This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
[Photo: Amy Kundrant/Eater]
In 1988, back when New Haven's now-infamous pizza fervor was just getting underway, Bill Pustari purchased the storied Modern Apizza, which first fired up its brick oven (under the name State Street Pizza) back in 1934. In the years since, Pustari has seen business explode — "the busiest day they ever had I do at lunch now" — as both locals and pizza fans line up 90-people deep for a bite of the "Italian Bomb" or the Clams Casino pie. "We do the pizza sauce three times a day, the cheese three times a day, it's just a constant rotation," Pustari says. "It's like Groundhog Day with all the prep back here."
Though the spot serves true-to-style thin-crust pizzas, Modern differentiates itself from the city's fleet of Wooster Street pizzerias with what Pustari calls the "little things." "When I buy the Italian tomatoes, when I find one that I like, I end up buying the lot. A lot number on the can — not like, a lot — but the lot, so I know I'm getting the same tomato," Pustari says. And in recent years, Modern Apizza has expanded far beyond State Street: Its first branch debuted inside Seattle's Safeco Field in 2011, and Modern Apizzas have since sprouted up in Denver, Sacramento, Kentucky, and soon, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Pustari recently chatted with Eater about attaining celebrity in the pizza world, having to explain New Haven's famously charred crusts, and why even Presidential candidates can't cut the line.
New Haven pizza is such a debated topic. Where do you think Modern's role is in the local scene?
We are the local place, we're where the locals go. We're not located on Wooster Street, which is kind of considered Little Italy: It gets all the billing, just like Little Italy in Manhattan would get all the billing. Wooster Street gets a lot of tourists. We're probably around 80 percent locals, on a given Friday night, we'll know 80 percent of the people that walk in the door. They may not even be "local" — I'm not insinuating that 80 percent of our clientele live in New Haven — but by "local" I mean they're coming down to the city to eat here not as a tourist thing, "Hey, let's go try this place out."
Let's say it's 7p.m. on a Friday night. How long is the wait for a table?
"I feel guilty when people are standing there, I don't feel happy."
We move them very fast. I have eight pizza guys going, and plenty of bus people and hosts. For a party of four, it's maybe a half-hour. I took a look on Sunday, just counting the list really quick, and there were 90 people waiting outside. But we tend to move them in and out fairly quickly. Our average time for a pizza, once you sit down and order, to get it out and on your table is about 18 minutes. [...] Making the line shorter is just about how many pizza guys we keep on, and how much help we have in the dining room to keep everything flowing faster. I feel guilty when people are standing there, I don't feel happy. I feel guilty. I'm looking at them, I know them and I'm looking at their faces, and it's like, "I'm sorry, I can't do anything. I just need these people to get up." That's one of the reasons we don't serve desserts: No espresso, cappuccinos, or desserts, just to try to help people move through faster. And no TVs in the restaurant.
[Photo: Amy Kundrant/Eater]
Have you had people try to slip you a twenty and cut the line?
Yeah, but I can't do it. I won't do it. I had someone — I'm not going to say his name, but he ran for the President of the United States — try to cut the line, and I denied him. He said it out loud, right in front of everybody, and I'm like, "I'd be an idiot [to agree to let him cut]." I'm looking around at all these people looking at me like, "What is he doing to do?" I absolutely cannot do it.
If you can't say his name, how about his political party and the year he ran for President?
[Laughs] I'd rather not. I got myself in a little bit of hot water doing that already. Someone called me one day and said, "Did you go look outside in your line?" I said, "No, why?" And he said, "Because Steven Spielberg is standing out there." And he stood there, he waited for his table like a normal human being, no bodyguards, talked to people, and came in and ate. He's one of my favorites, now.
How often do you deal with angry customers about the wait?
"When people are hungry, they can act a little bit different."
Daily. When people are hungry, they can act a little bit different. You just keep smiling at them and keep giving them updates. As long as you can keep them informed, they seem to be happier. … But normally, I tell them if they're a normal-sized party — two to four — it's not as bad as it looks. A lot of times, you'll have two parties of 12 standing in front of you, 24 people standing there. Without asking, you just assume and end up walking away. But a lot of times, you could've been sat in 10-15 minutes.
Tell me about your favorite regulars.
I have a guy that comes in — I'd have to go upstairs to get his full name, because I hung a picture up of him — he comes in and he's 102 years old. I think he may have just turned 103. And he comes in and eats pizza once a week at 102, and has all his marbles. He's probably my favorite. I never knew how old he was: He comes in with one of his daughters, who's probably in her seventies, and her husband, and I never knew he was her father. Didn't look like that. And she called me over one day and said it was his birthday; I think he was 100 then. I said, "Give me his picture, I'm going to hang him up and put him on the wall." The next time they came him, they came with a 9 by 11, I put it in a frame.
Pizza in progress. [Photo: Courtesy Modern Apizza]
What are some of the crazy requests you've gotten from guests?
Can I cook a pig in my oven on a day we're closed? They were like, "Do you use that on Monday?" I'm like, "No." "Can I cook a pig in it?'" [We said] no, we didn't want the grease to splatter all over the place. [Sometimes diners] will bring in their odder items they want on their pizza; we let them do that. As long as we don't sell it, we don't care. Even if we do sell it: Like in the Summertime, some people just want their tomatoes out of their garden on it; that's fine. It's not that big of a deal.
Do you have any tips for dealing with a guest who's not having a great experience?
I don't charge them. I just take it away and try to explain that we're doing the best we can, and not everyone has the same tastes and likes. I don't hold any grudges against them; if you don't like it, it's fine. I'm not going to charge you for it. It's like, some people like McDonald's, some people like Burger King; not everybody likes what you like. I just try to do stuff how I like it, and it kind of works out well.
Is that reaction usually from guests who are not familiar with New Haven style?
"Their first comment if they're not from here is that the pizza's burnt. They think it's dark around the edges."
Their first comment [that reveals] if they're not from here is that the pizza's burnt. They think it's dark around the edges. That would be the first comment if you're normally seeing the Domino's-type pizza. And we just try to explain to them, "I'll make you another one, just tell us ahead of time and we'll make sure it doesn't come out that way. But try this one: Close your eyes and try it before you decide just by looking at it." You'd be surprised, most times they'll go, "You know what, you were right." And there are times when they go, "No, you're absolutely wrong," and they don't like it. We have open flames in the oven: that's what happens, the pizza gets charred around the edges.
Let's talk about Modern Apizza at Safeco Field: How did that end up being your first expansion location?
That's with a company called Centerplate. I worked with one of their guys years ago doing food and sports: We used to do tennis tournaments and golf tournaments in Westchester, so I would do some venues like that with him. And he always told me, "Come on, let's do one big one." And I'm like, "If you can't get the product right, you can't get my name on it. I'm not there [to maintain quality control]; one of these days if we figure out how to do it correctly, give me a call and we'll give it a shot." So, I did some consulting work for him through the years, and then he hooked up with CenterPlate. And he said, "Listen, I've got this place out in Safeco, they'll spend the money on what you want. Whatever ovens you say, whatever toppings you have to use, we can do this." So I flew out, and we flew over to Wood Stone in Bellingham, Washington, had them bring in a product I told them to bring in, and we went up there and tried it. We made some pizzas for the day, liked it, and it came out good. So I said, "All right, John, this is it. Let's go with it." So, we ran with it. We did Safeco, did two in Denver's convention center, just did one in Sacramento in the convention center, just did one in Kentucky, and Raleigh-Durham is supposed to open up this Spring, at one of the minor-league ballparks there.
[Photo: Amy Kundrant/Eater]
Do you folks coming in specifically because they've seen you on TV?
"Dad, why the hell does that guy want your autograph?"
Yeah, it's kinda funny. Even some of the guys who have written some of the books out there about pizza, have come back in and then: One day, the guy brought the book up to the front counter, my kids were there, and he was like, can you sign this for me? They looked at me like, "Dad, why the hell does that guy want your autograph?" [Laughs] I've signed hats, shirts, box tops for people to hang up in their house, all kinds of things. I've been in the restaurant business since I was 13 — and I'm 50 now — I've done it for a lot of years. I've always noticed what other people did wrong, it's kind of been a knack I can't get rid of. I walk into a place, I look around real quick, my mind just picks stuff out. So I always knew I was pretty good at that kind of stuff, fixing problems, but no, I never really thought it would be this crazy. I still don't even act like it's this crazy. Sometimes when people say certain things to me, it puts it in perspective: When I was out doing the Seattle thing, chefs that are famous — like James Beard Award-winning chefs — call me and ask me to go eat at their restaurants. I was like, "Wow, this is getting a little strange."
What's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
You've gotta like to entertain people and throw parties. Everyone else comes first, not you. It doesn't matter if you're hungry, if you've got this to do or that to do, you gotta satisfy the people first. I kind of run the restaurant like I would throw a party at my house: I think of every guest, what they like and what they drink and what they eat. My wife and I still do that. We have a big Italian family, we do a big New Year's Eve family dinner, and I go through the whole list of what everyone drinks and what they want to eat so I have it there for them. It's kinda like running a restaurant, you gotta be up, smiling — they don't care if you've had a bad day or anything, you know? — you kinda have to be an actor. You have to turn it on when you're in the dining room. You can be a miserable bitch or a bastard in the kitchen [Laughs], but you come out into the dining room, you have to put the happy face on.