A slice, a Cel-Ray and a scowl


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At Sal and Carmine, tradition endures


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  • Luciano Gaudiosi has instituted a few changes at Sal and Carmine Pizza, but his grandfather's recipes remain the same. Photo: Noah Williams





I’m not local to New York City, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned quickly, it’s the difference between good pizza and bad pizza.

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, went to a small liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio, and moved to Manhattan exactly 10 days after graduating last year. My dad grew up in Brooklyn. My grandma, who I now live with, has lived in a “classic six” apartment on the corner of West 101st Street and Riverside Drive for 53 years.

Two blocks away, on Broadway, is Sal and Carmine Pizza: the staple neighborhood pizza shop owned by a family of Italians. It was started by two immigrant brothers from whom the store received its name. It’s not an impressive space — the store is roughly 10 feet wide, 15 feet high, and 40 feet deep, akin to a large shoebox turned on its side. The pizza is displayed on the counter to the left when you enter, and there are some chairs and tables in the back of the space. The front window is often hazy, lightly coated with flour. There’s a red neon sign in the corner of the window that reads, “Crispy Pizza Large Slice.”

In the center of the window, an old, iconic cash machine rests on a counter. Originally from a candy shop, it’s an antiquated machine with keys similar to those of a manual typewriter, dedicated almost entirely to transactions of less than a dollar. The keys read one through 10 — or the number of cents needed to purchase candy way back when. There is a $5 key, but that sum was likely not often exchanged during the machine’s heyday.

A plain slice costs $3; an additional topping brings the total to $4 — fair prices for what many consider to be one of the city’s best slices.

I find taste hard to describe. But, I would describe Sal and Carmine’s pizza as sweet, with salty undertones. The dough is made in the shop’s back room every day, the sauce comes from a private distributor, and the cheese is fresh mozzarella. “No basil, no Parmesan,” the current owner says. “The pizza doesn’t need it.”

How Sal made the pizza is how the pizza is still made. As the arrangement went, Sal made the pizza and Carmine worked the counter. Both operated with a type of religious zeal that I have come to understand is unique to Italian immigrants: They never closed the store, never got sick, and never sat down behind the counter.

Sal died eight years ago. The funeral procession reportedly shut down an entire section of the New Jersey Turnpike. Several of Sal’s and Carmine’s descendants worked in the store, but when Sal passed, the store closed for a week — the longest it had ever been shut. The family was unsure how or if the store would reopen, and if it did, how it would continue. After several legal disputes and a significant brotherly feud, the store was left entirely in a single grandson’s capable hands.

Behind the counter now stands Sal’s grandson, who runs and owns the place. Luciano Gaudiosi, 33, is a sturdy man at 5 foot, 9 inches. He is always wearing his Ford Mustang cap, a white apron, and a look of apathy that can border upon contempt. As was common for Sal’s grandchildren, Gaudiosi began working in the store while barely in his teens. He briefly left for mechanic’s school in 2003 and then for a stint fixing and maintaining Delta’s fleet at LaGuardia Airport. “I tried to get out, but they pulled me back in,” says Luciano, quoting from “The Godfather.”

Luciano has made few changes to the store. The most significant being that the store now delivers. Sal believed that the time involved in a delivery would spoil the quality of the pie.

But Gaudiosi maintains the work ethic and atmosphere instilled by his grandfather and great uncle: always standing behind the counter with a tough countenance, which sometimes becomes almost amiable. On one occasion, a worker brought in a stool and served the public while seated. Gaudiosi waited until the end of business hours and then smashed the stool into pieces in front of him.

The store has now been in operation for nearly 60 years and it still sells out almost every day. As Gaudiosi puts it, “There’s no stopping this train.” Throughout the day, customers line up, sometimes out the door. They’re there for the pizza and the experience. The transaction usually occurs with only one word spoken by the counterman. Entering customers are often met with a look that may be construed as saying, “What do you want? Why are you here?” It’s often abrupt, and borderline curt, but that’s just tradition. It’s business.

After an undetermined amount of time, a customer might become acknowledged as a “regular.” This just means that Gaudiosi and the counterman will respond with more than a grunt if you ask a question. It’s a vague invitation to have a conversation while standing at the counter.

I knew I had become a regular when I walked into the store one night near closing time. There was just one slice, with sausage, left on the pizza tray. The day had been particularly rough for me. I ordered by pointing at the slice. Gaudiosi slung it in the oven. When I went to hand him the $4, he waved it away, saying “don’t worry ‘bout it.” And just like that, my day had been salvaged and I my appreciation for the shop exponentially increased. It’s not just a store.

On rare occasions when Gaudiosi must close for a day (such as, for instance, when his young son, Sal Jr., is sick), would-be patrons gather outside the store, assuming the worst and discussing where they will get their pizza if the shop ever closes.

But Gaudiosi has built a strong team: Barry, an older, African-American gentleman who prepares ingredients and keeps the place clean; Jimmy, an Asian-American man who works the counter on occasion; Francisco (Gaudiosi calls him Saint Francisco), a former Navy man from the Dominican Republic who works the counter; Reuben, a strong-legged Mexican-American who works delivery every night except Sunday; Napoleon, a Mexican-American and the only other pizza maker besides Gaudiosi; and the newest addition, a guy from Knoxville who delivers pies on Sunday nights, and works the counter Mondays and Tuesdays.



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