About halfway through the research for my 2005 book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, I started to notice that the best pizzerias across the country were what I would come to call "owner-occupied pizzerias." These were slice joints and sit-down pizza parlors whose product was the vision and work of a single, obsessed pizzamaker. These men and women knew their dough and ovens intimately, and adjusted their recipes or cooking techniques as needed—adding more or less water to the dough according to the day's humidity or moving the pizzas around in the oven to avoid or take advantage of hot and (relatively) cold spots.
The result, of course, is consistency. At these pizzerias, I knew I could walk in on any given day they were open and get the same pizza I had gotten the week before, or even the year before.
It's a fine way to run a pizzeria—or any restaurant—if you don't want to deal with additional locations and don't mind working every single day the restaurant is open.
The man who has me reconsidering the owner-occupied theory, however, is Mathieu Palombino, the chef-owner of acclaimed New York City pizzeria Motorino, which started out in Brooklyn and then expanded into Manhattan with not a blip in consistency.
"I don't believe in working by myself," Palombino told me. "The people who I apprenticed with when I was younger invested a lot of time in me, and now I believe in investing time in the people who work for me."
This may be why I can't tell the difference between a pizza made by Mathieu at his original location and one made by one of his many assistant pizza-makers at his second location. Each pizza, with its crisp-chewy crust and careful balance of toppings, is perfection.
"I understand my pizza, from start to finish," he says "I hold the key to this product. I created it. But I work with my people to maintain consistency across the board."
Indeed, when someone gets hired as a pizza-maker at Motorino, he or she begins working with Mathieu that same night. "Every one of my people gets five hours of training with me immediately. I want them to understand how we do things."
And that focus on consistency doesn't stop with the pizza-makers themselves. "All the office work and organization, even the cleaning schedule, it's all for one reason only: to make our pizza. Everybody who works at Motorino who is not the pizzaiolo in effect backs them up and supports them. Everything is about the moment the pizza comes out to the table."
What's also consistent at Motorino is the impeccable service. Even at its busiest—and on any given night it is crazy busy there—the host and wait staff greets you with a genuine smile and makes you feel welcome, whether it's your first time there or you're a regular.
"I like to practice respect among my staff," Mathieu says. "I want everyone to talk to each other in a normal manner, a respectful manner, because ultimately, that's how they'll treat the customer."
It's a strategy that Mathieu says he also learned in his early days in restaurant kitchens, this one from chef Laurent Tourondel, who until earlier this year was the driving force behind the BLT restaurant empire.
"He would walk into the kitchen, and if he had to climb over the vegetables to do it, he would shake the hand of everybody," Mathieu says. "Even if he was angry with you the day before because you didn't chop the vegetables just right, the next day, it was a clean slate. He'd have a smile, shake your hand, and that was it."
But it took some time before Mathieu began managing his own restaurants with a gentler approach.
"I made tons of mistakes when I started at Motorino," he says. "I used to run the kitchen with force and fear—because that works, too—but the energy is different. I changed this. I naturally went to something I'm more comfortable with."
"If people feel respected, they're happy to work for you. And you will begin to see that approach in all aspects of what they do."