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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nino's Revisited, part II: Chatting with Giacomo

Yesterday, I reported on the thin crust pizza I got from Nino's last week. I ordered my pie when I arrived at the shop, and as I was was waiting for it to come out of the oven, I had a chance to speak with Nino’s owner.
Before I get into our conversation, let me add one disclaimer. I did the best I could taking notes on the back of a menu as he talked, but quite frankly, nearly forty years after he came here, this gentleman has not lost his Sicilian accent. Add to that my poor handwriting, and I may have gotten a fact or two wrong. If I have, I apologize in advance. But I’m pretty confident that I’ve accurately summarized the gist of what he told me.
Giacomo (I’m not 100% sure I’m spelling that right, but it’s close), arrived in America in 1971, two years before his parents started Nino’s. His father (who's pictured in the photograph just above Giacomo's head in the photo below) had learned a good deal about both baking and business from a stint in a bakery on Clifford Avenue, where he and his brother worked for a time.
And like Giacomo, Giacomo’s father no doubt also picked up a thing or two about baking while growing up in Sicily. Baking bread, in one form or another, was an integral part of family life, and Giacomo recalls his grandmother getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to begin preparing that day’s batch of focaccia dough.
Giacomo took over the pizza business in 1977, and he’s been at it ever since, these days with some help from his son (who made my pizza, by the way). If Giacomo has any regrets about his choice of life’s work, he certainly doesn’t show it. He exudes a passion and love for what he does that’s only matched by the heavenly aromas emanating from the pizza ovens in the back of the shop.
At one point, Giacomo interrupted our conversation to fetch a well-worn Italian cookbook, which had clearly been consulted many times in the nearly 50 years since it was published. (Despite its yellowed and occasionally stained pages, many of which had come unglued from the binding, Giacomo informed me that this was not the original, only a reproduction. I don’t know how old the original must be, but from the looks of this “new” copy, it ought to be in the Vatican library.) He thumbed through it, stopping occasionally to point out passages of particular interest to him, the subject matter of which ran from the basics, like flour and water, to ancient history (apparently Julius Caesar’s wife was no slouch when it came to baking bread).
Like any business, Nino’s has had its ups and downs over the years, but, like a good dough recipe, when you find one that works, you don’t mess with it. Nino’s clearly discovered a winning formula early on, and stuck with it. When I asked Giacomo if he ever thought about expanding, he replied that no, he never had any desire to see Nino’s become another Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Papa John’s; "You want to be one of a kind," he said.
That singleminded devotion to doing something he loves, and doing it extremely well, has gained Nino’s a loyal following. As a result, it’s hardly been necessary for Nino’s to expand into the suburbs, not when customers are willing to drive from all over Monroe County and beyond to come to Nino’s. One particular customer regularly drove 30 or 40 miles, each way, to get her Nino’s fix.
And let’s face it, you can open new pizzerias, give them the same look, outfit them with the exact same ovens, and prescribe the same recipes and procedures, but you can’t easily duplicate the craftsmanship that comes with years of experience.
You also can’t duplicate the personal dedication that’s required to gain that kind of experience and knowledge. Giacomo explained, for instance, how each day’s batch of dough is a little bit different, depending on the temperature, the humidity, and for all I know, the mood that the yeast is in that day. Only by examining and feeling the dough, he said, can you (and by “you” I mean “he”) tell if the dough is “right.” Get a bad batch? Chuck it and start over. “You have to be an artist,” as he put it, and I recalled the stories I’ve read about Michelangelo smashing his own sculptures with a hammer when they turned out not to be up to his standards, and starting over with a new block of marble.
(That also made me feel a whole lot better about the times I’ve felt like tossing out a batch of dough that didn’t come out quite right. My wife - who understandably would prefer herself and our daughter to eat a slightly misshapen pizza for dinner at 6 or 7 p.m than a perfect one at midnight - usually talks me out of it. But now I can take comfort in the thought that I’m simply a misunderstood artist.)
No, I don’t think you’ll ever see a string of “Nino’s Famous Pizza” places dotted around the landscape like so many uniform slices of pepperoni. This is a one-and-only kind of place, which is as it should be with pizza. “It has to be in your blood,” Giacomo told me, and there’s no medical procedure yet known that can transfuse that kind of commitment and know-how to umpteen fresh hirees overnight. “It” is certainly in Giacomo’s blood, and if you want proof, head over to Nino’s sometime and see for yourself.