I met up this week with Palminteri and Vitale to talk about the concept. The duo said they’re already looking into opening similar restaurants in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere, but are watching Baltimore as the first location opens and starts to bring in business.
The restaurant is designed by Rita St. Clair Associates Inc. and will revisit scenes from Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale,” including Arthur Avenue — the main bar and gathering place from the 1993 film. Palminteri wrote the screenplay for “A Bronx Tale,” which was based off of a one-man show also written by and performed by him. Robert De Niro also starred in and directed the film.
Below is part of our conversation on why Baltimore’s latest pizza joint is nothing like the rest of them.
TDR: Give us a little background on how you two met up and initiated the idea of Chazz: A Bronx Original.
Palminteri: I was doing “A Bronx Tale” a few years ago here at the Hippodrome, and I was looking for a really great Italian restaurant. I went into a few and got a little disappointed. And then I went into Aldo’s, and I loved it, I thought it was great, everything I had on the menu was fantastic, and I said who owns this place? And then I met Sergio. And we started talking, and we struck up a firnedship, and we started talking about food and how much we both love food.
TDR: What were some of the challenges going through the building of the restaurant?
Vitale: Every project takes it a pound of flesh. All projects have their challenges. The number one challenge we faced was how to do coal in Baltimore City. Coal burns hotter than other services, so the fire marshal was keenly interested in what we do. A lot of people have attempted to do coal, but never on this scale … But we planned to add about $100,000 extra to address the concerns we talked about with the fire marshal. That was the first challenge.
Other challenges are inherent to the restaurant business. Obviously construction challenges, and everybody has those challenges.
Like consistency, that happens in every industry. Like Chazz said, he did 10 nights in a row at Aldo’s and he’s been back since. When you have something like pizza dough, we make a batch of the day, we hae to take the room huimidty, room temperature, the flour temperature. Every variable changes on an every day basis. But you know we’re in the business of overcoming challenges. So we’re happy to do it.
TDR: Why did you guys think Baltimore has the need for another pizza place?
Vitale: I don’t think Baltimore has the room for another pizza place. I think Baltimore has room for this kind of pizza that doesn’t exist. The kind of pizza we’re doing with the coal oven, with the attention to detail, using Italian spices, San Marzano tomatoes, the ingredients we spent three years spec’ing. It does not exist within 120 miles, in my opinion, from Baltimore. Another pizza place? No. I think we’ve got a pretty good crowded market. But I think we’re making a statement of pizza and we’re adding something to the conversation that hasn’t been said before, and frankly you have to go to the Bronx to have it.
Palminteri: It costs us more per pizza than anyone else, because Sergio was such a stickler on ingredients. It’s not just cheese, those mediocre pieces of cheese — which is good pizza — don’t get me wrong, but it’s not mozzarella, the tomatoes are all canned right from the farm. Everything was done with care. And you taste it, the quality is in the taste. You taste it and you tell for yourself.
Vitale: The tomatoes for example, the relationship we’ve established, they actually can our tomatoes right on the farm within three to four hours of having been picked … The extent to which one of many ingredients we’ve gone over the last couple years and identified as quality. There are very few ingredients, so they all have to be perfect.
TDR: Why did it take so long to open the restaurant?
Vitale: The design process started from day one, we knew when were wgoing to open. We made a pretty good estimate of it. What took a little bit was making sure everyone was happy. That took an extra month or so. Or two.
Palminteri: You have to realize, it took a time, because like you said, we didn’t want to be just another pizza joint … That’s not what we wanted. We wanted to take people back in time, not only food-wise, but also take them back experience-wise. That’s why we built this place that takes you back in time. and we had to design that. When you walk in it’s like a subway station. So all this took time and thought, it was very thought out with pizza that wasn’t just another pizza place.
Vitale: That’s exactly the issue. At the end of the day, we have so much more than pizza. The pizza has to be what I refer to as life-alteringly good. But we also make every bit of pasta here fresh, in-house daily. There’s a full range of entrees, panini, house cured items, sliced stuff at the antipasti bar. It’s a very immersive experience. It is a walk down the throughfare that is Arthur Avenue. And all of that, sourcing every ingredient so that there wasn’t one bad dish on our menu of roughly 60 items, takes time.
Palminteri: We also have a dessert pizza, it’s called a Nutella pizza. With the dough Sergio blended together with putting chocolate Nutella on that, with powdered surgar at the end. To die for.
Vitale: It’s the best. We make all the pastreies here in-house. Everything about this concept has been authenticity, honesty from day one. When he says take you back, it’s not some virtual tour, we want to take you back because we start from scratch and make everything from scratch every day.
TDR: What are your favorite parts of the restaurant that you’re most proud of?
Palminteri: I just think to finally see it completed. To really just see it done. You have this vision as a writer or filmmaker, I write something on a piece of paper, and then when I finish writing the script, then hire the actors. Then the day comes when all the trucks are outside, and I look around it’s a very proud moment. All the trucks are around now, everything’s in, people are here, and I just feel terrific. I just feel, ‘hey, let’s go, let’s go do it.’
Vitale: For me, spending months and years selecting everything that’s in here. We’re all sticklers for detail, so I knew the construction and design would come out great. To feel the heart and soul of the place in it. We had a test service last night, and for me that was a good moment because everyone was having a rollicking good time. It was like an Italian Sunday table. That’s the moment where I said, ‘Ah.’ We got to where we wanted to be.
Watch our video report on Chazz: A Bronx Original.