Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Southern Tier Tour, Part I: Giovanni's, Hornell
After my recent visit to Billy's in Belmont, I knew I had to get to Giovanni's in Hornell, which is owned by Bill Giovanniello, who came to the Southern Tier from Long Island, and trained Joe Staffieri, the owner of Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, and the brother of Jim Staffieri, the owner of The Pizza Stop. Which is a long-winded way of saying that this guy is practically the grandfather of New York style pizza in Rochester.
So I took advantage of a recent drive south to meet up with Bill. He was hard at work making pizzas, but he did take a few minutes to chat with me.
Bill was born in Avellino, Italy, a town just northeast of Naples, which is the ancestral home of American pizza in general, and New York style pizza in particular. As a child, he often ate pizza prepared by his mamma at home, which at that time is where most Italians got their pizza - from a home kitchen. Only later would the pizza craze hit the U.S., then cross back to Italy via American tourists, who gave rise to the pizzerias you'll find all over Italy today.
When Bill was in his early teens, his family immigrated to the U.S., initially making a home for themselves in Brooklyn. Bill later moved a bit further out on Long Island. During much of his adult life downstate, Bill owned or worked in one pizzeria or another.
Eventually, Bill's older brother migrated upstate, to Wellsville, where he opened a pizzeria, Pizza King. Three years later, Bill followed suit, and decided to settle in Hornell. The verdant hills and open fields of New York's Southern Tier, which are apparently reminiscent of the countryside around Naples (hence its namesake village here), were much of the attraction for both of them.
Bill opened his own pizza place in Hornell, also named Pizza King. He later sold it to a former employee, and moved into a bigger space about a half mile away, which he named Giovanni's.
The extra room makes Giovanni's something of a hybrid between a pizza joint and a restaurant. In addition to pizza, they serve the usual pizza partners like wings, subs, and quesadillas, as well as pasta, chicken, eggplant and veal parm, and eat-in customers can avail themselves of the salad bar.
But my focus was, of course, the pizza. Giovanni's does thin (Neapolitan), thick (Sicilian) and stuffed pizzas, plus calzones and stromboli. The thin is quite thin, with a crust that's maybe an eighth of an inch thick. It's broadly in the New York style, but, despite its thinness, perhaps a little breadier than a typical New York slice. My slices, fresh out of the oven, were more brown than charred underneath, but dry and medium-crisp, firm but not crunchy.
These were also on the cheesy side, with a cheese layer that's about as thick as the crust. The sauce was moderately applied and had a middle-of-the-road, tomatoey flavor.
Now on a prior occasion (Bill wasn't around at the time), I did stop in and grab a Sicilian slice as well. The crust on this one measured just under an inch thick, and unlike some pan-baked pizza, it had a dry, not oily underside. The interior was airy yet substantial, with some heft to it. The overall flavor was about the same as the thin slices, the biggest difference being the thicker, more breadlike crust, which had a pleasant crunchiness along the edge.
During my talk with Bill, I was able to watch some of the process involved in making their pies. I particularly noticed one Sicilian pie in the oven, covered with sauce, but no cheese. I asked Bill about that, thinking that perhaps it was a "tomato pie" in the Utica style, but he told me that no, it was simply a Sicilian pizza. As he explained it, and I quote, they "prebake" their Sicilian pizzas with just sauce, to give them a chance to firm up a little bit and lose some moisture before adding the cheese. Smart idea, and reminiscent of an episode of Tyler's Ultimate that I saw a couple of years ago in which he watched a southern Italian woman prepare pizza in her home kitchen, in which she did the same thing, applying the cheese about halfway through the baking process.
I've made it a practice not to grade pizzas outside the Rochester metro area, and I won't assign these a letter grade, but this was very good pizza. It was well worth stopping for in its own right, but also because of its broader significance. I don't want to overstate things, but it seems to me that without Bill (and let's not forget his brother), you've got no Joe's Brooklyn Pizza in Henrietta, and no Pizza Stop downtown. And the ripple effect goes beyond that. Those establishments have led to others around town, either directly (such as Empire Pizza in Penfield, which started as an offshoot of The Pizza Stop), or indirectly, by helping popularize thin-crust, New York style pizza in this area.
If you're a Rochester pizza aficionado, then, well ... I'm not suggesting that you need to hop in your car right away and drive the 70 or so miles south to Hornell, but Giovanni's should be on your mental list of pizza pilgrimages to make someday (what, you don't have a mental to-do list of pizza pilgrimages? Shame on you). Chances are, Bill will be there, along with his daughter Cindy and veteran employees, and if you can avoid the lunchtime rush, he'll be more than happy to talk to you.
Giovanni's Pizza Restaurant, 119 Seneca Rd., Hornell NY 14843
Tel.: (607) 324-6000
Hours: Sun. noon - 11 p.m., Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - midnight