July 16, 2021 – Sometimes the best plan is to go with the flow, with those in the know.
In this case, the one in the know is Nino Coniglio.
He’s a nine-time World Pizza Champion and keynote speaker at the annual Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, where two years ago he got engaged on stage to his wife Shealyn Brand Coniglio. (She’s an accomplished pizza wiz and media savant herself.) He’s won for astounding dough-throwing routines and Best of the Best cook-off abilities alike.
He’s chef and owner at Williamsburg Pizza and a handful of other standout spots, including 310 Bowery Bar and The Woodstock NYC.
He’s a champion on Food Network’s “Chopped,” where he emerged victorious over several of his mentors and close friends.
He’s host of The Pizza Podcast.
He’s a businessman about to heat up the pizza and bakery world with Mastro Ovens, which make their debut on the main stage at the World Pizza Games next month.
He’s also the ringleader of The Brooklyn Pizza Crew, who award-winning travel writer Eben Diskin describes as “the Avengers,” adding, “but instead of Thanos, they’re fighting Dominoes,” one social media caper at a time.
He’s a deep devotee of the New York Hard Core music scene, with the tattoos and mosh-friendly moves to prove it.
As much as anything, he’s an ambassador for his Brooklyn neighborhood, its heritage and its finest pies.
But more than all of that, he’s a guy who can’t sit still.
The original plan: lunch on some of Williamsburg Pizza’s signature slices with Alisha Petro, a Monterey Bay native turned Brooklyn-based graphic designer (and burgeoning block party dance legend).
The lunch slices at the corner of Union and Scholes deliver big. I dig the fresh ingredients, depth and texture of the Apple Bacon with smoked mozzarella and crushed walnuts; the Sophia Loren with more house-pulled mozzarella, thin-sliced tomatoes, basil and fresh garlic; and the Tartufo with wild mushrooms, rosemary and white truffle oil.
I text compliments to Coniglio. “Stop by Fortunatos when you’re done cuz,” he replies.
In the kitchen at Fortunato Brothers Cafe—the last place in the country to still make sfogliatelle from scratch—the lessons start as he moves throughout the kitchen. The professor, I learn later, is the guy who found a way into junior college at 16 because, well, high school rules were getting in the way of his education.
Coniglio describes how he’s really into artisanal breads, and how the ovens he’s developing honor good business—“You have to capture the efficiencies without compromising the final product,” he says—and a forgotten legend: Frank Mastro.
Mastro came to New York from Italy after serving in World War II and started hustling. A sharp salesman with an eye for kitchen tools, he was convinced pizza could rival hot dogs in a new land. He set about designing an oven that could affordably produce at scale, designing and perfecting gas ovens that would make mom-and-pops possible.
He would go on to outfit and finance hundreds of modest NYC pizzerias—while basically fronting the money—to help Italian-Americans make a go of it, altering their lives and America’s food landscape forever. But after Frank and his son Vince both met early deaths, and someone within the company stole all their corporate collateral the day Vince died, their business and legacy were lost to their family and to history.
Coniglio’s desire to honor someone like Mastro makes more and more sense as the afternoon develops. An early tell comes as we move to a nearby bar called Rocka Rolla.
Before the bartender can take our order, Coniglio is taking hers.
“Would you like a coupla pies?” he asks. Suddenly two pizzas are en route from where we had lunch.
This isn’t an isolated incident. On Sundays Coniglio frequently ignites the wood-fired pizza oven in his front yard and, once word gets out, distributes upwards of 100 pies. (He’s also got an industrial-strength pizza/bread lab in his house with everything from a 48-gallon spiral mixer to a room filled with commercial coolers.)
Sometimes people unfamiliar with the free pizza party, when they get to the front of the line, ask him why he’s doing it.
“When I grew up there was a much bigger sense of community, now there are more cliques and clans,” he says. “This brings neighbors together.”
At Rocka Rolla our dialog dips back to the early days of McDonald’s and leaps forward toward Coniglio’s next big project, a restaurant-bar concept that may impact the national food landscape itself.
As the conversation ranges across geography and history, Coniglio moves around the patio, igniting Marlboro Lights, taking a seat across from me, then one to my right, then standing to my left.
Next come five words that, in his cinematic Brooklyn accent, sound like a benediction: “Let’s go try some pies.”
The ensuing hours fly like the discs that Coniglio throws as a world-class “pizza acrobat.” The two main ingredients for the wander across Williamsburg: local identity and handmade dough.
On the way to the first pizza place we pass the church where he was married. The minister who officiated later had Coniglio on his Catholic Net TV show “Breaking Bread,” which is where I found out about the apple-bacon-walnut pie.
Around the corner, an impromptu post-lockdown dance party gets going in the street with some punk-funk-ska musicians. When a 40-something starts moshing around a little erratically, pitching himself into Coniglio, the pizzaolo gives him a quick, compact shove and the guy goes down in a heap.
“Probably shouldn’t be moshing if he doesn’t know how,” Coniglio says. The man apologizes.
At nearby L’Industrie, Coniglio steers us towards a sublime burrata and basil slice. As we sit at the counter overlooking the kitchen, the staff note his presence with a mix of familiarity, awe and nervousness. He studies their ovens and shares tips on how to up the oomph.
We head out. When I stop to check out a Copa America soccer score, he fires off a draft press release about the Italian street food he’s taking to the Giglio Feast, a hyper-local festival where the main event involves burly Catholics lifting and carrying a 4-ton, 65-foot tower through the Williamsburg streets.
It’s another tell that he’s not working on sausages and breads that dominate the food stalls. While he meshes with the 120-year-old history of the event and its old-school characters, he isn’t feeling the status quo.
“Some people think authentic Italian food doesn’t change,” he says. “But there’s as much going on in their street food and new ideas as anywhere in the world.”
Instead he’s borrowing inspiration from Rome-based tastemaker Renato Ruggerio and crafting gluten-free frittatina alla carbonara, which looks like a grenade of meaty macaroni-and-cheese exploded inside a piece of crust.
He’s not into the soccer match either, and won’t be sitting on a couch watching the Euro Cup final the following Sunday, even though Italy will go on to upset England. When describing why, he recalls reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a teen.
“The Coliseum was a way to satiate the masses, to control them, and I didn’t like that,” he says. “I remember being on the subway and watching a guy buy the whole paper and throw away the entire thing on the ground to get to the sports page. I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got a problem. Bet you don’t know who your senator is but you can name the Cardinals’ shortstop.’
“Think of the brain power you’re investing. I figure I could be using that time to get better at my craft.”
A place called Best Pizza comes next, with slices of the white and Grandma’s, followed by jaunts through various Williamsburg institutions like Union Pool concert hall/taco truck combo.
But this mission demands more pie, so we settle into the leafy greenhouse setting at Montesacro before the kitchen closes.
The swanky Montesacro represents a departure from the simpler slice spots Frank Mastro seeded and Williamsburg Pizza carries forth. So does the Roman-style flatbread called “pinsa,” made with a blend of rice, wheat and soy flour, and dried mother yeast, that proofs for 72 long hours and results in a hard-to-make, easy-to-eat pizza served with a cutter for DIY slicing.
I profess my love for the lamb sausage-artichoke pie out loud.
Coniglio agrees, with an asterisk. He appreciates Roman pizza, but doesn’t see a way to complete the complicated prep correctly and still fit New Yorker expectations for the price of a slice. It’s either go upscale like Montesacro or supplement high-end pie with other baked goods.
“You try to charge California prices for a slice in New York,” he says, “New Yorkers will what-the-mother-f**k you.”
Our pizza work over, we elect to wrap the night with a whiskey and some billiards. Little do I know, at the Alligator Lounge, every drink comes with a free personal pizza cooked to order.
You don’t decide when you’re done, the pizza whispers, Brooklyn does.
I’ve had pizza on my brain ever since Brooklyn, and New York- or Roman-style pies in particular. So when I return to California, I report immediately to new-ish Rise + Roam Bakery and Pizzeria at Mission and 7th in Carmel, which opened on the cusp of COVID.
There Roman pizza is the featured act, and per Coniglio’s coaching, Chef Todd Fisher and company deploy a range of day-fresh breads and baked goods like the new caprese Danish with Swank Farms heirloom tomatoes, Puglia burrata and basil in a butter croissant.
(I didn’t feel as confident finding a good NYC-style pizza, but trusted sources including EMB’s Raúl Nava recommend the relatively new Slice Project in Watsonville. If you’ve got a spot, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When I walk in R+R’s weekly special, a white clam “chowder” pizza, snatches my attention.
“Inspired by the Connecticut classic, the garlic clam pizza, and Fisherman’s Wharf chowder bread bowls,” Fisher explains. (Sidenotes: A few blocks away, Chef Jacques Zigouri does a killer and more classic New England-style clam pie; R+R’s special this week is a BLT with heirloom tomatoes, gem lettuces, basil, garlic, Baker’s Bacon and mozzarella.)
The “clam chowder” pizza proves to be a thick-but-fluffy, french-fry-bacon-white sauce creation with a touch of clam (more would be good). A creative comfort food force for good.
It’s also the sort of item that makes a fitting Found Treasure. Typically this column celebrates an undiscovered gem of a restaurant, an incredible value, and/or an off-menu item. (And, it turns out, this story notwithstanding, it celebrates a lot of pizza, from Pizza 1’s Corralitos pie to Big Sur Bakery’s Kevin Bacon.)
Coniglio is officially the first human Found Treasure featured.
I can’t do that without mentioning my favorite thing about him: While he’s a student of cooking technique, business efficiencies, culture and media—and ravenous about it—he might be most passionate about heritage, and not letting legends like Frank Mastro slip away without their propers.
Those are his greatest treasures.
“The giants whose shoulders we’re standing on,” he says. “The old-school guys who built this New York pizza thing, the ones that none of the popular new places—with their great ambiance and amazing PR—give any recognition.”
Mid-pizza crawl he said something that stuck with me, and something he shows more with a spontaneous tour than he says out loud.
“If I sell a million ovens, if I have the best pizza, whatever,” he told me. “The most important thing is preserving the old-school Italians’ stories.”
Mid-crawl he also asked for my address. A few days later I got a book in the mail. He sent Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Facism to Dolce Vita.
Turns out real Italian cuisine history isn’t the romanticized version that author Karima Moyer-Nocchi calls out as “the pastoral delusion of the idyllic simple abundance of yesteryear, of country folk whiling away the days in the lush fertile fields under the Tuscan sun, chalices brimming with ruby red wine and plates piled high with sauce-laden pasta.”
“It’s not everybody growing and making their own food,” Coniglio says. “It’s more like feudalism, facism, war and depravity.”
Keep all the sexy Instagram posts, tasty slices and lofty championships, he’s saying, if the real story isn’t understood.
When I talk to him later, he’s chopping vegetables for a night—of 12—at the Giglio Feast in the heart of Williamsburg. (If you’re feeling frisky, three nights remain as this publishes.)
There are plenty of places a well-off world champion could be other than a 100-degree humid summer kitchen in Brooklyn, but those familiar with Coniglio aren’t surprised to find him here.
“For better or worse, easy or hard, I want to be part of the community,” Coniglio says. “These [elders] are the guys I learned from.”
Another line in Chewing the Fat stood out to me. To conclude the 400-page book, Moyer-Nocchi talks with Dario Cecchini, who Anthony Bourdain called “the most famous and respected butcher in Italy, and maybe the world…not just a butcher, but a repository of all things Tuscan, be it foodways, historical canon, literature, or poetry.”
In other words, a Coniglio-style soul.
“Traditions are not about conserving the ashes, but about fueling the flame…” Cecchini tells Moyer-Nocchi. “Remember what and where you’ve come from, but always strive to make things better, keep reaching upwards.”
The pizzaolo adds an ingredient to that.
“The most powerful thing in the world is a good example,” he says. “It’s up to everyone to do what they can.”
What I hear there: Never stop moving, other than to pause frequently for pizza.