In the Kitchen with Chef Dom Pulieri
If you could spend the afternoon with Dominick Pulieri, the legend of Grotto Pizza, what would you do? Why, make pizza, of course! But first things first. I meet Dom at his house, and we cruise down to Rehoboth for a walk down memory lane.
“There,” he says, pointing to a building right off the Boardwalk. “That building is where the first store was. When we got here I had never seen the Atlantic Ocean before. The original building is gone now, but my sister’s mother in law and I used to sleep dormitory style at night, on the second floor, with just curtains to separate us. I was just seventeen then.”
The stories roll out without prompting or questions. “My sister would stand here all day and give out samples. The Dairy Queen next door had huge lines, and we were giving it away for free, but people didn’t even know what pizza was in 1960. It was a huge day the first time we broke a hundred dollars.”
“Why did you go with pizza then?” I ask, “why not go with something safer?”
“We were Catholic and Friday meant no meat,” he replies. “My parents were first generation immigrants from Pulsano, Italy. So my mother used to make pizza on Fridays. It was my favorite food. I loved it. I never was much of a meat eater. Then my sister married Joe Pagliante who had a pizza shop in Harvey’s Lake, PA, and I used to go in the back of the pizzeria to make pizza. Joe’s mom, my sister, and I would spend two weeks a year canning sauce in the family garage. We would boil and peel the plum tomatoes. Sugar and salt had to be perfectly balanced, and the tomatoes just ripe.”
As we walk towards Grotto on Rehoboth Avenue, every few feet people stop and want to talk to him. Dom is a people person and each conversation lasts as long as it needs to. It takes longer to get fifty feet down the street with Dom than it did to drive here from Rehoboth’s North Shores. It seems everyone that stops has a story to tell. “My daughter worked for you when she was in college;” “I was a pizza maker on the line at your third restaurant;” “my grandmother used to bring you cakes on your birthday at the first Grotto;” “our granddaughter is a hostess at the Slam.” Story after story, linking generations of employees and customers who have one thing in common: They love Dom, and he loves them right back. I learn more about the man in fifty feet than I could have in hours of formal interviews.
I listen and watch. I do not interrupt to tell him the stories of my own childhood when my grandmother would take me to Grotto Pizza on the Boardwalk as a special treat. I do not tell him that my own children and I would go to the same Grotto Pizza on my only day off every week when I was a full-time chef. I don’t think Dom even knows that one of his directors asked me to make a glutenfree version of their crust many years ago when gluten-free was just becoming “a thing.” I sweated over that crust for 30 days until it was finally perfect and I like to think that is why they have gluten free pizza on their menu now. It’s probably not true but I don’t want to ruin the memory by asking.
We finally make it into the door of The Avenue and into the kitchen toward the pizza assembly line. It is a busy Sunday afternoon and the line is humming with at least a dozen young people in their Grotto shirts, arms and aprons covered with flour. Piles of dough wait to be stretched just perfectly before they will get the signature swirl, sauce, and specially sourced cheese.
Everyone looks up expectantly as he walks into the kitchen. The pizza makers open up a place for him and me and he starts to show me how to stretch the dough.
“You have to stretch the edge so it’s flat,” he begins “Just a little at a time move it through your fingers, and then you have to pull it out without touching it too much. I do it old school.” He carefully flattens, stretches, and coaxes what was was a lifeless piece of dough, into a perfectly shaped crust. Customers and employees have now gathered around the open kitchen to observe a genuine Pizza Legend at work. Parents lean down whispering into their children’s ears and pointing to Grotto’s maestro at work. He picks up the dough, drapes the dough over the fist of his right hand, and everyone watching knows what’s coming next.
Dom tosses the dough with one hand and the pizza crust goes spinning in the air, getting wider with each toss. Now he’s tossing, spinning and catching with both fists. There is applause and even some cheers. We continue to stretch and pull, Dom tossing crust after crust through the air. I rip and tear through piles of dough, not one of them good enough to serve, and he laughingly tells me I could never work on his line.
At the sauce station, Dom reminisces about the early days. “In the beginning, we couldn’t afford a professional sauce pump. So I used to keep the sauce in electric coffee percolators. Can’t be too thick and can’t separate. You really have to manage your sauce by stirring constantly and it can’t have too much air. Percolators worked perfectly.”
He sprinkles cheese on the bare crust and then forms Grotto’s signature swirl pattern with the sauce. “How did the swirl start?” I ask, having now successfully swirled four pizzas up to Dom’s standards. “Accident, no joke,” he says. “I would put the swirl on and then crosshatch it. Over time, pizza makers started to forget the crosshatch and the swirl stuck.”
Dom grabs one of the cheese pizzas fresh out of the oven, and we head to a booth in the back. “It’s the same recipe, from the very beginning,” he says as he takes a big bite out of a slice. “I haven’t altered it. Make it simple. Keep it good. Be kind while you are doing it. That’s the whole formula.” I pull a slice out and take a bite too. “And do it as long as you can,” He adds with a smile and a wink.
Today, Dom Pulieri divides his time between visiting and watching over his twenty restaurants. He still gets on the line and throws a few pizzas just to show them how it’s done, and still manages his team as if it was a large family.
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