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Friday, September 25, 2009

Interview: Jim Staffieri of the Pizza Stop

It occurs to me that there's a certain tension in my attitudes toward pizza. On the one hand, I think that pizza is one of those foods, like hot dogs and chili, that absolutely should not be homogenized. A grilled Rochester white hot is not the same as a Chicago dog with everything or a boiled Nathan's frankfurter in Coney Island, and that's how it should be.

The same goes for pizza. It should differ from region to region, from city to city, and from pizzeria to pizzeria. That's my primary objection to the whole concept of chain pizzerias.

On the other hand, I love New York style pizza. I'm not talking here about the high-priced, "artisanal" pizza that's all the rage in New York these days - wafer-thin, irregularly shaped pies made with Italian "00" flour, mozzarella di bufala and spring water and baked in under two minutes in a coal-fired oven. Don't get me wrong, that's great stuff too, or at least, in the right pizzamaker's hands, it can be.

But when I talk about New York pizza, I mean the kind of stuff you can get at an average slice joint in New York City. Crisp yet bready, a little charred underneath, with a perfect balance of crust, sauce and dough. Simple yet sublime, and at two bucks and change per slice, still one of the best food bargains in the country.

That's where the schizophrenia comes in. As much as I love distinctive regional styles and individuality, I also love finding authentic New York style pizza anywhere, especially near where I live and work.

Which is why I'm thankful for the Pizza Stop on State Street downtown. In business since 1986, it's among the oldest, and best, purveyors of New York style pizza in the area. I've put away a lot of slices on my trips to the City over the years, and Pizza Stop is the real deal.

On a recent late afternoon, while waiting for my pizza to come out of the oven, I had occasion to chat with owner Jim Staffieri about his family background, pizza making, and what the future holds for the him and the Pizza Stop.

I know you have a family background in pizza. Can you run through that?
Well, let’s see. My father, after getting laid off from Grumman, got into the pizza business through my uncle, who got into the pizza business, I don’t even know how long ago. I want to say that was about 40 years ago [for my father], so probably 50 or 60 years ago [for my uncle].

That was in New York City?
Yeah, in New York.

How’d you end up here?
My brother [Joe, who owns Joe's Brooklyn Pizza in Henrietta] had been working at a guy’s pizza place in Long Island. That guy moved up here to Hornell. My brother followed him, worked there for a while. Then he moved to Rochester, was in business for a few years - not pizza - was doing well, and he saw this place up for rent. He said this would be a good location, so I came up and checked it out.

Were you involved in pizza at the time?
No, I was down in New York as an art director for MetLife.

So you were taking a real plunge.
Oh yeah, yeah. I left everything down there and came up here.

Was the Pizza Stop an immediate success?
No, it had ups and downs. Like everything else, it takes a while. Over the years it got busier, but at first, well, we had people who liked it, but it took a while to catch on.

It's certainly popular now. How long do you figure you’re going to be here?
[Laughs] As long as we have to be. There’s no immediate plan to go anywhere else. But right now we’re at kind of a critical point because business has gotten to the point where we have to grow. We’ve got to expand.

The problem is, we’re still downtown. For a couple of hours a day, we could double our space, but what happens the rest of the day? What happens in the winter? What happens at night? So it’s kind of a sticky situation here.

We’re at a point where we could expand, but downtown’s still downtown. We’ve had insane days, at lunchtime, where we’re like, we could do this or that [to expand]. And then you’re empty. It’s kind of a weird thing right now.

You know, you get long lines, people don’t like to wait on line. Like today, we had to turn down orders. We couldn’t even answer the phone. It hurts you. But we just couldn’t do it. We were so jammed, it was just like, no way.

We could probably develop a weekend business, an evening business, get a beer license. We’ve kicked some of those things around. And you’ve got the hotels [nearby]. But it would be a real gamble.

What’s your typical schedule?
We’re here at 9, turn the ovens on, we’re ready to start baking by a little after 10, get everything ready for lunch, lunch is over around 1:30 to 2. We prep everything for the next day, and do it all over again.

When do you start making the dough?
We make the dough today for tomorrow. We let it sit out for a while, then when it starts to move we put it in the fridge. That slows it down - it's called retarding the dough - and by the next day it’s ready to be used. Then we take it out as we need it.

From baking bread at home, it’s always seemed to me that the longer the dough takes to rise, the better the end result.
Oh yeah, two or three days later, it’s the best. If we make dough and use it right away, it’s not as good. Overnight is good, two nights is even better.

How big a batch do you make?
Sixty, sixty-five pounds of flour at a time. I’m not sure what that comes out to [for the total weight of the dough].

Aside from yours, what’s your all-time favorite pizza place?
Oh, that’s a tough question. We had places we went to [back in New York], but outside of my own, I really don’t have a favorite.

How often do you eat pizza?
Every day. Every day.

Never get sick of it?
Never get sick of it.

Favorite topping?
Another tough one. I’d have to say right now, the meatball parm. That’s good.

What’s your biggest seller?

Like anywhere else.
[Laughs] Yeah, sure. But we also sell a lot of tomato pizza, tomato spinach is very popular, buffalo chicken pizza, but overall, pepperoni.

I’m going to try that meatball parm sometime.
It’s really good. It’s basically made like a grandma’s pizza. Well, actually, it’s grandma’s pizza with meatballs.

I’ve heard of grandma’s pizza. What is it?
Grandma’s pizza is a thing they do in New York. It’s usually on a thicker crust, where you put the cheese down first, toppings on top of that, then the sauce on top. It’s like making it backwards. Sprinkle on fresh garlic, sweet basil, romano, some olive oil on top. It’s really good. It’s just - it’s a whole different pizza.

Is Sicilian pizza just another name for sheet pizza?
Basically, yeah. The way some places do [sheet pizza], they stretch it out [and bake it] right away. We stretch our dough out, then let it rise. So it is different, yeah. Sicilian is, you stretch it out in the pan, you let it rise, then you bake it. That’s the way they do it in New York.

What do you think of the current fashion for wood-fired ovens and “artisanal" pizza?
Well, everyone’s looking to make themselves different. Everyone’s looking to differentiate themselves. And, you know, it’s also trendy, the wood-fired, all that stuff. People like trendy.

This is what we grew up with, this is what we know, this is what we like. We’re not trying to be trendy, we’re just trying to do what we do. And that was the whole concept of coming up here. We’re not going to come up here and try to make a Rochester pizza, we’re gonna come up here and make what we like. If you like it, good; if you don't, go somewhere else.


  1. Thanks, I hope to do more interviews and other spotlights on local pizzerias in the future.