The Pizza Place in the 'Sopranos' Opening Credits
"What style of pizza is this?" I asked Al Pawlowicz, owner and pizza maker at Pizzaland, the New Jersey pizzeria immortalized in the opening credits of HBO series The Sopranos. He looked up from behind the counter, straightening his wiry frame and peering through flour-dusted glasses, and answered quickly and succinctly "old-fashioned."
Pawlowicz has been making pizza at Pizzaland for a decade, starting off as an employee and eventually buying the place about five years ago from the original owner's son. Pizzaland dates back to 1965, when legend has it that Italian immigrant Frank DiPiazza won the squat brick building in a card game and promptly opened a pizzeria. The unique style of pie that he developed endures, the recipes handed down from father to son (Frank died in 1991) and on to Pawlowicz. The building and the decor hasn't changed much either.
"Have you ever had my pizza before?" Pawlowicz asked as I plopped myself down on one of the four stools that flank the counter across from the original oven and work area in the cramped confines of Pizzaland. "You're in for a treat" he stated unequivocally when I responded in the negative. He wasn't wrong. Pawlowicz is justifiably proud of the pizza he churns out 12 hours a day, as many as 7 days a week. He makes everything from scratch, coming in before opening to make the dough and sauce and staying late to sell pies to an assortment of characters that couldn't be more perfect if they had been supplied by central casting.
The telephone rings incessantly with orders for pick and delivery. Cars will pull up and patrons run in to exchange a few jokes with Pawlowicz and grab their pies before whisking them off into the night. Pawlowicz indulges special orders and knows his customers well. Some like their pies so crispy that he worries that they will catch fire and some so soft that he can barely take them out of the oven. The long hours have cost him his hair. But it is not a permanent condition - last week he fell asleep in the barber's chair after pulling an all-nighter and the barber took it upon himself to chop it all off.
The pies are formed into pans, slathered in a sweet, herbaceous sauce, layered with mozzarella, dusted with Parmesan and herbs and then undergo a two step baking process. First they are cooked in the pan until almost finished and are then taken out of the pan and placed directly on the oven floor to crisp the bottom. The pie that emerges has virtually no crust - the cheese butts up against the outer edge of the pizza. It bubbles angrily, steam billowing off of the molten crust. If you are eating the pizza in-house (most people get it to go) Pawlowicz will stick in the refrigerator for a minute to cool it slightly or give you the option of burning your mouth.
The crust has a crispy component but it is deceptively softer and more pliant than it appears, especially considering how thin the pie is. It has a pleasing chewiness and yeasty tang and is perfectly proportioned to carry the cheese and sauce, both of which meld into a glorious amorphous blanket. The flavor of the sauce is simply wonderful, it perfumes the air with its sweet essence, noticeable a block away from Pizzaland in either direction. The cheese - blistered and unctuous, mild and milky - is equally wonderful.
Pizzaland might be best known for the fleeting frames of film at the beginning of the Sopranos but it deserves renown for its unique, unorthodox and delicious "old fashioned " pizza. Long after I have finished eating Pawlowicz and I chat. He tells me about the Papa John's that opened down the street and how the manager came over to introduce himself. Pawlowicz wondered what they had in common. "I make my dough everyday, it doesn't get shipped to me in frozen balls. . . the cheese over there gets shot on to the pizza with a gun!" he exclaims, the absurdity causing him to chuckle. We talk about the economy and his family and his regular customers and all the while, by fault of habit, he constantly checks the oven, even though it is empty.
When it was time to settle up Pawlowicz charged me $11. "That's ridiculous" I protested since I had had a regular pie with two toppings as well as three plain slices and a drink - $17 worth of food before sales tax. "I just wanted you to try my pizza" was his defense, as if I was a food writer (which is actually the case but he had no idea of the fact) I slipped him a $20 and told him to keep the change. "Thanks you very much" he said appreciatively "I will give it to my kids." It was a touching thought, I wish I had given him more.
UPDATED October 11, 2010
I am sad to report the death of Aloysius C. "Al" Pawlowicz, the co-owner of, and pizzamaker at, Pizzaland, the pizzeria immortalized in the opening credits of the Sopranos. Pawlowicz made me some of the most memorable, unique and downright delicious pizza that I have had. He suffered a heart attack and died on October 28, 2010, which must seem somewhat ironic to those that knew him, as he clearly had a huge heart. But considering that he worked upward of 12-hour days, often seven days a week, the result is perhaps not so surprising. Pawlowicz put his heart and soul in his pizza, and it showed, but more important, he was dedicated to his family, which he talked about proudly and lovingly while he served his "old fashioned"–style pies.
At the beginning of October I noticed a comment by Slice reader atown mjm on my review of Pizzaland which I think pretty much summed up the type of person Pawlowicz was:
Hello, everyone. I just ate at Pizzaland with my girlfriend. We had one of those amazing experiences you never forget and will always make you smile. Al, the owner, was working the shop alone and serving up the best pie we have ever tasted. Just like the article said, Al gave us a one-of-a-kind experience. We had six slices and two Cokes. Finally, when it came time to pay, Al said it will be $6. That's too good of a deal. We gave him a twenty and said 'Thank you.' He tried not to take it. Great pizza, great person."
Our thoughts go out to Mr. Pawlowicz's family, friends, and fans. Letters of condolence can be left at his guestbook on Legacy.com.