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Friday, November 22, 2013

Tony Proietti: A Life in Pizza, Part I

At the end of my recent conversation with Tony Proietti, the proprietor of 2 Ton Tony's Pizza, I realized one thing:  an hour with Tony is not enough. After talking pizza for sixty-plus minutes, we'd barely scratched the surface of all his memories, knowledge and opinions about pizza.
That's how it is, I guess, when you've spent your life in the pizza business. Tony grew up hanging around the original Proietti's pizzeria and bar on Goodman
Street in Rochester. That, I think it's fair to say, was one of the seminal pizzerias in Rochester, started by Italian native Olando Ozzimo some years earlier.
Tony's childhood memories include singing along for patrons with the jukebox, which earned him some nice tips on occasion.
Tony's singing skills are no longer in evidence, that I've witnessed, but as a child he also learned, from his grandfather, the craft of making pizza. And those skills he still uses daily.
The original Proietti's pizzeria is no longer around, sad to say. Tony described it as an extended family, and it sounds as if it was a true neighborhood institution. I wish that I had experienced it.
The good news, though, is that the Proietti's pizza legacy lives on. Based on the skills and recipe he learned from his grandfather, Tony now runs two pizzerias, in Irondequoit (where I spoke with him) and Spencerport. His uncle "Whitey" also owns and operates Proietti's restaurant in Webster, which also serves pizza based on the family recipe.
While they may lack the atmosphere of the original, these places carry on the Proietti's pizza tradition. And one of the most fascinating things in talking with Tony was listening to him share his encyclopedic knowledge of Rochester pizza history. Tony gave me a quick lesson, starting with the progenitors of Rochester pizza, and running through a succession of heirs, which he rattled off in bewilderingly quick fashion.
Tony and I both agreed that it would be a worthwhile project to create a Rochester pizza family tree, because so many of today's local pizzerias can trace back their roots to just a few forebears, or what Tony colorfully but aptly described as local pizza "tribes." I would like to do that, at some point, if I can find the time. Right now, that's way beyond the scope of this interview. But I hope I can find the time and motivation to do it. It would take some effort, albeit enjoyable effort, mostly involving sitting down for some hours with guys like Tony, his uncle Whitey, and a handful of other pizzeria proprietors.
When I asked Tony about "Ozzie" Ozzimo (is that a great name, or what?) he told me that Ozzie was from Sicily. I mentioned that many of the founders of Rochester's current, and best, pizzerias seemed to come from Sicily, and he agreed. Tony also made the point that what I've called the "Rochester style" of pizza traces its roots to Sicily. Old-school pizza in Rochester tends to have two significant characteristics:  on the thick side, with that distinctive square cut. Both of those come from the Sicilian tradition, married to American tastes for a round pie covered in mozzarella.
As for Tony, he sticks with tradition, but he's open to change. Everything is still made in-house, the way that his grandfather taught him, right down to straining out the tomatoes to create a smooth sauce. Tony's grandfather used an electric drill, believe it or not, but Tony's improved on that by utilizing an electric paint mixer, which, it turns out, is perfectly adapted to removing tomato skins and other bits from the sauce.
Interestingly to me, Tony also incorporates margarine into his dough. That too, goes back to his grandfather, and it strikes me as a distinctively American take on an Italian tradition. Some doughs are as basic as they get - flour, salt, yeast and water - but oil is also a longstanding ingredient in a lot of pizza doughs, especially pan pizzas and those using high-gluten flour. Oil, or fat of some kind, makes the dough easier to handle, adds flavor and richness, and gives a pan-baked dough a golden-brown sheen. That's exactly why my mother - who learned from my Polish grandmother - would add butter or margarine to her homemade bread dough.
In Italy, of course, olive oil would be the most common choice. But margarine (which is essentially vegetable oil in solid form) serves the same purpose, and it does not surprise me that Italian immigrants would have chosen it, as it was probably more readily available to them, decades ago.
As we discussed what goes into pizza, Tony did express a bit of, I would almost say disappointment rather than disdain, for some other local places that have dough shipped in from elsewhere, or that open a can of tomato sauce, throw in a little oregano, and call it homemade. Once again, this goes to his dedication to his craft, his pride in his product, and his commitment to tradition.
But again, Tony's not one to stand still. Both his Irondequoit and Spencerport shops are located in hotbeds of pizza competition, and he wouldn't have succeeded as well as he has by being stuck in neutral. As one example, he's changed cheese suppliers more than once, not to switch to a less expensive cheese, but to a better cheese. His current choice is Grande cheese, which is one of the best around. And a recent addition to the menu is gluten-free pizza, which is more than just a trend, as those with gluten sensitivity can attest to..
Tony's one regret about his career is that for a while, he got out of the pizza business. He spent some years in a series of jobs, although he was never far from the pizza business in one way or another, even if it was just as an unpaid consultant for friends. After a brief stint in Fairport, he opened his current shop in Irondequoit in 2010, followed by his Spencerport store.
The future may see more 2 Ton Tony's locations, though there's nothing specific on the drawing board. If that happens, Tony will have to spend a little less time at each location - there are only so many hours in a week. But I'm pretty sure he won't just hand it off to any old body. Tony assured me that if and when he expands, he'll have people in place whom he can count on to do a good job in doing honor to the Proietti family tradition. And with his upcoming wedding (followed by a honeymoon in NYC that includes a visit to Lombardi's), that's a good thing. Tony's fiancee Kathy, whom I had the pleasure to meet, has apparently been very supportive and understanding in regard to the pizza business, but family should always come first.
In the near future, I'm looking forward to Tony's Christmas Eve luncheon for his customers. This event, which I've written about before, is another Proietti's tradition that he's carried on. It's indicative of the great family legacy that he's building on.
I'm calling this post "Part I," not because there's an immediate Part II, but because there surely will be. As I said at the outset, an hour talking pizza with Tony Proietti is simply not enough, and we've already got more subjects to discuss, from wood-fired pizza to sheet pizza and more. In the meantime, Tony, enjoy your wedding and honeymoon.

NOTE:  in conjunction with this story, Tony has graciously agreed to give away a gift certificate good for a one-topping sheet pizza and 30 chicken wings. Please see the accompanying post to enter.

2 Ton Tony's Pizza

Mon - Thu: 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
Fri - Sat: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Irondequoit location:
545 Titus Ave.
(same building as the DMV)

Spencerport location:
42 Nichols Street
(route 31 behind McDonalds)

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, I appreciate that you took so much time to sit down and document your visit with Tony. It's this side of the pizza business that normal people don't get to see very often, and it's guys like Tony that bring life to the pizzeria. WHAT A GIANT SLICE OF PIZZA!!