Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  2. Jon

    Great write-up Amy! I only read a few blogs and this one may make the list. I love your writing style; personal yet worldly, simple yet deep; serious yet fun … Sweetchuck and Hartnett would be proud! 🙂

    • Thanks Jon! Yes, please follow along throughout the year. If you want to subscribe there is a button on the right hand side of the main page. I hope you are well!. Thinking fondly of those days with hartnett and perez and you too! -Amy

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