Eli Rallo: A look at Joe’s Pizza

Sunday, November 10, 2019 - 4:07pm

Joe's Pizza

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“I’m going to tell you, like, the true story. Nobody got the story right yet. We haven’t told any press this whole thing yet,” said Ian Lafkowitz, co-owner of Joe’s Pizza (all five New York City locations and the new Ann Arbor one). 

This is just what I hoped would happen — just like the pizza, I’d come to Joe’s in search of the true authenticity I knew was there. I’d let the dust settle between Joe’s Ann Arbor grand opening and my strategic entrance to the Diag-adjacent pizza spot. I knew if I let press go crazy in the first week of business for the sake of the “timely lead” or what have you, I’d afford myself a more meaningful interaction with the new restaurant weeks into the future. I was right.

“A food columnist or critic knows better than to show up on opening day,” Lafkowitz said next. He is a Michigan graduate (’00) and was awaiting the perfect moment to disclose the Joe’s Pizza story.

 I grew up on the stuff — Joe’s pizza that is. Us Mid-Atlantic dwellers have been familiar with the famous slice since birth. I’ve already bridged the topic of New York pizza in a former column, but haven’t revisited the topic of pizza since having received some emails deeply defending the Detroit slice. I haven’t changed my opinions, and it’s finally time to talk about something more important than the pizza pie, and that is the simple slice. 

A good pizza eater knows well the difference between a pizza that’s supposed to be purchased and consumed as a whole pie and a pizza that’s meant to be purchased and consumed as an individual slice — on a white paper plate, grease seeping from crust to palms. Joe’s is the latter, and it has an easy, inexpensive, quick persona which lends itself well to a college town on the go. 

“Joe’s opening in Ann Arbor, Michigan makes zero fucking sense,” Lafkowitz began, when I asked how they wound up selecting Michigan as the first state to open in after finding such success in New York. “But it made sense to me,” he said. 

Lafkowitz is one of very few non-family members working alongside the Joe Pozzouli family within the Joe’s pizza-making business. 

“I had no restaurant experience when I got into this, I was a writer working in New York after graduating from U of M in 2000. Joe’s Pizza had been going religiously on Carmine Street since 1999,” he said. I can picture the location well in my mind, having grown up eating there with my father, and spending many nights this past summer as the sky went purple, standing in line at 2 a.m. for a slice of New York’s best pizza. 

Lafkowitz had an apartment right near the Greenwich Village Joe’s location until he moved to the Upper West Side and suddenly struggled to find good pizza just miles away from his former apartment. 

“Within two weeks I was like, there’s literally no good pizza on the Upper West Side. I asked all my friends up there where they got good pizza, and they were like oh, easy, we go to Joe’s.” 

From there, Lafkowitz decided he was going to approach the Joe’s family, having no prior connection to them to ask if they’d want to open a second location up on the Upper West Side. He saw a potential and passion within Joe’s that seemed too special to contain on one New York street corner. It seemed like a pretty simple feat, but with no tangible menu and no website, it was pretty much impossible to track down the family. After a few months of grafting, he found an email address and managed to get on a phone call with Joe Jr. — the son of famed Joe Pozzouli, the patriarch of pizza. 

“He was really responsive to my ideas. I was like I think you guys should open up another location and I want to help. I can do the real estate or the money. I was basically like you guys have given me so much in my time living in New York and for that I want to help you guys, what can we do,” Lafkowitz said on his early conversations with the family. Lafkowitz and Joe Jr. aligned at the best time — Joe Jr. was one of the only direct descendents to go to college over going right into the pizza making business. Being back in New York, he was fired up, young and interested in Lafkowitz passion for his family’s business. 

“For a year we went back and forth on phone calls. Finally, we met at the Starbucks on 6th Avenue. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but Joe Jr. was basically like I really like you, I believe in these ideas, let’s go meet my father — and I said ‘right now?’ And he said ‘yep, right now.’” 

Joe Jr. warned Lafkowitz that his father would either want to listen to what he had to say or turn away and be uninterested. This would be Lafkowitz’s one and only chance to make an impression on Joe and would change the fate of the pizzeria forever. Joe Sr. spoke broken English, mostly Italian, and never missed a day working in the pizzeria. 

Pino “Joe” Pozzuoli Sr. immigrated from Naples, Italy in 1950 and opened his first pizzeria in Boston. Since 1975, Mr. Pozzuoli has been making pizzas every single day in Greenwich Village, New York City. Sal and Pino Vitale (Joe’s grandsons) and cousin Giovanni Carollo have been huge parts of the Joe’s pizza pilgrimage as well. The day Lafkowitz met the family in the back of Joe’s, Pozzuoli took immediate liking to him. Lafkowitz claimed he “just started talking, and Joe Sr. listened.”

“I work with a three-generation family of pizza makers. I’m one of the only people who work with them that isn’t blood. They are so incredibly passionate — and every single one of them has experiences and stories that make this family and this pizza what it is,” Lafkowitz said, “Joe Sr. is 83 and that man makes pizzas seven days a week. The family is what’s ‘in the sauce.’”

Lafkowitz and the Pizzouli family immediately made plans for the future of Joe’s. Together they opened four New York locations: 14th Street, Brooklyn, Times Square and Fulton St. Joe’s blood runs each and every location for authenticity sake. Lafkowitz knew, as the other New York locations proved successful, that the next step would be to open out of state. 

“We thought about a lot of places. I’d been to DC, Boston, Miami and Philly to think about opening somewhere else.” 

Somehow, though, they landed in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

“I was back here at a football game last year,” Lafkowitz said, “and I saw the place where Joe’s is now and I felt like it was this underserved part of town. I mean when I was here the only quick and easy place to eat in the South U area was Subway. So I looked at my friend, another Michigan graduate, who owned Michigan alumni bar Professor Tom’s in New York at the time, and I said, ‘If I got serious about opening Joe’s in Ann Arbor would you sell your bar and help me?’ And he immediately said yes.” Pete Levin, another Michigan graduate, is Lafkowitz’s partner in the Ann Arbor location. 

Next steps included having the whole family come experience a weekend in Ann Arbor to “get them hyped,” as Lafkowitz puts it. “You can’t force anyone. Everyone has to sign off on these things. I brought them to football games and basketball games and showed them the campus and everyone fell in love with it here.” Suddenly the Manhattan constant was to be the first New York street slice in Ann Arbor. 

The foodie in me wanted to talk recipe, so of course, I went there next.

“We don’t have a recipe. It’s all about feel. Our pizza makers know the feel of our dough. Of Joe’s dough. Sometimes it’s too hard or too soft, sometimes the cheese is inconsistent and you need to add salt… We make 1,000 pies a day. We have a fast, high volume and we have to stay consistent. There’s no predicting how our ingredients are going to be. It’s all about chemistry, and the career pizza people we have working for us know that.” The Joe’s team sent 10 pizza guys from New York to the Ann Arbor location to help kick things off.  

While the story is exciting and interesting, what matters most to me, as always, is a taste test. My father taught me that Joe’s has two very distinct purposes within the New York pizza scene: 

  1. The post-dinner slice. After a dinner in New York City, on your way to the Holland Tunnel to head back to suburbia, you stop in Greenwich Village. First you have two scoops of Grom gelato. Then, you go next door and cap off your night with a slice of Joe’s to go. 
  2. The late night slice. After going out in New York City, on your way home, even if it’s very out of the way, you stop at Joe’s. 

I have grown accustomed to the exact taste of Joe’s pizza. It is consistent, light, tangy and always packs the perfect crunch. As I wait for my slice, a bit apprehensive to how Ann Arbor has molded one of my most coveted meals, Bruce Springsteen is playing, which feels absolutely right. One bite in and I feel a strange stirring of home, even though I’m sitting in the middle of the midwest, near 900 miles away from where I was born. 

Lafkowitz said one last thing to me before I left:

“I’ve been here every week since we opened. Last night I was literally DJing at 1 a.m. It’s Joe’s you know? No matter where you go, it’s the same energy.”