Giovanni Cesarano is a Pizza Today Rising Star! His Interview with Lloyd

June 01, 2021

[00:00:02.300] - Lloyd

Hey, guys, it's Lloyd with perfect crust pizza liners and incredible bags, today, I'm joined with Giovanni Serrano. Giovanni as almost everybody who watches these notes as first and second place finisher from the capital camp, and he's influenced top pizza makers across the country with grandma style, with gluten free, all sorts of different ways. He's also the creative force behind the legendary King Umberto's in Elmont, New York on Long Island. Thanks, Giovanni, for being with us.

 

[00:00:32.360] - Giovanni

Thank you for having me. It means a lot. Thank you.

 

[00:00:35.150] - Lloyd

Yeah, I'm super excited to talk to you. As I kind of mentioned before, we went online. I'm a huge fan. Part of why I'm a huge fan is your Instagram feed is endlessly different and interesting and just gets me excited. I mean, King Umberto's has obviously a whole bunch of different food, but the pictures and videos, etc, that you post to me are like a great example of maybe what people should do with their Instagram. Sometimes you see something that is basically the same, if not literally the same picture. You'll see something that's virtually the same picture of a similar pizza day after day after day where if you look, it's kind of like Groundhog Day. You can't tell what's what. And that's not the case with your eyes. You've got all kinds of stuff going on, videos, desserts. I think that's great.

 

[00:01:28.010] - Giovanni

Thank you. Yeah, I try to keep it interesting and exciting. And if I do feel a post is just going to be boring or repetitive, I try to avoid posting it. You know, I just feel like the the interaction concept of it comes from when someone sees something that they never seen before and you start to think of ideas outside of the box if you want to set yourself apart from the competition and do not do what everybody else is doing. So this way, people, I think, pay attention more. That's what I kind of go for.

 

[00:01:58.310] - Lloyd

Yeah. Some of the videos, especially like I guess it's maybe a busy Friday night or something. It's behind the counter and you see all the tickets. They're like, oh my God, I would just leave my mind. I would last like five minutes and I'd be in the fetal position in the corner.

 

[00:02:15.050] - Giovanni

That I have to give credit to my employees. I tried to get them involved as much as possible and my social media as well, because without them, I wouldn't be able to post anything on social media because I'd be so busy working. But right now, I'm very happy with the staff that I have. They're very hard working and I have to give them credit. You know, if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to do half the stuff that I do an experiment, half the ways that I do.

 

[00:02:38.170] - Lloyd

Yeah, no, I you know, you're incredibly gracious with your time with interviews, podcast, et cetera. And I've heard you've been asked before about other locations and kind of your response was kind of like, you know, we can't do it well, we don't want to do it. And with so much just like a snapshot of your approach to everything you make. Right. So it's kind of like, hey, the Sicilian, let's do it the right way. You know what the what the Italian donuts Moloney's. Let's do that. That's if it's not right. Don't roll it out. And I thought, of course, that would be your approach to looking at a second location. And as you say, people were so critical to what you do, that's a really hard step to do.

 

[00:03:22.270] - Giovanni

Yeah, it's like a double edged sword, there's pros and cons to everything. People start to look at you under a microscope sometimes and they do get very critical. And in a way, I look at the the critic or the critique or, you know, we mentioned before talking about these lists that come out. I use that as positivity and motivation to get better. And I try to take criticism with a grain of salt. A lot of times I've been blessed with constructive criticism from my peers. I value that much more than, for example, let's just say, a Yelp review or somebody who was having a bad day or had a bad experience at Umberto's, which it definitely happens. It's the nature of the business that we're in. And, you know, I I put pressure on myself to get better every day and provide my customers with the best product possible and doing things the right way.

 

[00:04:25.670] - Lloyd

So we were talking before recording about some news that came out either at the end of last week or just this week, and that is about the modernist pizza coming out. The book from Nathan Myhrvold, Francisco Goya, a whole modernist cuisine gang there you and I have. And before that, that's like pretty exciting stuff just in terms of their knowledge and their drive to kind of complete science with art. And so I was wondering what you can tell me about what you know about modernist pizza. I think as we talked about, it's coming out in the fall, right?

 

[00:05:01.340] - Giovanni

Yeah, it's coming out in the fall. When you said mixing science with art, I actually got goosebumps because no one does it better than them. And I'm looking forward to this book because I know just by reading it, it's going to help elevate my game so much more. You know, A, I was actually stopped by the restaurant. I think it was about a year and a half, two years ago. And I'm sorry, with this pandemic that just happened, everything is a blur. Right. And I actually got to sit down with them and talk with them, which was one of the highlights of my career. And it was just an amazing experience. And I got to thank Scott Wiener for hooking this up. Thank you, Scott, if you're listening, I appreciate that so much. But it was an amazing experience. It's going to be an amazing book. I've read through that Red Book, The Red Books, excuse me, the whole series. And after reading that, it just changed my whole perspective. On on a bread baking and even pizza baking, and they didn't really touch upon pizza too much in their previous books, but this one is one that I'm really looking forward to. And I think everybody in the industry is really looking forward to these books and getting their hands on them.

 

[00:06:08.640] - Lloyd

Yeah, it is one of those things where it's so massive. It's like encyclopedic. It's three volumes. The pizza set is seventeen hundred pages. The Martinus Bread set, which came out in twenty seventeen I think was five volumes and twenty five hundred pages and like you say, barely touches on pizza because they were already working on this. And I think it's fascinating. You know, one of the things I like about you is you're you're, you're really wanting to improve and understand stuff. And when I look at modernist cuisine, one of those things is directly opposed to how some people operate in the bread baking and pizza world, which is a that's kind of how we've always done it. And B, I hear that this happens in fermentation. They're into experimentation. They do thousands of experiments as a course of the book, beautiful illustrations. And like you, I can't wait for it to come out. So that's great.

 

[00:07:12.010] - Giovanni

Yeah. I mean, once you get your hands on that, I'm going to try to apply the knowledge that I get from that book and obviously to the business and hopefully help create at the end of the day, a better product for the customers. Teach my employees what I learned and hopefully make them better pizza makers and bakers and so on and so forth. So it's it's a beautiful thing. And I can't wait. I can't wait. I'm super excited like everybody in the pizza business. I think when the book comes out is going to be like a kid on Christmas when they got their first Nintendo, their first Sega Genesis. You know, that's how I feel.

 

[00:07:48.420] - Lloyd

Yeah, that's great. That's great. So, you know, one of the things I love about kind of, you know, your story in the Kingdom Burroughs story is you are in a situation where, you know, you're a next generation coming along. And for many family businesses, that's the dream of the older generation, but also really hard to navigate. And you know, what you're doing with King Umberto's I find really exciting. I've kind of been in a similar situation in that I was in the family business and, you know, as the younger generation trying to deal with personalities that are your parents and trying to navigate all that within the business world. In your case, I think you return to the family business because there was a short term need, but also because you were unfulfilled. If I were called a finance type job for me, I'd I had a career. My parents and, you know, Asian-American parents were like, you are going to go to college. We don't really care what you do. They were really great about it, not about not saying you will go with the family business. They encouraged me, like whatever you want to do. So I had a career as a geologist and I was working in it. But, you know, I'm a cog in the wheel. And if Emeco Oil has a great year and makes millions of dollars drilling oil and I contribute to that, there's not I couldn't understand where I fit in was not fulfilling at all. And so kind of the drive to work was really much driving the work, that whole thing. So I can really relate to that part of your story. That being said, I have to say that like this, transitions with family businesses are are where a lot of businesses really struggle. And in my experience is because a lot of things have to go right, both with the older generation and the younger generation. So the older generation, they're used to doing it their way. They have to kind of make an adjustment to understanding, you know, the strengths and abilities of the younger generation.

 

[00:10:00.900] - Lloyd

You know, I have a son that's in his 30s now. And, you know, there are days that I have to remind myself, like I'm a grown man, you know, give him some credit instead of going to my default, which is like I got to tell about that, cause he knows about that. Right. So you have to adjust your thinking as the older generation, but also for the younger generation, you have to respect the successes and what work as well as not be stagnant. So, again, there's so many places for it to go wrong. Right. Older patriarch, matriarch doesn't want to change or younger generation like comes in and rips up the playbook or just says we're not changing anything, any of those. I mean, it's not going to work that well.

 

[00:10:47.800] - Giovanni

I think when you're in your position, I mean, opposite from where you are and you're you're in the same position as what my father was in, and for your son and for myself, I think it's all about taking baby steps and it's about proving yourself and gaining their trust. And I made a lot of mistakes. I didn't want to take baby steps. I wanted to take leaps and bounds. As soon as I came in and I walked through the door to say, OK, we're doing this, this and that. And I don't want to say into it was like a lack of respect to my father and his partners. But they kind of like, hey, slow down. You know, we've been doing this for however many years you just got here. You know, you're role type of a situation, which was I think it was helpful for me. I think it disciplined me. It taught me patience. And eventually I threw through a lot of hard work and some mistakes that I made along the way because, you know, I learned from my mistakes, especially when I wanted to change everything right away.

 

[00:11:44.850] - Giovanni

I really wasn't the right thing to do over there. I gain their trust and, you know, through through actions and to working hard and learning and proving to them, say, like, listen, this might have not have worked, but if we do this, this will work. And it was a it was difficult in the beginning. And I don't want to say that. It would have been easier for me to. Start something on my own. I don't ever want to say it because I've been truly blessed with having a business such as King Umberto's and anybody, I think out there, a lot of people would be grateful to have a place like King Umberto's and call it their own, but. It's like when you get drafted after Michael Jordan retires, nobody tells you to be Michael Jordan and you're like, yeah, I can do it, I can do it. And then like your rookie year and then you're only averaging five points a game. It's like what happened? You know, we just had this guy who won six NBA championships. Now you're here, you know? So that's the analogy that I can best use. And it was difficult at first. But, you know, I made a lot of rookie mistakes and then eventually I learned and I'm still learning. I'm still not perfect. And I think even my older partners that are still involved in King Ambrose, we're all still learning. We're all still trying to figure this out, especially the way the landscape of business is right now. Everything has changed tremendously.

 

[00:13:05.250] - Lloyd

So, yeah, I give all family businesses a huge amount of credit. I mean, it's just incredibly difficult and asks a lot of all the players, but especially during transitions, generational transitions, I think it's it's really, really hard. So there was a joke that I had a friend similar situation where his dad was running the business and my dad was running mine. And you saw I was joke about trying to earn that respect, et cetera, et cetera, kind of like you talk about. And there was a joke about a guy in that situation. And, you know, finally, I mean, his dad hangs on as the years go by, everyone's going to go, when does Mr. X retire? What does Mr. X retire? Finally, he calls his son into his office and says, listen, I want to have a talk with you. And the son says, OK, what's up? And he says, listen, I've thought about it long and hard and now I'm going to retire. And the dad is eighty seven or something like that. And the sun kind of looks at them stand and says, Dad, you can't retire. I'm going to retire because the son of the sun is like 60, 80 this entire time. So it's it's one of those jokes that, like my friend and I who are second generation business people, truly enjoyed just because it was entirely absurd. But but again, hats off to all family businesses.

 

[00:14:34.920] - Giovanni

So, yeah, for sure. It's not easy to work with family. It could be very challenging at times. But at the end of the day, I'm grateful. Like, I still work with my brother every day and I'm happy that I get to see him every day and work with him. So it's got its pros and cons.

 

[00:14:50.940] - Lloyd

But, you know, so I wanted to talk with you about a couple things that are new on the menu, including your roman style pizza Métro, looks fantastic. And, you know, I hats off to you again, kind of endlessly innovating. I think it would be easy to just sort of sit back and sort of do what you did and not take on new challenges. But that looks like something that that A is just awesome. And B, that probably took a lot of work. I mean, you're working with much higher hydration, et cetera. And to get that kind of texture, it just must be endless tinkering. Right?

 

[00:15:32.260] - Giovanni

The endless tinkering is not the word. It was looking back at it, like during those moments, I was getting very discouraged and. In the beginning, when I tried to make the product, the type of person I'm sure we mentioned this before, if I'm not going to make it the right way, I don't want to make it. But I wanted to. I had the desire. I had the need to make this product. I wanted to do it because I wanted to introduce something not different with toppings. Everybody in Long Island was doing different toppings on different toppings. So we got to do something different with the crust. And it all started customer with Roberto Cappadocia. And that just opened my mind to so many things of doing things differently, using different flowers and different hydration and baking at different temperatures. And when I walked into that place, I was very one dimensional. And I learned so much from just being there for two weeks after that, it started with trial and error and calling my peers in the pizza business.

 

[00:16:33.100] - Giovanni

And if it wasn't for them, like people like John Arena Micheli, the Melio, who else? Mossimo from lindustry, there was so many people who were pointing me in the right direction and I'm talking about making phone calls. I like after the place is closed. We're talking about one o'clock in the morning, these people answering phone calls for me, you know, and it was just. I knew the potential hazards, I've had it at other places and I said, well, this can really work, and I just used that to motivate me to finally get it right.

 

[00:17:04.130] - Giovanni

And in the beginning, it was very different because people are so accustomed to, especially when I am on Long Island, everybody's like regular Pie's, Sicilian Pie, Grandma Pie, Buffalo Chicken, Boca Pizza, that kind of stuff. It was challenging at first. And then once people actually tried it and it took a week, we gave it out for free. You bought a pie, we gave you two extra slices of it. People will come sit down and eat in the dining room. We brought it over instead of bread. We would cut it off and tell them that it was very similar characteristics to a rustic bread and so on and so forth. And then luckily we got some press with it. Finally, the right people started having it. They started writing about it. We got in a few television appearances and then it took off. But it took about a solid two years. I want to say, until we actually got the product that we wanted, until the customers started to appreciate it, like I wanted them to appreciate it, like I appreciated it and a lot of hard work, but I'm very thankful of it. At that moment in my life, I thought that this was that would never happen. But looking back at it, those were probably one of the best moments of my career during that process. The struggle, the mistakes I was making, I wasn't even realizing as much as I was getting discouraged. I wasn't even realizing how much things I had to be thankful for at that moment. The amount of stuff, the amount of knowledge that I was learning, making those mistakes, it changed my life.

 

[00:18:25.450] - Giovanni

It changed my skills, my capabilities as a pizza maker tremendously. It gave me so much more confidence that I never had and so much more knowledge that I never had. And I'm truly appreciative of it. And it's because of that that I continued that moment, that those two years was a year and a half. Whatever you want to call it makes me want to do that again with something else, because I saw that what that made me turn into and I said, wow, you know, if I really pushed myself and I continue to learn, I continue to make mistakes and learn from them and not get discouraged, look at what the outcome can be. Look at what can happen. So because of that moment that that whole Metro pizza and Roman style thing that happened, that changed my life, my career, not my like, well, my career life completely.

 

[00:19:09.590] - Lloyd

That's awesome. I mean, I love I love that passion to learn and improve and perfect. And I think that's just there is something about that energy that that creates through some people that there can be the same chronical chronological age as somebody else, but they're kind of punching the clock. Like back when I was a geologist, I can say I was walking through life kind of punching the clock. And I know some people that do that for their entire careers. And when they look up all of a sudden it's like, wow, you know, what have I done? The fact that you can find something that that energizes you that way is great. And there's something about that energy that totally comes through your Instagram feed. And I love it. And one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about is the bond baloney. The Italian donuts. Am I saying it right?

 

[00:20:00.490] - Giovanni

Yeah, you did OK.

 

[00:20:02.080] - Lloyd

I a they look fantastic. They just look totally wonderful. But B, I've got to say how ambitious that was and kind of crazy to me. It's like, OK, we're going to make a different style of pizza, OK, I've got to mess with hydration and all that. Yeah. Yeah. Whatever it's like to go from, from that to a donut seems really intense. Those are different. You're frying instead of baking. But everything, all of the things that you have to mess with on the baking side, you have to perfect. Now on the frying side in terms of, you know, what you're using to make your dough, how you're fermenting it, the oil temperature, you know, you want it to be a certain amount of browning, but it has to be done in the middle. How do you get that texture in the middle? Like I I used to supply bakeries before I supplied pizzerias. And I can tell you that there are many, many really good bakeries who cannot do this donut and vice versa. And so that's when I saw you just kind of initially like experimenting with that, that I was just like, wow, this is like somebody who runs the one hundred yard dash going, OK, you know, Olympic marathons, next piece, you know, the same kind of crazy. So tell me about how that came about.

 

[00:21:25.770] - Giovanni

It came about first of all, you're absolutely right, I was crazy because I thought it was going to be easy. I thought, OK, you know, hey, I've done gluten free pizza. I've done Roman style. How hard can it be to make a donut? Let me tell you something. That donut, that making process, one of the hardest things I've had to perfect to learn how to do it the right way was very, very difficult. What made it come about was that King Umberto's we do have desserts on our dessert menu, but that's more for the people who come in and sit down and have a nice dinner with their family or their loved one or their girlfriend or boyfriend or whatnot. And at the end of the meal, they'll get a tiramisu, they get a cannoli, they'll get a cheesecake. But our customers, we also have seating. King Umberto's is it's one business, but it's actually three different businesses and one right now because you have the pizzeria takeout section, you have the main dining room. And then we introduce the new patio area, which is more like casual dining for people since the whole corporate thing happened and it's more covid friendly and whatnot. But when the people came in for a slice of pizza, they would ask me if I make Zeppelies, they would ask me, do we have cannolis? I said, yeah, we do. But, you know, it's the price is pretty high because it's a dining room item. So I wanted to introduce customer friendly dessert, a grab and go something that I could put in the slice showcase that you can grab two slices of pizza.

 

[00:22:47.560] - Giovanni

There's a new Taliban baloney. OK, my kid wants something sweet. Let me grab a donut for him or I want to try that. That looks absolutely awesome. I grab a slice of pizza and a donut and you don't have to wait for anything. So I wanted to introduce a good grab and go dessert that you can grab with a slice of pizza when you walk into King Umberto's. So that's how it came about. And I started to do some research, you know. Talking to my dad, who's from Napoli, and they they've they're very they're very passionate about their pizza and they're baking goods and they're breads and they're sweets. He mentioned bon boloney to me. I did some research on him. I made some phone calls, as I usually do, to people like John Arena and so on and so forth. And I got some recipes. And that process took we started trying to make them in November, and then I think we just about got it right a month ago, you know, we were making them and they weren't coming out right. We stopped making them. We had to retool. We had to go back to the drawing board. We came up with a new formula, I got in touch with a local baker who knew how to make them. His name is a shout out to Lulus Bakery and Lulus Bakery squared. He's got two locations, one in Long Island, one in Queens. He took the time out of his busy day. And when he was done with work, we actually worked on a formula together. His name is Charlie Tola. He's amazing, amazing pastry pastry chef and Baker. And he helped me out a lot. He helped me tweak the recipe. Then after that was done, that took us about a month of going back and forth on what I liked and what I didn't like and what I should do. And how would it be easier for the staff to make this on a timely schedule and have them ready for the time for lunch service? It's all about time and temperature to figure out the proofing the fryer, how to buy a small electrical fryer and put it behind the counter. It's it was, again, like looking back at it, very similar to the Roman style pizza where we struggled. But, you know, you appreciate the struggle because the end result was we make a I think we make an amazing bun baloney now. And our customers love it. They appreciate it so much that we do something that's so easy to grab and go and it's so delicious. So I'm very happy I did it.

 

[00:25:07.860] - Lloyd

But that's that's funny. The fact that you thought it would be easy, it's just absolutely adorable.

 

[00:25:15.630] - Giovanni

It was a smack in the face. It's like, oh, you want to make a donut, you go, you know? And it was like, wow, you know.

 

[00:25:21.720] - Lloyd

People used to say, like, oh, you know, bakeries. Where should I go for for for for sweets? And I'd say, OK, go here. And I oh, how they're donuts. Like, that's not what you asked, you didn't ask about was good donuts. So almost two different questions as far as I'm concerned.

 

[00:25:38.880] - Giovanni

I love donuts to growing up as a kid. They were like one of my favorite sweets that was done. And so it just made sense. I don't like family history. And then that just I was like, let's do it. Yeah.

 

[00:25:50.460] - Lloyd

I'm going to ask you a question that I've asked a lot of people, and I get totally different answers when I go to King Umberto's. What do I have to get in there? You have so many different things that people give me different answers to where I'm like, OK, I need to have like four different meals there. So what what do you think I should get when I come to visit you?

 

[00:26:14.820] - Giovanni

Well, I bet you if you ask one hundred King Umberto customers what you should get, they'll give you a hundred different answers. Right. I think one of our appetizer dishes is fried capellini. It's fried pasta cakes, it's angel have pasta and a cream sauce. And it's so delicate and scrumptious and delicious. That's that's definitely a fan favorite. And any time anybody comes from out of town, especially my pizza family, anybody from the the world pizza champions. And so I make them try the fried cappellini and everybody loves them. I love them. But you can only eat so much of that stuff. But it's delicious.

 

[00:26:54.540] - Lloyd

Yeah. A couple of world pizza champions have told me, OK, so you need to plan two meals. One is pizza and one is not. And even then you're struggling to get to everything. So I think your your answer scams with what I've been told. So that's great. So. As we wrap up, I guess you've been, again, super generous with your time, with different interviews, et cetera, et cetera. I'm wondering if there's a question that you wish people would ask, but they typically don't. And I if you don't have an answer, that's totally fine. And I've kind of sprung it on you and probably should have given you some warning. But I'm wondering if you've done so many and again, been so generous with your time. I wonder if you get tired of answering the same questions and you say, I wonder how come nobody ever asked me about X?

 

[00:27:46.200] - Giovanni

Oh, that's a good question.... No, I honestly don't. I had enough time to think about it wish I did.

 

[00:27:56.440] - Lloyd

No, no think about it, whenever you have that answer, just do me and then we'll do a quick one. How's that sound?

 

[00:28:03.280] - Giovanni

OK, that sounds good. Yeah.

 

[00:28:06.160] - Lloyd

So, Giovanni, you're a perfect crust pizza liner user. We thank you so much. We really appreciate what it means when people like you and King of uses our product. Again, I'm a huge fan. And if people haven't quite figured out, even if you weren't a customer, I'd still be doing this interview and be thrilled and bragging to people the rest of the week that I did it. So it's for your time.

 

[00:28:34.370] - Giovanni

I'm going to do the same thing. I'm going to do the same thing. You guys are great. I appreciate you having me. This was amazing.

 

[00:28:39.760] - Lloyd

Yeah. So any final thoughts? If not, we're going to ring off because I know you're busy, guy.

 

[00:28:44.980] - Giovanni

No, I just want to give a shout out to all the pizzerias in New York City that are reopened fully now and hopefully can get their feet back on the ground and running. We love you guys, especially you Scar's guys, pizza, Lower East Side. If you guys are ever in New York City, it's a must try and that's it. I appreciate the time that you took out. Give me the opportunity to have this interview. And I loved it. Thank you so much.

 

[00:29:08.320] - Lloyd

All right. Well, thank you so much, Giovanni. We'll talk to you next time. Think about that question in DM me, OK?

 

[00:29:13.390] - Giovanni

You got it.

 

[00:29:14.530] - Lloyd

You got it. Thanks.

 

[00:29:15.850] - Giovanni

Thanks.