I'm an avid hiker, and I tend to favor forests in the Southern Tier, which are bigger, more numerous, and more hilly than those around Rochester. Sometimes I use my excursions as an opportunity to check out far-flung pizza places in the small towns and villages along the Southern Tier Expressway, a/k/a Rt. 17, a/k/a I-86.
After a recent hike in Coyle Hill State Forest in the Southern Tier, I ventured into the village of Belmont in Allegany County. I couldn't recall having been there before, but I assumed that Belmont, like any other small town, would have at least one pizzeria. (I think that's a constitutional requirement, in fact. Or if it's not, it should be.)
Sure enough, right on the corner, across from the stately, neoclassical Village Hall, there was Billy G's Pizzeria, in a two-story brick building that could've come out of an Edward Hopper painting. I wasn't sure if they'd have slices - small-town places are less apt to, as they tend not to get a lot of walk-in traffic - but I figured if they didn't, I'd get a sub instead.
On going in, though, I was pleased to see a sliced pie, half pepperoni, half cheese, behind the counter. I asked for a couple of pepperoni slices to go.
After a brief reheating, my slices were slipped into a paper sleeve and handed to me. I took them out to the car, where I photographed them. They were thinner than I'd expected, but otherwise pretty unremarkable in their appearance.
I started the car, took a bite and drove away, left hand on the wheel, right hand holding a slice. I made it down to the end of the block before thinking, hmm, this is pretty good. I turned the corner and took another bite. Actually, this is very good. A little farther. Man, this is really good! I've got to write this up on the blog. ... No - I've got to turn around and go back and talk to this guy.
So what grabbed my attention, and my taste buds, this way? Partly, just the confounding of my expectations. Or should I say my lack of expectations? What I mean is, generally, when I've had pizza in small towns, it's, well, "eh." Nothing special. Actually, I don't know if it's truly a small-town thing, maybe that's just my perception, but I've come not to expect much from small-town pizzerias. Usually they run to the thick side, with kind of a soft crust, maybe a little oily underneath, a lot of gooey cheese on top - a good "value," if you equate value with the weight of your food, but rather generic. It might be good, but usually it's just mediocre.
The one thing I don't expect to find in a small town in a mostly rural area is good thin-crust pizza. I mean, I know you can find it, theoretically, but the fact is you rarely do. When I have had really good pizza in small towns, it's typically been pizza that's distinctive (it may have a unique sauce, for example), but more often that not it's on the thick side.
But this pizza was decidedly thin, with a crackly exterior and a bready interior. It was foldable, and when I folded one slice completely, the crust cracked open, but the gluteny interior stretched and held together. The crust had a faintly sweet, bready flavor, with subtle toasty notes. It wasn't far off, stylistically, from New York style pizza, although it wasn't advertised as such.
That crust is what got my attention. The toppings? Well, they were OK, if purely secondary to me. The sauce was slightly sweet and flavorful, with some herbs noticeable. The mozzarella was well melted, if a bit dry from being out of the oven for a while. But the components were well balanced, and the slice as a whole was very - surprisingly - good. A fresh pie might rate an A, but this was good enough for an A-minus.
So to get back to my story: Right turn, right turn, right turn, and back. I don't know what the proprietor thought when he saw me walk in the door just minutes after leaving, but I told him about my blog, that I was impressed by his pizza. and that I was curious to know more about his background.
Billy G, a/k/a William Giovanniello, proceeded to tell me that his father owns Giovanni's Pizza in Hornell. Before that, he ran another Hornell pizzeria, Pizza King (which is still in business under different ownership), and before that, he was making pizza in Brooklyn and Long Island.
Now why did all that ring a bell with me? Because of an interview I did with with Jim Staffieri of the Pizza Stop over two years ago. Jim - whose place is a mainstay of New York style pizza in Rochester - told me that his brother Joe, who owns Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, another local favorite of mine, had learned his craft from a pizza maker in Long Island, who subsequently relocated to Hornell and opened a pizzeria there. Joe later moved upstate, again worked for the guy in Hornell, and eventually opened his own place in Rochester, as did Jim.
Yup, Billy's dad, Bill Giovanniello, is that guy. (You can read a bit of his story here.)
That certainly explained why I liked this pizza so much. It shares a close connection - a common ancestor, if you will - with both the Pizza Stop and Joe's Brooklyn Pizza.
Now I have to admit, this made me feel rather good about myself for recognizing something special, or at least reminiscent, about this pizza, enough to warrant going back to talk to the owner. More than that, though, this convinced me that I need to get down to Hornell and pay a visit to Giovanni's (and Pizza King). If this one guy has spawned three good pizzerias in Western New York, in addition to his own, he's already built quite a legacy. He deserves some serious recognition.
Billy, by the way, told me that he will be moving his shop to Dansville in the not-too-distant future. He'll have some competition up there, and I hope they all can survive, but I also hope, for the sake of Belmonters (Belmontians? Belmontese?), that somebody can move into the Belmont space and pick up where Billy left off. That would add yet another fine pizzeria to Bill Giovanniello's pizza progeny.