A pizza chef talks about styles of communication, the value of persistence, and playing country music on Long Island.
He stands at the end of the juice case at the McEwen Whole Foods, with a card table, a toaster oven, and a sign with his face on it. The ball cap he wears (in person, not in his picture) bears a logo that matches the one on his sign. Its flowing Edwardian script, fashionably unfashionable, has that old-school cachet ever leveraged by the hipster crowd: instantly recognizable by not lending itself to being easily understood.
Joe tells me that his is authentic Sicilian pizza, with sauce made from an old family recipe, and a crust made with a technique perfected during years of working in New York City. The whole wheat angle on the crust gives me pause, but any doubt as to authenticity is guaranteed by his accent, as broad as if he were talking around a wad of tobacco.
A little girl reaches for a sample. He stops her with a look.
“Is it okay with your mom?” he demands.
Her mom comes up behind and says yes, it’s okay. “We were hoping the pizza guy was here,” she smiles winningly.
He offers me another sample, while we chat. I take it conscientiously, even though whole wheat makes my stomach hurt. My instinct is that it would be unwise to deny Joe something when he’s offering it.
A teenage girl hears us talking, and says she’s headed for New York City this summer, to do an internship. She asks him what the best pizza places are.
“Well, where are you going to be living?” He gives her a couple of names–one in the East Village, one in Brooklyn.
She points to his sign.
“Is that you?” she asks.
He seems affronted.
“What? I look different? Because I’ve got no hair in picture, is that what you mean?” He tugs ferociously on the bill of his ball cap.
In that picture, Joe looked very Old World–his shoulders are rounded forward, as if he’s slightly fatigued. A black apron hangs from his neck. His eyes give him that impenetrable, button-eyed look we like in woodland creatures and kindly old foreigners.
In person, Joe’s eyes are sharp, and pale brown. He has a resonant but hoarse voice that moves a lot faster than you realize, until you’re trying to keep up with it while typing. (He won’t let me use my recorder.)
People from Long Beach, where I’m from, have warm exteriors, hard exteriors. But very direct. You may not like what you hear most of the time, but it’s honest.
Here, there’s not wanting to hurt people’s feelings. People are generally polite here. You can put that down.
Joe is very clear about what I can and can’t put down. He’s already vetted me carefully, before agreeing to do the interview. When at last we do sit down, in the cafe section at Whole Foods in Franklin, it becomes apparent that he’s no sucker for the charm being asked to talk about himself. He’s done that plenty of times in the past. He points to the monogram on his shirt–an emblem for the Order of the Sons of Italy in America. That alone, he says, has brought him plenty of press opportunities. He knows exactly what he wants said about himself. Hence, the injunction using my recorder for the interview. I don’t even ask about taking a photograph.
He has a take-control-of-the-situation strength in the way he comes across, not rude, but decisive and not wasting time.
I can see why the courtly south might mistake his manner for rudeness. But after two weeks of shopping cart stalemates in these very aisles, waiting for someone to take their right of way, I find Joe’s assertiveness very refreshing. His directness makes me feel strangely safe.
I think in general, people are people. If you meet a common denominator, understand how it works in each environment, and if you’re straight up and honest and articulate as well as you can, maybe they’ll be more patient with you and you’ll be more patient with them. I think it’s when we lose wanting to communicate, or feeling perhaps resentful or misunderstanding what their agenda is.
He wants to know what’s my angle, what’s my agenda, and the more I tell him that this is just fun for me, the less he seems to believe me.
Your persistence…I commend you. That’s the other reason why I’m here. You have chutzpah. You asked me. You had the chutzpah to do it. I respect that.
Be that way with everything in life. The worst thing someone can say is no.
However, be diplomatic.
This admonition might have made me laugh into my sleeve, just a little. But maybe his brand of diplomacy comes from a habit of critical thinking, which he says is missing in the south, though it’s rich in education and intellect. People are too polite to say what they mean, he says, or to call out something that doesn’t make sense. No one is very aggressive about their choices, he says–it’s all “I’m fin’ to,” instead of doing or not doing.
Growing up in the same town as Billy Joel and Joan Jett, Joe played drums in a country band. Country music was big in the city, he says–everyone loved it because it was something different from what they were used to. His band got invited down to Nashville frequently, to record and play gigs, ever since Joe was 30.
I was pretty surprised when I came to Nashville how small [it was], and how few venues there were to play. Honky tonks, little places. It’s a mecca for recording, but it’s not for live entertainment. You have to be signed, go on the road, merchandise.
Joe indicates that he means no disrespect to the place. It’s getting more diverse, he allows. But it’s hard to call something nightlife when you’ve grown up with the city that never sleeps. He says this phrase as if it’s the first time it’s ever been said–and somehow it sounds that way, rather than tired NYC boilerplate. He remembers being able to walk out the door of his building, and find something interesting, before he reached the end of the block. By comparison, he says, Nashville’s downtown hardly merits the term. It’s a few blocks, the Ryman, and that’s it.
I ask if that was disappointing to find, as a country musician headed for the mecca of country music.
Of course it was. I was also disappointed at how many musicians play for free, so yo ucan’t make a living here. So many musicians, so many young people.
Visting, playing, working is one thing. Living is another.
After traveling down for over twenty years, Joe and his wife moved here permanently in 2001, when he was 52. They came right before 9/11; immediately after it, he flew back up to New York, to volunteer with the relief efforts. (“I was totally devastated,” he says, with no change of expression.)
He didn’t expect them to stay in Franklin as long as they have. But his wife likes it a lot here.
I ask if he ever feels afraid of losing his identity, being here too long.
Nah. I’m too egotistical. You can write that down. I’m too self-assured. Plus I’m blessed to have a wonderful, beautiful wife who has always helped me realize who we are.
(That’s all he’ll let me put down about her. His wife wouldn’t like to hear herself talked about, Joe says, though he says some very lovely things that I hope somebody puts down, someday.)
Joe often feels here like people are quick to write him off as a type.
“Oh, it’s that guy from New York”–maybe generalizing about all New Yorkers. It isn’t true. I don’t represent all New Yorkers.
But I am of a type. I do bring that out in other New Yorkers–the way they want to talk. I consider myself that. [A New Yorker’s New Yorker]
He again looks affronted when I ask what instrument he used to play. “I still do!” he barks. Currently, he’s the drummer in a Cream tribute band…whose name, he hastens to add, was not his idea…and also leads a black-tie jazz trio.
I’m really a native New Yorker, but I’m also a native musician.
Getting to play music with “one of the best bass players in Nashville (he won’t tell me whom) has been one of the undeniable advantages of moving here. Another is the egalitarian friendliness of the south. He’s made friends with musicians, and millionaires, who brought him valuable connections when he started the local branch of the Sons of Italy, which now boasts even the likes of Sylvester Stallone as a member.
And guess what? I was the president. Little guy from Brooklyn. That was pretty cool.
There are things I could accomplish in proximity [to Nashville] that I couldn’t elsewhere. I was exposed to people I never would have met. Personal things wouldn’t have been resolved as quickly as they are here.
His pizza business started as a catering concern in New York; he brought it with him to Nashville, where the market was wide open for mom-and-pop shop-style pizza. He started out with catering to offices, clubs and even skating rinks. Two years later, he started offering takeaway pizza from the unassuming little kitchen in a shopping center on Trousdale Drive.
At this moment, a group of golf-shirted, heavy-bellied gentlemen gather in the booth adjacent to us, waiting to talk to Joe about wider distribution opportunities. Despite the recycled wood decor and low-LED lighting that makes every Whole Foods cafe so inviting, I’m starting to feel like we’re in the Nuovo Vesuvio. Especially as Joe, regarding the distributors with one eye, makes cryptic reference to the continuing presence of his New York pizza operation.
I have some production up there now, as we speak.
It’s always a thought, the idea of going back there someday.
I’m just always, like Billy Joel, in a New York state of mind. I’m on that Greyhound bus, wanting to get back. I’m nostalgic. There’s a lot of things that really piss me off, being back there. But you know, you’re home.
The distributors are waiting on him. He says I can ask him one more.
I defer to him, asking what he thinks I should ask him. He smiles conspiratorially, pointing a finger toward my head.
I’ll leave you with what I live by:
If you remain too casual, you’ll become a casualty.
He shakes his head when I ask him what that means, exactly.
You’re a pain in the ass. You can put that down. Chelsea’s a pain in the ass.
Do you write goals every morning? Every morning write at least ten goals, your life goals. And do itevery day. Don’t look up, just write them. And don’t llook at the page previous. It might change. And then reflect on gratitude every night.
He demands that I email him once a month. I ask him what day of the month, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. I tell him I pay my bills on the first and the fifteenth. So we agree on the fifteenth. Then he tells me to give him a hug, so I do.
I like you. You’re a good person. I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.
If I’m ever in New York, he says, I should let him know.
I mention that I’m headed that direction later in the summer.
He rolls his eyes, and bats me away with his hand.