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Friday, April 2, 2010

A conversation with John Gallo

In 1990, John and Alfia Gallo opened their eponymous pizzeria on Stone Road in Greece. They eventually sold the business and headed west to Las Vegas, where for seven years they ran a full-service restaurant, Gallo's Pizza Kitchen.
The tug of home and family eventually proved irresistible, however, and in 2007 the Gallos sold the Vegas restaurant - which is still operating under the Gallo's name, and still getting rave reviews on the internet - and headed back to Greece. They were able to buy back their original pizzeria, which fortunately had also kept the Gallo's name, so this year they've been able to celebrate the pizzeria's twentieth anniversary.
Whether you're talking takeout joint or high-end restaurant, twenty years is a long time in the food service industry. On a recent visit to Gallo's, I spoke for a few minutes with John Gallo (that's him on the right in the photo, which I lifted from the Gallo's website), and I think I got some clues to the pizzeria's longevity.
Gallo is a native of Gaeta, an Italian seacoast city roughly midway between Rome and Naples. (You’ll find a large photo of it on the wall inside the pizzeria.) His family emigrated when Gallo was five years old, and while he's been back many times - that's where he and Alfia met - it was here that Gallo learned the fundamentals of his current trade, while working at Petrillo’s Bakery on Lyell Avenue some forty-plus years ago.
Gallo’s experience at Petrillo’s proved to be formative, and led to what he describes as a lifelong passion. He particularly recalled the time when “I was a boy, about 12 or 13, old Mrs. Petrillo said to me in Italian, ‘Son, you’ve learned the trade, you’ll never starve to death. So you know how young boys are, they’re very impressionable. That kind of stuck in my head, and now here I am, forty, forty-five years later, still at it.”
I had to ask Gallo about Gallo's Old World Style pizza, one of which I'd devoured just a week earlier. As he explained it, "That was what the old timers used to call ‘wedding pizza,’ because that was what they used to serve at weddings - that and homemade cookies." At first, Gallo's menu listed these under the name "wedding pizza," but "people just weren’t catching on to the name. So [Gallo] changed it to ‘Old World,’ because it is traditional, from the Old World. That’s the way it’s made [in Italy].”
The mozzarella-laden pies most Americans think of as pizza "came afterwards," Gallo says. "Pizza originally was just the grated cheese, black pepper, oil, and then they would just blotch a little bit of mozzarella here and there. Then the chains came and started layering everything all over."
Sad to say, I’ve never been to Italy, but from what I’ve read and seen, pizza in Italy is a very simple dish, in contrast to the American, more-is-better approach. Gallo agreed, saying "It is simple [in Italy]. With [typical Italian pizza], you’re tasting the sauce and the spices. Sometimes if you want, you might put a few olives. Something so simple but so tasty."
By this time I was ready for a couple of slices, so I finished our conversation by asking Gallo to name the worst, and best, parts of running a pizzeria. Both answers came quickly.
The hardest part, he said, is the hours, and the difficulty of managing to find time to attend family functions or to take vacations, which are "short if any." Gallo learned early on, he says, that "You don’t own a business, the business owns you."
The best part? “The people. The satisfaction of putting out a good product, and just enjoying people, coming into contact with people, meeting new people."
This is just a guess, but I imagine that's an attitude shared by most good cooks, chefs and restaurateurs. The product - the food - is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, which is to create something that can nourish, be shared, and provide some pleasure as well. So "putting out a good product" and "enjoying people" really go hand in hand. It's an attitude that you'll find at Gallo's, and a big part of why this pizzeria is now entering its third decade of serving its customers.

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