I've been accused, from time to time, of having a bias against thick-crust pizza. That accusation stems from my admitted love of New York style pizza, as well as its culinary ancestor, Neapolitan style pizza.
But it's an unfair accusation, and to counter it, I often point out that one of my favorite pizzerias around here is Brandani's.
Not that Brandani's pizza is exceptionally thick - we're not talking deep-dish here - but it is on the thick side.
Brandani's quickly earned an "A" rating from me, though, shortly after I started this blog in 2009, and it's held that rating since. A large part of the reason for that is the crust. It can hold its own with any in this area - toasty, slightly charred, breadlike, aromatic and chewy.
So, having reviewed Brandani's on more than one occasion, it was high time that I learned more about the people behind the pizza. To that end, I recently sat down for a chat with Joe Cenzi, the proprietor of Brandani's. He filled me in on Brandani's background and his own love affair with pizza.
Brandani's history (much of which is also related on their website) starts with Frank and Pia Brandani, who immigrated here in 1961. Frank and Pia haled from the Abruzzi region of Italy, where Frank had been working as a baker, just like his father. After a few years here, the Brandanis opened a pizzeria in Irondequoit, which they operated for about a decade before deciding to return to their native country.
That stint back in Italy turned out to be relatively brief, however; in 1986, Frank and Pia returned to Rochester, and reopened their namesake pizzeria in its current location on West Henrietta Road.
In the late 1990s, Frank and Pia's son Romeo took over the reins of the business, and it was about that time that Joe got involved. Romeo carried out a major renovation of the interior of the pizzeria, and Joe, then age 19, got involved in helping out through a friend who was related to the Brandanis.
At the time, Joe had no intention or idea that this would be the start of a long-term relationship. Little did he know.
Romeo eventually decided to return to his previous line of work, and Frank and Pia were back at the helm. Joe also left at around that time to pursue other interests.
But it wasn't a clean break. "Most everyone who worked here back then," Joe told me, "if they weren't family, they became family."
Including Joe. Even while he worked elsewhere, he maintained his connections with the Brandani family and their pizzeria, filling in once in a while when they were shorthanded. "Once you were part of the family," Joe says, "you were part of the family forever."
Finally, though, Frank and Pia decided to retire. Well, sort of. At least they wanted to get away from the day-to-day operation of the pizzeria.
Fortuitously, at about that time Joe was also looking to leave his then-job, and it didn't take any twisted arms before he'd become the new proprietor of Brandani's.
Since assuming ownership of Brandani's about nine years ago, Joe has made a few changes; he's added delivery, has done some advertising (Frank and Pia relied strictly on word of mouth, which alone is a testament to their pizza), and has expanded the menu a little.
But in its essentials, Brandani's pizza remains the same. The dough recipe is unchanged, and is a closely guarded secret, being known only by Joe, his father (who has had some involvement in the business), and the Brandanis.
Brandani's has always offered a wide variety of toppings, not just as options on a made-to-order pie, but on slices as well. Their lunchtime selection is among the widest in the area, and the slices I've gotten have always been fresh. Joe has added a few new ones since taking over; a current big seller is the sweet and sour chicken. That's not one I would ordinarily gravitate to, but I think I'd better try it out.
One respect in which Brandani's stands out from the crowd is that it offers ice cream and gelato. That too, started with Frank and Pia Brandani. I had a vague understanding of the difference between gelato and ice cream, but Joe explained that gelato is typically denser, and contains less fat, than ice cream, being made from milk rather than cream. With pizza as good as Brandani's, I would have to make a conscious effort to save room for either gelato or ice cream, but I should make it a point to do so sometime.
Near the end of my conversation with Joe, we returned to the subject of family and his personal connection to the pizza business. As a third- or fourth-generation Italian American, Joe didn't eat pizza any more often than the average American kid while he was growing up. But it's clearly in his blood now. He told me that he eats Brandani's pizza every day, and of that I have no doubt.
As far as the job goes, it's certainly a lot of work, but worth it. Joe gets in early and works long hours, which I'm sure is typical of pizzeria owners. With rare exceptions, he and only he makes the dough daily.
When Joe can't make it into the shop - a rare event, I think - Frank Brandani, now in his late 70s, will still come in to oversee operations. In fact, even when Joe is there, Frank comes in on a regular basis, to make use of Brandani's ovens for his homemade bread. Clearly that man was born to bake.
Joe doesn't see himself staying in the business as long as Frank, but he can envision it being passed on to one or more of his four (soon to be five) children. He frequently brings them into Brandani's, even on Christmas, for some pizza or other treats.
Will we see any new Brandani's locations in the future? Perhaps. An earlier planned expansion into Churchville fell through, and while Joe is open to the idea, it would have to be a good fit, in the right circumstances. With a growing family to attend to, and already working long hours, he's not particularly interested in adding a great deal of stress to his life. I can sympathize with that.
What I do know is that we can expect Brandani's to continue serving some of Rochester's best pizza. That's owing both to its great tradition and to Joe's ongoing commitment to pizza and the pizza business. I asked him if he thought that, given Frank's continuing involvement with the pizzeria, the business might keep him young too. He wasn't so sure about that, saying that at times, "it ages you pretty quick." But at the very least, it's not dull or boring; Joe told me that "a day never goes as planned here," what with equipment malfunctions, delivery problems, and other day-to-day crises.
Which is not to say that Joe's gotten burned out or tired of the business. While he may or may not be stretching pizza dough into his 70s, for now at least, Joe has an obvious and continuing dedication to what he does. "You've got to be passionate about what you do," he told me. "If you lose that, you're done."
Brandani's Pizza, 2595 West Henrietta Rd.,Rochester, NY 14623
NOTE: In conjunction with this post, Joe Cenzi has agreed to give away to one lucky reader a gift certificate good for a large pizza with unlimited toppings, a dozen wings, and a 2-liter bottle of pop. See the accompanying post to enter.