John Brescio Interview
It’s a matter of historical fact, Lombardi’s, in New York City, was the first American pizzeria.
Opening it’s doors in 1905, Lombardi’s is still regarded as one of the best.
Zagat Survey reviewers proclaimed Lombardi’s as “Best On The Planet”.
To talk about the history of Lombardi’s, we turned to John Brescio, current owner of Lombardi’s.
Q – John, what’s a typical day like for you, if there is such a thing. Are you more about the administration of things?
A – Well, how about I start from the beginning? My job changed as time went on. In the beginning which was 1994, when I took over, re-opened Lombardi’s, my wife was there with me. Mike wasn’t in the picture. It was me and wife and another fellow. We only had one little store at that time when we first started. When we first started, it was one narrow store and then when you got to the back of the store, it was where the oven was. The oven was actually outside. The mouth of the oven was outside. In other words, the oven sits in a court yard, but the mouth of it is in the inside, where you feed the pizzas in. We had about 30 seats. So, I realized I was gonna have to work on deliveries in order to make enough money in the store. Right away I started with pamphlets, and I would deliver them myself to make sure they got to the different apartments. We started with a pretty big area also. I started with just a dishwasher helping me deliver the pizza in the beginning. My wife was even making deliveries in the neighborhood. Today, we have about 8 or 9 bikes. 8 or 9 delivery guys. We developed that part. As time went on, I took the store to the left of me. A year after that I opened up, on top of the oven. I enclosed the room and I made another room up there. So, you can eat pizza right on top of the oven. Then, a few years ago I took the corner store. I broke the wall, and we have the whole corner now.
Q - Business must be good!
A – Yeah. Business is good. You know, when I first opened, being the first pizzeria, we got a lot of exposure, and I still do today. If the pizza wasn’t right on the money I wouldn’t get that exposure or, if I got it, it would be bad exposure.
Q – Why did Lombardi’s close it’s doors in 1984?
A – Because, over the years, they went from a pizzeria to a high-end restaurant, an Italian restaurant, very high-end. And in the 80’s, there was a down-turn, like we’re having now. They couldn’t withstand the downturn and they wound up closing. Everything went down, Wall Street, like today almost. Also, the oven that was in Lombardi’s at the time was right on top of a subway and over the years, from the heat and the vibration, that oven just crumbled to pot. In the beginning, when we were looking for a new spot it was right under our nose and we rented half-way down the block. This oven that I have now was actually caved in an everybody said it couldn’t be fixed. But, I found a fella from Italy with 2 sons and they made the oven just like new. I have the sons come back still today every year for maintenance. Where the fire is, in the oven, its 2,200 degrees, so, it burns away the brick day by day. By the end of the year, I have to put in all new brick right around the fire. I keep a hot fire going for two reasons, for the volume, and because of the volume I have to have extreme heat to keep on replacing the cold spots from cooking the pizzas. So, I have to keep a high fire going in all the time.
Q – It sounds like that oven is pretty unique.
A – The oven is unbelievable. We could run a locomotive from the heat coming out of that oven. Everybody that sees it is in awe. Their mouth drops. That’s how big the fire is.
Q – You know Gennaro Lombardi’s grandson Jerry from childhood.
A – Yeah.
Q – Did you live in the same neighborhood? Did you go to the same schools?
A – My mother was raised around the corner and my father was down there his whole life. He would take me to work with him a lot of the times and he would leave me in the restaurant. He was very close with the Lombardi family. I was 10, 11 years old, even younger than that. I would get into mischief with Jerry and the grandfather would keep us busy rolling dough. Before you know it, we’d be throwing it at each other and throwing it at him. We would pass the day there, playing around. Then, I would eat the pizza and as I grew up, I could never get the same pizza. I always had that taste in my mouth. There are certain things you don’t forget. That’s what made us re-open and I got the same taste that Gennaro used to make for us, when I was a kid.
Q – How long was Gennaro’s son John involved in Lombardi’s?
A – He died when he was about 46 years old. He liked to drink and he liked to party. He used to travel to Italy a lot to see relatives and friends. He used to go by boat. He used to love relaxing and partying on the boat, the cruises. He was involved pretty long, but, he died young. Some people say it was from drinkin’. I figure it was a combination of that and he worked a lot of hours behind the coal oven.
Q – Which you almost have to do, don’t you? Watching over everyone, making sure they’re doing their job.
A – Yeah. You know what happens? Thank God, I developed a good crew the last couple of years. For my first 10 years there I was there 7 days a week, day and night. Actually, I wound up with 4 stents. I’m 60 now, because the pressure everyday. You gotta have everything right in Lombardi’s. That’s the name it has. You got people that fuck everything up on you once…..You’re out of there an hour and they think they know more than you. They’re changing what you got in place. I had a rough time for the first 10 years. But, I stuck with it. I got my son there now, Thank God. And, I got another fella Gilbert who’s my right-hand man and we got everything running just like a Swiss clock right now.
Q – What’s the difference between a pizza restaurant and a pizzeria?
A – We serve only whole pies. We don’t serve slices. It’s a sit-down restaurant. I got a full bar beautiful salads and appetizers. It’s a restaurant atmosphere as opposed to running and picking it up and running out with it.
Q – Is it possible that you could franchise Lombardi’s?
A – Yes. I’ve been offered a lot of money. If I was 35 years old I would probably have done it. But, I’m 60 years old now. I exercise everyday. I have 4 stents. I caught everything before I had a heart attack. So, I’m a healthy guy. I exercise an hour, an hour and a half everyday. But, what’s the sense of making somebody else rich, and I’ve got another headache on my mind? To do it the right way I feel you gotta be on the premises. I had a guy offer me $2 million dollars, but, I didn’t know the guy. I don’t want to take just anybody with me just for money. I make enough money for me and my family. That’s enough for me. As long as I keep producing everything the right way I’m satisfied.
Q – You have something unique.
A – Right. Without asking, in New York, they have taxi cabs with televisions in the back of ‘em. They put some of the top restaurants on the television to show people from out of town I guess where to go to eat. They had me on there for about a year. I never even asked for that. So, it’s like if you come into New York, you gotta go to the Statue of Liberty, and Lombardi’s.
Q – You don’t have to advertise do you?
A – I’ve never advertised since I opened. Not once.
Q – Is it possible that you could sell some of your products, say your pizza or pasta sauce in supermarkets?
A – I could do it, yeah, but, I don’t do it. I’m happy and I have enough hours in the day to do what I’m doing the right way. Just the oven alone is a job. I got 2 guys that stay in the restaurant all night long cleaning the restaurant and cleaning out the old fire. In the middle of the night they clean out the fire and they got to re-start a new one. They got to clean the grates, so the air comes through the grates. Coal sits on grates. Air comes from the bottom. Not like wood. Wood sits on the floor of an oven and it doesn’t need air underneath it. These grates have to be cleaned every night, so the air comes through, re-lit. It takes a couple of hours to get it re-started again; the coal to catch on and get a big fire. So, it’s a process everyday.
Q – What are your hours?
A – I’m open from 11:30 in the morning to 11 at night. Midnight on Friday and Saturday. But, what, I’m saying is, there’s two guys cleaning the restaurant. Then they get to the oven around 4 in the morning. Whatever’s smoldering they clean it out; they put it into a thick garbage pail, iron garbage pail and they put that on the side and let it smolder out ‘til it’s out. Then they throw it out in the garbage, the following day. Then they clean the grates, start re-lighting the oven and build the fire up slowly. Otherwise if you build it too fast you smother the coal. So, it takes a couple of hours. Once that’s lit and going then we start roasting our peppers for the day, our clams. Everything is cooked in the oven. So, early in the morning all those things are done to prep for whatever you need for the day.
Q – What famous names have come through Lombardi’s? Can you mention any names?
A – Well, I can mention Jack Nicholson because he’s really a sharp guy. He’s really a down to earth guy. He came in several times. Every time there’s a Bowl game or something in the City, he comes to New York, he comes in or he sends a driver for pizza. I took a picture with him and he wrote on the picture, ‘This is as good as it gets’! He made a movie called that. He loved the pizza.
Q – Did Frank Sinatra ever come into Lombardi’s?
A – I’m sure years ago he did. I know Caruso came, going back years ago. The story is my father saw him crack a glass when he was singing. One of those crystal glasses. Caruso used to come a lot when he would finish work uptown. He would come downtown to Lombardi’s, with all the people that worked with him I guess. When Lombardi’s was a high-end restaurant Jacqueline Onassis would come often. She was a big cat lover. They have a cat in the oven. She used to pay more attention to the cat than anything. She was really like an animal lover.
Q – As I started off asking, is there a typical day for you?
A – I’m there, in and out, all day long. I used to be there without leaving. I leave for an hour, go to the gym, come back. But, I spend a good, 8-9 hours there everyday. Typical day is I want to make sure the fire is running. If the fires not right or there’s not enough heat, I use all top ingredients, the pizza will not come out right if the oven is not hot enough. That’s a key thing for the pizza.
Q – How many years do you think you’ll be at Lombardi’s?
A – Until I die I’ll be there but I just won’t kill myself like I did in past years. He (Michael) could handle it himself right now, but, I won’t stop going until I die, because o meet hundreds of people everyday. That’s the best thing I like about it. I meet people from all over the world, who want to take a picture, who want me to sign a picture. I talk to people from every country. It’s amazing. From all over the world. I say to people they should have the UN (United Nations) at Lombardi’s or I should take care of the whole U.N. and send pizza up there because pizza is an international food. This might be a way to get people to stop having wars.
Q – I like it!
A – This is my idea. Everybody’s happy when they’re at Lombardi’s.
Q – You probably wouldn’t write a cookbook either, would you?
A – The only ego I have is to make great pizza. Other than that, I’ve got no ego. I just want to make my pizza the best way I can. I want people to come to Lombardi’s if they want the experience.
Q – What is your favorite food?
A – Pizza.
Q – I know you were going to say that.
A – And there’s millions of other people that that’s their favorite food. And the other thing is, pizza is a personal thing. Some people like it one way and other people like it this way. Wood oven. Coal oven. Gas oven. Everybody’s got a different taste. But, I feel I’ve captured the majority of taste with the Lombardi pie.
Official Website: Lombardis Pizza
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