A Hawaii-based pizzeria owner travels to Long Island to expand his pizza knowledge
This isn’t the story of King Umberto of Italy, but “King Umberto’s” pizzeria of the lesser kingdom of “Elmont” in Long Island, New York. This is the story of how I was embraced and treated as royalty when I went there to expand my knowledge of the pizza business.
This is a tale of the pizza community, networking and the gathering of fellow pizzaiolos at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, and the doors that opened to help me along in my American pizza journey. This is a story of meeting, spending time with and learning from Ciro and Johnny (Chez) Cesarano of King Umberto’s Pizzeria. They are a good representation of the best that the pizza world has to offer. They are also a truly unique paradigm of the old and new worlds of pizza working together.
Like a tension bridge where both sides are pulling in opposite directions and yet completing the span for safe crossing, Ciro and Johnny Cesarano are two dynamics pulling the old and new together. The bridge is a complete pizzeria that is not short on dedicated customers, both old and new. I witnessed both ends of the spectrum flowing in and out each day at this old school meets “new” pizzeria. One moment an old “regular” walks in for lunch like he has for years to be greeted like a familiar uncle knowing what he wants before he even gets to the counter. Then the next moment some younger high school kids roll in to their favorite booth with head nods and fist bumps from Johnny.
It’s family, it’s community and it’s what a pizzeria should be. I believe pizza is a food that brings people and families together, makes them sit across from each other to talk and eat. It is an intimate connection in the simplest form where we use our hands to eat, grab a slice and share something together. When not at home, the neighborhood pizzeria becomes our second home — and the pizza makers our extended family. This is Johnny Ceserano and his crew, up front and interacting with the customers, making sure they have what they need and are happy.
Not only do they do this personally, but they do it with their product. The mainstay pizzas are all represented and done right. The classic New York-style pizza and by the slice, as would be expected, can be found here. The same is true for the thicker Sicilian pizzas and of course the thin, square and crispy Grandma pies that they are known for.
Ciro has the distinction of being one of the original innovators and sellers of the “Grandma Pie” on Long Island many years ago. The detailed Newsday feature story hangs proudly in the dining room. The old-school taste and feel of that traditional pizzeria still exists at King Umberto’s, but son Johnny continues to takes things to the next level by looking for and understanding current trends in pizza.
After all, pizza is still a business at the end of the day. And you’re either in business and selling, or you’re out of business. Greatness in the pizza world stems from a deep passion for the craft and the product that allows us to be in business. Johnny Ceserano has both. Not afraid to push the envelope, Johnny is a master of social media, networking with other pizza makers and keeping a finger on the heartbeat of pizza. He had in the last year or so trained with a fellow pizza maker to learn the rectangular Roman “pizza al metro,” or “pizza by the meter,” and incorporated this onto his menu immediately.
Although he has his lines he doesn’t cross as a pizza maker, he introduces me to a popular-selling Buffalo Chicken Pizza, a Zucchini Flower & Ricotta al Metro pizza, and a spinach crust Grandma pie with bruschetta toppings. All non-traditional, yet all selling like crazy. Each day he allows me to sit behind the counter, ask questions and learn from him. He shows me how he preps, ferments and stretches the different types of pizza. He explains his views on his pizza, customers and customer service, has me try different pies and then sits me down to try a creation that he and his brother Ciro (like the dad) created: Deep Fried Capellini. It knocks me off my feet. And it, too, is selling like hot cakes. Johnny is looking outside the box and keeping his pizzeria in the 21st Century.
In the mornings, I’m blessed to be with the father, Ciro, making dough. It’s like being with one of my old uncles. Three mornings, three different types of dough, same Ciro. This is history before me and a mind that just knows from experience how things should be done. Slow, steady, methodical and traditional, Ciro doesn’t use precise measuring. Like many old-school Italian pizza makers, he knows what he is starting with and the product he wants to finish with. He uses sight, smell, touch … and the end result is perfection. I ask him how many ounces and he just holds up a container and says “This much” in his heavy Italian accent.
Ciro won’t use digital scales or dough scrapers either. He defers to a long, sharp kitchen knife to slice the dough into pieces and an old metal balance scale with a led weight to determine the proper weight of each ball. Down in the basement where it is cooler and the dough can proof better, we roll out dough balls by hand and place them in custom-made wood dough boxes for fermentation. The wooden boxes, the proofing time, the old dough mixer, the scale and balling technique are all time tested and reliable tools that produce the base product for the modern interpretation upstairs.
He relays a story to me of his grandfather, who was a baker in Italy and Europe, and how he would bring him espresso as he baked in the mornings. How he spent that time with his grandfather as a child and was introduced to dough and baking. These are familiar things to him from a time right after WWII. I ask about yeast and fermentation in those days and he explains that every three days or so on the counter in their kitchen was flour and water sitting in a bowl waiting for the natural yeast to kick in so it could be used to make bread. In his late 70’s Ciro is a treasure to listen to. When the dough is done, he is also done for the day. Checking everything before he goes, he leaves the pizzeria in the hands of his son.
Next month I’ll tell you more in the second and final installment recapping my discovery trip to Long Island!
Tom Iannucci is the owner of Pietro’s Pizza Kauai in Hawaii.