This week I stopped by Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for a virtual tour and a chat with Paulie and Mary Ann. Every other week I go Inside the Pizzeria to bring you closer to the best pizza in NYC without leaving your house. Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop may have only opened in August 2018 but the decor is a total throwback to the 1960s and 1970s slice shops Paulie and Mary Ann grew up with. Paulie regaled us with stories about every poster, fixture, and detail of the shop. After the tour, I followed up with manager Drew Brown to collect some additional info about some elements we didn’t have time to cover.
Here’s my paraphrased version of the information we learned on our tour. I captured the accompanying photos from the tour video, so please excuse their imperfect quality.
RUNNING THE PIZZERIA
Q: What was the biggest challenge with starting a pizza business as a second career?
A: I recommend it to anybody who loves pizza and people. I enjoy this because it gives me an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. You have to be at the restaurant so if you like that, you’ll do well. I always wanted to be was a DJ so I could introduce music to people and I get to do that now! Don’t do this to make money because you won’t be happy. Before I opened this place I almost bought a slice shop around the corner. There was no room for people to sit so I would have just been selling pizza, not selling an experience. It would have been a grind. I don’t sell pizza, I serve pizza.
Q: How much time do you spend at the pizzerias?
A: I’m at the wood-fired spot almost every night because I live nearby. Drew Brown takes care of the slice shop so I don’t get here quite as often. Maybe that will change as the weather gets warmer.
Q: What do you look for in a location?
A: You want it to have already been a restaurant so you don’t get bogged down by extra inspections, fire suppression, ventilation, etc. It’s best if you can find a space that’s already designated as an eating and drinking establishment so you can get a liquor license. You’ll make a living selling pizza but you’ll make a life selling alcohol. Slice shops only need wine and beer, not a full liquor license. You also want to make sure you find a space with enough room to store your dough.
Right now is a good time to grab a space since so many restaurants have closed. Landlords are sitting on empty spaces with equipment they can’t use so it’s the right time to find a good deal.
Q: Was there anything you designed in your restaurants that turned out to be a terrible idea?
A: All I wanted was one of those high powered air hand dryers but it turns out you can hear it all throughout the restaurant. If you’re going to get one, make sure it’s inside the restroom and you get soundproof doors.
Q: What’s the most difficult aspect of running a slice shop?
A: Staffing is the hardest. Number two is having enough space to store dough.
Q: What’s the square footage of the slice shop?
A: The shop is 1,600 sq feet. The basement’s ceiling is just 5 feet high.
Q: What flour do you use at each pizzeria?
A: We use Red Rose Artisan flour at the slice shop. That’s the non-organic flour from Central Milling. At the wood-fired spot we use Caputo (blue) Pizzeria flour.
Q: You’ve been secretive about your tomatoes in the past but here you have cases of tomatoes sitting around for all to see. Why is that?
A: I used to get special tomatoes privately labeled but then I found a product I like much better. They’re Stanislaus Tomato Magic ground tomatoes. We just blend them down some more and that’s it. No seasoning, no extra salt, no cooking. Just the product itself.
Q: What cheese do you use?
A: We use a blend of whole milk and part skim mozzarella from Grande. We shred and blend it ourselves.
Q: What’s the difference between the square (Sicilian) dough and the round dough?
A: We use the same flour for both doughs but the formulations are different. Our dough for the square is 75% hydration, the round is 60%. We also use a little more oil for the square pizza dough. The olive oil we use is from a California company called Corto.
Q: What’s the dough process for the round pizzas?
A: We have a minimum fermentation time of 24 hours. Our target is 48-72 hours but sometimes we have to dip into the younger dough. The mix takes about 10-11 minutes, then we give it a 10 minute rest before balling. If it’s warm out we put the dough directly into the cooler, otherwise we let it rest for 30 minutes first. Our mixer is right next to our ovens so we need to be done with it before we open at 11am.
Beyond the usual flour, water, salt, yeast, and oil we also add 6-8 old dough balls into the mix, six when it’s warmer and eight when it’s colder. That’s about 10-15% of our flour weight. As for fresh yeast, we use 40g per bag of flour and that comes to about 0.175% in baker’s percentage. In terms of dough temperature, wee try to hit 76-78°F.
Q: What’s your dough process for the square pizzas?
A: For this dough, we do a 10 minute mix followed by some stretch and folds. We then portion the dough and store four per tray for an overnight rise in the cooler. The next morning they get more stretch and folds, then we pan them into oiled seeded pans. They sit at ambient temperature for 3-4 hours, then we store the dough in the cooler until we need it.
Q: What is your bake temp for the round and square pies? Are they the same?
A: Rounds currently bake at 575° F and squares bake at 550° F. That might change with the shift from gas to electric ovens. Rounds take 8-9 minutes to bake, squares take 15-20 minutes.
Q: What’s your favorite NYC pizza other than your own?
A: For slice shops I love Scarr’s, L’industrie, Joe’s, and New Park Pizza. When you go to New Park you have to order a whole pie well done. They’re not the most consistent place, but when they’re on it’s really excellent.
Q: Can you tell us about the sesame seeds on the bottom of your square pies?
A: All of our Sicilians slices have sesame seeds on the bottom. I first saw that at Freddy’s Pizzeria in Whitestone, Queens. Joe, the owner, showed us how to do it. I think we do it a little differently now but the idea came from his pizza. We put a little pomace oil in the pans first thing in the morning then coat the pan with sesame seeds. They wait until the dough is ready to go into the pans.
Q: Do you ferment the square with the cheese on top or just dough?
A: No, we let the dough sit in the pans until they’re needed, then we bake with just the cheese. We don’t add the sauce until halfway through the bake. That way, there’s less weight on the dough so we can get the crust to be light and airy.
Q: Why are you switching from gas to electric ovens?
A: When the shop is busy, you need to pump out pizzas fast. As a pizza bakes, the floor of the oven cools down. The more pizza you bake, the more the oven temperature drops. When that happens, there are two things you can do and neither are optimal. You can put more pizza right into the cold oven, which gets you a nice top but an undercooked bottom. Or you can wait for the oven to recover, which leads to even LONGER wait times.
With an electric oven, there’s a heating element right in the stone. WFO is all about the romance of fire, but electric is all about putting out a great product. These new (PizzaMaster) ovens are going to make the pizza I want to serve and that’s what I need.
Q: What’s your favorite beer to go with a slice?
A: Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. has a great witte and that’s my favorite beer. We pour it at the wood-fired location. At one point we served Yankee beer here at the slice shop, but we still serve Ballentine beer! That was the beer of the Yankees back in the 1960s. Besides that, I love Other Half’s Green City IPA because I sell so much of it.
Q: Do you foresee a post-pandemic pizza hangover?
A: I hope not! It’s still a food that everybody loves and because of its value it will always do well. I opened the wood fired location in the depths of the “Great Recession.” Before I opened I talked to two friends who owned pizzerias at that time and asked if they’re doing as well as before. The both said they were doing better! When things go south in terms of what you can afford, you’re not going to Peter Luger anymore. You’re not going for high end sushi. But you can always go for pizza. And you can have the best of it without spending beaucoup bucks.
Q: Do you do any marketing?
A: Absolutely! It’s called social media. I’ve never spent a dime on advertising (besides swag like pens and pins). We don’t spend money. It’s almost like with advertising I’d be telling people I need them more than they need me. I learned very early on that if you can get an article placed it’s way better. Websites are always looking for content so I try to provide that. Then you just have to make great food and take care of people so they’ll come back.
The best thing I’ve ever done for marketing is wear other people’s hats [Paulie is wearing a hat from Pizza Bruno in Orlando]. I have no competitors, we’re all colleagues whether they like it or not. Earlier today someone told me, “you need to be cutthroat to succeed.” That’s not a great attitude. I’d rather be friends with everybody. If I praise someone they’ll praise me.
Q: Any final words of wisdom?
A: For those who think that you might want to do this, just do it. Life is not a dress rehearsal. I believe in God, I believe we all have God’s power within us and in my life when I’ve called upon God to give me strength and wisdom to get through a problem, I did. That’s how I got the courage to sign the lease at 60 Greenpoint Ave and open my first pizzeria. When you do what you love you don’t feel like you’re working. When I was trying to please someone else I wasn’t excited. Now I get excited thinking about what to put on the walls of my pizzeria. That’s not work.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to my crew for dealing with this for a solid year. They’ve served the community and made it possible to remain open at both locations. THANK YOU!