Jonathan Goldsmith opened Spacca Napoli Pizzeria in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood 10 years ago. A familiar face to International Pizza Expo attendees ever since, Goldsmith now reflects on his decade in business in this special Q&A with Pizza Today. A portion of our conversation can be read here.
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PT: Tell us about when you first fell in love with pizza?
JG: I cannot tell you exactly when I first fell in love with pizza, only that I was a kid. I can tell you the first pizza I loved: Albanese’s on Post Road in Eastchester, New York. I can still taste it. The owners came over from Italy just before World War II. It was a thin pie — you had to fold over the tip of the slice if you were to pick it up. I still remember the fusion of oil, tomato and cheese, maybe more so than the crust. No matter, it was heaven. For years, I spoke of its greatness. When I finally returned with Ginny some 25 years later, I was disappointed. It just wasn’t the same, just like Peter Reinhart’s experience when tasting his beloved “Mama’s” pizza near Philadelphia at a later point in his life. Had the pizza changed? Was it my memory? Who knows … No matter, it made me very sad.
PT: When did you realize you wanted to make pizza for a living? How did that “Eureka!” moment occur?
JG: September, 2003. It all happened by chance. (My wife) Ginny, (daughter) Sarah and I lived in Florence, Italy, for three-and-a-half years: 1988-1991. Our summers were in a small fishing village in Puglia. Ginny was there to study and paint. I was a househusband, janitor for Ginny’s atelier and a bagnino (beach boy) on the beach in Rodi. Our experience in Italy was wonderful; we returned as often as possible over the years.
At home, I continued my work as a social worker. No longer as a paid professional with adolescents, but as a volunteer chef working for a café for the homeless (The Inspiration Café). My longing for Italy was too great to have to work with commitments — there was no way I was going to be bound to a desk and a time clock. I began real estate, which gave me the freedom I needed.
In 2003, as we were on our way to Italy for the summer, I was feeling that this would be our last “hurrah” overseas. The market was changing. I thought I would have to look for stable work. Sure enough, while on the plane and talking with a young Italian, who happened to be from Naples, Ginny hands over one of Chicago’s daily newspapers with a picture of us cooking at the café. Knowing a touch of our history, he suggests I consider pizza as a future profession. When in Rodi, I asked our longtime friends about pizza. They said: “Flour, water, salt and yeast is all you need, (and) you’ll make a lot of money.” They also said I should go to Naples.
Soon after we returned home, I turned around and went back. I went to Naples. I walked the streets (and) visited as many pizzerias as possible. The energy was amazing … At 50 years of age, I found my calling. The rest is history.
PT: How was International Pizza Expo influential in helping you make Spacca successful?
JG: ‘How was it influential’ is not enough. You should also be asking how it contributes in the present and what may it offer in the future. It’s funny: I do not recall how I first learned of the Expo. I knew no one in the industry. My first year was 2004. I have gone every year since, except the year we opened (2006). We opened in February, Valentine’s Day. Leaving not even a month later for the show was not an option.
The early shows were very exciting; they still are. What’s neat is that there is something here for everyone. In my early years, I went to every seminar I could. Big Dave (Ostrander) was, and still is, my hero. I can listen to him for hours, whether it is the beginning stages of opening a pizzeria, POS systems, portion control and food costs, pricing, employee hiring and retention, security, competition — you name it. I found the many marketing seminars helpful, as well as the sessions with Tom Lehmann, the Dough Doctor. I wouldn’t mind a monthly visit with those fellows of the pizza boot camp. It’s nice to see that many of my current colleagues, such as Mark Dym and John Arena, are also making presentations. I even was part of one myself when I introduced Franco Pepe.
I have always been a fan of the early morning presentations. The independents all provide inspiring messages; the big groups on the second day give you sense of national trends and an insider view of the multi-billion-dollar industry we are part of.
Walking the floor for equipment, there is so much to see and think about. It’s such a wonderful environment for discussion, sharing ideas, making contacts. I remember asking about partnerships, I remember being introduced to a food journalist based in San Francisco and her sending to me at a later date a series she wrote on opening a pizzeria, from start to finish. I was still in the early stages of development. Those articles were invaluable.
As the years have passed, I established myself within the Molino Caputo/Orlando Foods group. Working alongside the masters has been a blessing. My questions to them are endless; I never tire watching their hands touch the dough. They have all made me welcome when I travel to Naples. The opportunities to learn alongside them have been and continue to be invaluable.
Judging at the show has been great. Not only as an opportunity to showcase our pizzeria, but to work alongside so many well respected individuals such as Scott Wiener, Domenico Crolla, John Arena and Tony Gemignani.
For the future, I wish to make more time for the seminars. I have new questions; I still have the old ones. It’s like reading Catcher in the Rye at a few different times in your life. You always walk away with something else, something new. You process things differently as your experience has evolved.
PT: Why so many “discovery” trips to Italy, so much research?
JG: I cannot stay away. I long for Italy. Our years there were incredible, every moment. Italy is truly part of me. If asked by someone in the pizzeria about my heritage, I most likely will say “sangue russo, piedi americani, ma cuore italiano.” Russian blood, American feet, but Italian heart. It is in my blood.
I am so fortunate that we have the pizzeria, it makes me feel complete and I truly believe how important it is for the pizzeria and myself that I return as often as possible. There is something to learn, to experience, always! I purchase tickets months in advance, even when at that moment I do not have a particular program in mind. Something will always happen. I see myself as part of a guild, the pizza guild. Similar to the guilds of the Renaissance, one enters and evolves over time. I see this in Naples today. It is no different than 18th century Naples that Antonio Mattozzi scholarly documents in his book, Una Storia Napoletana. Lucky for us stranieri (non Italians), the book recently was published in English. One enters a guild as an adolescent or young adult and remains a lifetime. This has been my life only 12 years, not very long. Learning does not stop, it continues. It must. There are many pizza makers and producers willing to share their philosophies, methods and practices. They appreciate others who believe in what they do and are generous. My returning over and over has opened the door even wider. In the beginning, I was just watching the hands, sketching the pizza bank/oven layouts and studying menus. I did eat a few pizzas. I still do all of those things, but now have developed relationships with many of these pizza makers and producers.
Spending a day with someone, asking questions, observing, participating in some way, is now my wish. I am continuing to evolve within the guild, this “misteri”. Not only am I learning more about flour, the dough making process and the making of pizza, my understanding of wine, mozzarella, olive oil, agrumi and Neapolitan culture continues to grow. This all makes me very happy and I like sharing it as well. Somehow, my passion for Italy has taken on this other dimension: pizza. It is part of me. Trust me, I am not the only one and this is not something new. The moment I stop caring about it, I will stop. To think of what I am doing as only a business does not compute.
PT: You mentioned your wife, Ginny. Her touch can be seen throughout Spacca in the beautiful artwork on display. You have said before that she contributes significantly to the business.
JG: We are truly a partnership. I do hope Ginny’s role in our partnership and pizzeria is not lost. As I meet and experience over the years all of the grande personaggi in our industry, I want to be just a pizza guy who sees his place as equal and not greater to those who support and carry out the operation of the pizzeria. Though Ginny is behind the scenes, she is the one to think of when talking of the business/sustaining side of the pizzeria.
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief of Pizza Today.