Spacca Napoli's Jonathan Goldsmith on Italian Culture and the Power of Pizza

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Jonathan at his restaurant, his natural habitat. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

If you haven't heard the name Jonathan Goldsmith, you can probably make two assumptions: One, you aren't a pizza-lover living in Chicago and two, you probably aren't a master pizzaiuolo* working in Naples. But if you're a food lover, now might be the time to get acquainted.

Goldsmith's ode to Neapolitan pizza, Spacca Napoli, recently celebrated eight years and while he's gotten plenty of richly deserved accolades, he doesn't have the instant recognition of someone like a Chris Bianco. It's not from a lack of dedication. In fact, I don't think I've ever met a person more passionate about Italian food and culture in my entire life. Fluent in the language and a one-time resident, Goldsmith continues to travel back and forth to Italy so he can bring back as much wisdom as possible. Knowing all that, it's somewhat surprising to learn he's a Jewish guy from New York who didn't start cooking professionally until later in life.

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Just the right amount of spice. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Over the last year, I've spoken to Jonathan in depth about his amazing journey from clinical social worker to world-class pie man, and he's been incredibly generous with his knowledge and time. Among other things, we discussed the chance encounter on a plane that changed the course of his life, the legendary pizzaiuoli he's studied and befriended in Naples, and the power of food to connect people. But mostly? We just talked about pie.

I didn't know your origin story before we met last year, but it's a pretty amazing one. Did you ever have any inkling you'd own a pizzeria?

We bought the building that houses the pizzeria a year before the idea of Spacca Napoli even came about. There was never an idea or thought that I—and if I say I, I always mean [my wife] Ginny and I—would ever be doing a restaurant. It was never on my radar at all. When we were living in Italy, our summers were in Puglia—in the Gargano. Our first summer, we took an extended trip down the Adriatic coast before returning to Florence. There was one particular pensione along the sea where the owner prepared a glorious meal each week for her guests. I thought that was pretty cool, very low key. I thought maybe I would do that someday, perhaps in Jamaica.

And then a conversation on a plane literally changed your life. But what were you doing before?

I was working in real estate, both sales and construction. But my true profession was social work. I was in adolescent psychiatry, working in outpatient clinical agencies as well as a number of psychiatric hospitals over the years. I remember thinking upon our return to America, after three and a half years living in Italy, that I would never return to social work as a paid profession. I didn't see myself working for someone else again, having to record 15-minute phone calls, document sessions, and all that. I would rather volunteer.

So I got my real estate license and worked in sales for about three and a half years. And I hated it. I began to dabble in construction; a couple of homes, mostly condo conversions with the properties we already owned. The apartment rentals supported our living in Florence, the condo conversions gave us the freedom to return to Italy for months at a time. We would return to Rodi Garganico in Puglia, a small fishing village that felt like home to us. I was a bagnino [a quasi-beach attendant] there in our early years, working for one of the beachside establishments. Side trips to Tunisia also helped me get back to Italy. I'd purchase tapetti and mergoums there and sell them when I returned; that covered some of my airfare.

You were doing Inspiration Cafe, too, right?

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Jonathan Goldsmith with some friends. [Photograph: Ginny Sykes]

I've been with the cafe since 1991. I believe I'm their longest running volunteer. I wanted to do therapeutic cooking groups with my former supervisor at one of the local adolescent group homes, but there was too much red tape. I had done something similar while working in the hospital, running a group on Sunday mornings when it was quiet and the kids were feeling pretty isolated. Five kids would help prepare the meal, the others would then join in. Luckily I saw an article in the local paper concerning the Inspiration Cafe, a new organization serving the homeless in Chicago. I was their Sunday morning chef for three years and have taken on other roles on since.

That's amazing. I think we got sidetracked from the mythical plane ride, though.

One of the newspapers in Chicago has a free daily that you can pick up and it was going to do a series on volunteers. So they had approached the cafe for the first piece and the team there said, "Do Goldsmith." They came to do the article and by chance they got this great photo of Ginny and I serving this very colorful Mexican food. It was really a great picture.

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Three months later, Ginny, my daughter Sarah, and I were going back to Italy and I got the sense it was going to be my last real hurrah there. I was going to have to get a "real" job and wouldn't be able to travel anymore. I picked up a paper for the plane and there was a young Italian guy on board in the row in front of us. Now, whenever I hear Italian and I'm not in Italy I'm quick to engage. Every Italian is wonderful until proven otherwise. So I'm talking to this guy, and we're sharing life stories—I think he and his American wife were doing their second vows in Italy after getting married in the States.

Anyway, I'm telling him how I used to live in Florence, where I was a janitor for an Italian atelier where my wife was painting, and how I was a bagnino on the beach in Rodi Garganico in lieu of rent there, like a Duddy Kravitz kind of guy. Meanwhile, Ginny was browsing through the newspaper as we're talking and there was an article on non-profits merging for the economy of scale. They'd used the same image of Ginny and me cooking, from that earlier article on volunteer work, and she of course handed it to me. I showed it to him, saying, "Look who's there." He says to me, "You cook?" I told him I cook for the homeless, and he says to me, "You should open up a pizzeria." Apparently he had two pizzerias, and he said, "Flour, water, salt, and yeast, and you'll make a lot of money."

So we arrived at Rodi in the Gargano once again, and I asked my friends about the idea of opening a pizzeria. The unanimous response was, "Pizza is good, go to Naples." So that's what happened.

Even though we'd visited Naples years back, I'd never given pizza a thought. But now I was considering it pretty seriously. A few weeks following our return home, I told Ginny that I wanted to take a walk in Naples and see what it was all about. I purchased a ticket and flew straight there for a closer look. Though I was overwhelmed by the traffic, noise, and general kaos of the city, I knew by the end of my trip that pizza was going to be my life. Do you know Joe Fugere?

No.

He has Tutta Bella in Seattle. He's a wonderful guy, very happy. I believe he was working corporate on an international level for Starbucks, and he had a similar, life-changing experience. He was on vacation in Naples and boom, his world changed. It just bites you.

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Margherita, courtesy of Jonathan Goldsmith. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

So when I came back I thought, this is what I am going to do. At first, Ginny's reaction was a lot like other people's, along the lines of, "What the hell are you thinking?" Neapolitan pizza was pretty much an unknown in Chicago. The location of our pizzeria is not exactly in the middle of things. Most people definitely had their doubts at first. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do my homework, which I believe is one of the most important reasons why we were able to make it. I'm still doing my homework.

How did you begin?

I started going back and forth to Italy, making sketches, taking pictures, studying menus, watching the hands of the pizzaiuoli. The following summer, one of the families I knew from the Gargano introduced me to my teacher, Enzo Coccia. He owns Pizzeria La Notizia in Vomero, and he's one of the more celebrated pizzaiuolo in Naples. After a brief chat and a look at my initial drawings, Enzo, Alessandro Carfaso, and I made our way to Antonio Starita's pizzeria in Martidei. He is considered one of the great pizza-makers in Naples. He had the honor of presenting his pizza to Pope John Paul during the Jubileo (in 2000). Unfortunately, he was closed at the time, so we ended up going to Presidente on Via Tribunale, in Spaccanapoli. That first pizza was a zuppa, you could have sailed in it. Not everyone likes a wet pie; I did. Two months later, I was back in Naples, and my formal training with Enzo began.

Did you keep in touch?

With who? The guy on the plane?

Yeah!

I had his cell number and called him once, but when I tried finding him in New York, I had no luck. I walked all over Little Italy. It's not very big there, maybe 16 square blocks. I asked everyone if they knew of him or his pizzerias. It was as if he'd never existed, but obviously he did. I began to think of him as my guardian angel, my Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life."

You talk about how Naples overwhelmed you at first, so I'm interested why you still believed it had to be pizza for you...

I'll tell you in the form of a story. We have this couple from whom we purchase our mozzarella. They're from Naples but they've been in Chicago for many years. We don't have the luxury of three flights a week from Napoli, as they do in New York. Once the product arrives, they run around like bandits every Thursday delivering to all of the restaurants. I finally get Rosario, the husband, to slow down and try one of our pizzas. He had a Bufalina. When I called the following Sunday to place our order, his wife Lara says, "I need to tell you something, he cried...he came home in tears." And I said that's great. Please write something for me. And this is something that's been on the door ever since I received it. It's called Your Pizza Made Me Cry. He wrote:

Jonathan,

I just want to say thank you. Thank you for bringing to Chicago the original Neapolitan pizza, which is the emblem of Naples, my beloved home town. When I bit into it, it put tears into my eyes and I couldn't help it. For the first time, food meant something much more to me than just curbing my appetite. In a fraction of a second, the best memories of my Neapolitan life went through my mind. The taste and the texture of something I had almost every day and that I grew up with was resuscitated after four years. With all due respect to the pizza made in the USA, I can say that it is really good, but it is not "la pizza". I eat it but I don't consider it pizza. It's more like a new type of food that is called "Pizza in America". Thanks for existing. As you know, in Naples there are three things we take close to our heart: the sea, pizza and the Tarantella [a dance].

That's beautiful. That's a gift.

This letter reflects two things for me. One, it's a daily experience. It's something beyond just food. It's not just curbing appetite. I was doing an interview in 2007, and I made reference to the almost schizophrenic relationship many of us have with the pizza we're making. It is part of us, I guess similar to taking communion in church, taking in a part of Christ. Whether it's pizza-makers or other bakers, we're closer to the center of the universe; the hearth is the center of the kitchen. It's a daily ritual and you're using your hands—in some ways, I think you're using your soul—and when people are eating the bread, breaking bread, there's a certain connective process between themselves and the product, as well as who's baking it. And I think all those things are happening, each and every day.

Somewhere, as we're talking, somebody is making dough, and somebody's extending it, whether it's a flatbread or an egg roll skin or a tortilla. And there's an interaction with pizza, as well; when you go to Naples, you see that. When you look at Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmerman and you see them going to the floating markets in Vietnam or wherever, there's an energy there. And I trust there are certain products they're making daily, like a ritual, and there's that same interaction.

It's more than food.

I have kids who run in every day and hug me. Whether it's because I'm big and fat and that feels good I don't know [laughs], but these kids are weaned on pizza. Everyone loves the neighborhood baker. We have parents who ask for chicken tenders or mac and cheese and I say trust me, they'll eat this. And sure enough, we've had a number of kids for whom pizza's been their first solid. It's an imprint.

When I first went to Naples to check out the pizza, I couldn't wait to get out. Now when I go there, I feel like I'm breathing fresh air. There's a light-source there...like I guess if you go to the top of Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza or something. For a lot of us who are part of the pizza world, that's what the experience is like. Does that make sense at all?

It does, entirely.

Let me read you one last thing about pizza. There was a local event in Chicago some years ago for the Neapolitan community, and there was this song in the program. It goes:

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"A' Pizza" [Photograph: Lance Roberts]

What advice would you give someone who had a similar calling to pizza? When I saw you work the Caputo booth in Vegas, it looked like being fluent in Italian was a help.

First, definitely learn the language. Be humble. Observe. Watch the hands. Ask questions. Watch. Look at menus. Practice. Ask more questions. Read Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. Train with the best, respect the master pizzaiuoli. Take Gabriele Bonci's advice: learn all the methods and then decide which strada works for you.

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The oven at Spacca Napoli. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Keep going back to Naples. Watch the plates, see if people are eating their crust. Take care of your staff. Price your products fairly. Respect your oven. Ask more questions. Take care of your vendors. Make your money in volume and return business. Always give back to the community. Read reviews in the morning, not before going to bed. Celebrate your fellow pizza-makers and compete with yourself, not them. Ask more questions.

That's a lot of do's. Any don'ts?

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they go to Italy, study for a few weeks, and they think they're pizza guys. And they're not. I certainly wasn't. You have to constantly examine what you did that day and figure out how you make it better the next time. Those of us who try to improve day by day realize we're always just starting, and hopefully we keep getting better. Those who stop trying, who think they've mastered anything...most likely, they're going to be average at best.


So you must make a lot of dough.

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The delicate cornicione at Spacca Napoli. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

It's one guy and myself who've been making the dough together for almost nine years. So when I travel, people will say they don't even know I'm not there. I make the dough; he rolls it. Today we did 700 dough balls. What takes me two hours to ball up, he can do in 45 minutes. It's amazing. And often, I'll do a small batch by hand—it's my way of channeling Franco Pepe. So today it was actually 800.

What's your experience been with sharing information? Do you have to work hard to find people who are willing to open up, or are people in pizza pretty free with their "secrets?"

I think the community is mixed, at least in my experience. But many people are more than willing to share everything. And they appreciate people who want to learn.

I've never met anyone with more passion for Italian culture than you, and you're a Jewish guy from New York. Where does that come from?

Archeology, architecture, arte, musica, lettere, cibo, mountains, sea, and la natura. For me, Italy is a cradle of civilization similar to the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Many people you talk to who have traveled to Europe, regardless of whether they're involved in pizza, say, "Italy...incredible."

I think you find similar qualities in—and reactions to—places like Greece, Spain, and the Mediterranean in general. These countries have deep cultures, but our personal story was Italy. We honeymooned there, we lived there, we raised our daughter there...it was wonderful, and so were the people. And they had so much to tell us.

The stories and shared experiences never stop, and going back year after year, so many doors have opened. People love to share what's special in their lives and they appreciate when what's special to them is appreciated by others. Now it's as if the stories have become my ow,n and I want to share them. I guess I was the right person in the right family composition at the right moment.

We talked a little about Pizza Mecca before. What is that for you?

The idea of a Pizza Mecca is like a bucket list: Something you want to do before you arrive in paradise. So it's an idea with that spirit behind it—all of this is in my orbit.

Do you already have your list?

I do. Roberto Caporuscio has pizzerias in the US. Di Mateo, Da Michele, Starita, Attilio, and La Notizia are some of the many great places in Naples. Bonci is in Rome. Pepe in Grani is in Caiazzo. Others I want to try: I've never been to Di Fara. I've sent Chris Bianco love notes in the past, but I haven't been able to meet him yet. Beniamino Bilali in Northern Italy. Pasquale Makishima of Solo Pizza in Japan and the brothers at Pizzeria Capatosta in Recale, Italy.

But I always want to ask other people who's on their list. So maybe you go to Paris, Sao Paolo, Istanbul or Tel Aviv and ask ten people there where they would go. Then there's all the people from the past who may have known better than any of us, the Obi-Wan Kenobis. But we all have a list. Mine goes beyond Neapolitan; there's so many styles. That's when you get into big questions. What is pizza? There's Lou Malnati's, famous for deep dish, what do they think? Or the people at Totonno's or Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn. There's really great pizza everywhere.

The lists have gotten a little crazy at this point. I usually won't even glance at them now unless I know and respect the people making the picks.

I recently made it onto a list, the Eater 38 or something. These lists are obviously very subjective, but I would say that they're just as much about missed opportunity. If you went on a bad night, how can you judge a pizzeria? Every pizza is unique and you can't judge a place on one experience, which, unfortunately, I think a lot of people do.

I will say, I've been to most of the places on that 38 list and out of all the recent ones, even with the glaring exceptions...that was a pretty good one to be on.

Okay, then I'll take it! [laughs] My first reaction was that it was nice to be on it, at least in terms of my own narcissism, and I feel like I should be up there, but...you know what list I should always be on? The guy who tries. My heart's there, I truly believe in doing it, and I really try to make something wonderful.

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The menu at Spacca Napoli. [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Your passion is so much in Neapolitan and yet you're in Chicago. You've got stuffed and deep-dish and Chicago thin-crust and all these other styles. Do you have any room in your heart for any other styles? Or even the time to explore?

There's definitely room in my heart. We're all bakers, we're all unique, and I don't want to be part of a group that doesn't respect and appreciate other styles. When you're closed-minded, you lose out. Just listen to the story from the person making the product; taste, then decide.

There's one guy in Chicago I can't wait to meet. Burt Katz, of Burt's Pizza—he's part of my Mecca. I want to go so badly, he's celebrated and there's all these articles about him. He's this cantankerous guy, and he has his way of doing things, and I heard at one point he was sick and I thought, "Oh my gosh...I won't go to Burt's." But he's back now and he's high on my list. I don't think you can just show up there; he has his rules.

I got in trouble with him. I put in an order a couple of days in advance, as he likes, and accidentally gave him the wrong day. When I got there, he had already made the pizza the day before and he served me someone else's pizza by mistake and...it was a disaster at first. He was pissed off, but I begged for mercy and everything got sorted out and it was really great pizza. It's a very strange place but definitely worth a visit.

He's no stranger than I am. I have my own little universe, too. Going back, I definitely have room for other types of pizza. There are many Italians who feel that cibo italiano, Italian food, is the only food out there. They go to another country and they bring their own pasta. But I trust that all around the world, there's going to be something great.

There's a Neapolitan bubble that's currently bulging and doesn't really apply to you because you've been around for ten years. Where do you see Spacca Napoli going?

Hopefully in ten years I'll still be doing what I'm doing today, only the dough will be better. Making a better pie, even more delicate. For me, it's all about the dough. I also want to be a better boss, more loving, less excitable. And I want those who work for me to grow in all ways possible.

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[Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

You know, when we first opened, there were some people who were making offers to buy, and invest in expansion. My very good friend John Arena, and his cousin Sam Facchini, suggested that I open other locations. One of the things I appreciate about their operation is what they've done for employees who have been with them for years—they can give them more. Their philosophy is that eventually people grow out of the responsibilities that they have and need new challenges and opportunities. People who went to work in their kitchen and then became managers are now taking over restaurants. I think that's great.

I can also appreciate that some people need multiple locations to survive. I'm lucky enough that I can make an adequate living from the pizza and some other work, and I can sustain myself and not have to think about running another location. It's a wonderful situation to be in. I hear from many people, and I believe it myself, that there's nothing greater than having the owner in the restaurant. You know, the principal people coming in all the time versus someone who comes in once a week, month, year or whatever. If you're not there, it can diminish the quality of the relationships between the staff, or between the pizza and the customer. Suppliers, too. And then you worry about the quality of the product and consistency. To be a hands-on, one shop owner is pretty wonderful. And enjoyable. You're able to have these wonderful interactions with people every day.

You wouldn't say never, though?

There's a well-connected gentleman we know with affairs all over the world, and I've said to him that I'd be very interested in 10 years if he wanted to get a lease in Sausalito. Maybe I'd give over a percentage of the restaurant to my long-time people and move there. I'd love to hang out in San Francisco and make dough every day. I guess I have this fantasy of being like DeMarco from Di Fara, who makes his dough in the morning and then buys a nice $200 bottle of wine and drinks it with friends, has a great nap, and then at four o'clock he heads back to the pizzeria for the evening. I'd be very happy with that.

That sounds about perfect. So finally, you spend a lot of time talking to people in the pizza world. What trends do you see?

Living well, living in community, eating well, being nice...hopefully, these trends will continue until the next ice age. Regarding Neapolitan pizza and other styles, as long as dairy costs remain sotto controllo and the exchange rate has some sanity to it, pizza will continue to be a beloved product shared and enjoyed by all.

I don't think we were the first artisanal pizzeria in Chicago or the first to introduce Pizza Napoletana. Some other people were making good things, but in the last couple years the number of people who call me for advice has increased. The people who open in the right market and who do their homework and study will do well.

What about in Italy?

Something I'm seeing there that will have more influence in America is the use of different types of lievito (yeast) for making different types of dough. There are a variety of methods. People are looking at the artisanal processes from the past and incorporating ideas on an individual basis. Antimo Caputo prefers dough made with criscito. So maybe we'll become as particular as the Italians one day.

*Pizzaioli/o is our house spelling, but for Jonathan we're making an exception!

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