Filmmaker Bob Giraldi and his partners have invested some $30,000 in a custom-built, rotating, wood-fired pizza oven that’s unlike any other in Manhattan.
And hot! “A thousand degrees,” said Mr. Giraldi, making steamy sounds to emphasize that point.
The newfangled kitchen equipment is part of a sweeping plan to reposition his long beleaguered restaurant at 235 East Fourth Street, salvaging the seven years left on his lease and his reputation in the process.
It would be a remarkable resurrection befitting the guy behind the “Viva Viagra!” television commercials. If, of course, he can pull it off.
“The saga continues!” Mr. Giraldi told The Observer. It’s a saga that underscores the lingering neighbor-vs.-nightlife tensions downtown and the widespread rollback of fine dining in post-downturn Manhattan.
Three years ago, the 70-year-old producer and director of some 3,000 commercials, music videos and short films was cast in the dubious role of neighborhood pariah. His plan to open a splashy, European-style gastropub called E.U. in the roughly 2,500-square-foot former church warehouse drew a swift rebuke from angry East Villagers fearful of the “pub” part of that equation.
A vocal community already wrangling with sprawling nightlife was not bemused by the thought of depraved Hollywood types taking root, too. For them, the celebrity-run eatery would serve as a catchy symbol of their overall plight. So they went after him. Hard.
The level of public outrage convinced the State Liquor Authority to reject in March 2006 Mr. Giraldi’s application for a full liquor license, a blow from which the embattled E.U. never fully recovered.
“I’ve been through the worst here,” said Mr. Giraldi. “I’ve really gone through some pretty demeaning and depressing meetings with the community. It was hurtful. They love to sling insults and tell stories that, a lot of the time, aren’t true.”
The man behind such MTV gems as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” admitted he was an attractive target.
“I have a feeling—I hate to say this to a newspaperman—that I get persecuted because I’m somewhat successful, you know?” said Mr. Giraldi, also a co-owner in nearly a dozen restaurants from Chicago to Hong Kong, including celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s seminal Manhattan eatery Jo-Jo. “Maybe if I was a little bit more down and out,” he said, “things would be a little better.”
FORCED INTO SOBRIETY, Mr. Giraldi initially tried to open E.U. in a bring-your-own-booze capacity but quickly ran into regulatory trouble. Unprofitable without alcohol, the place was barely open a month before closing.
Eventually, Mr. Giraldi reached a deal with neighbors and regulators to reopen the restaurant with limited beer and wine sales only. But his woes were not over. The eatery quickly burned through a series of chefs, including the highly touted Akhtar Nawab, garnering only a lackluster one-star review in The New York Times along the way.
It never truly established a steady clientele beyond the typically busy Friday and Saturday night crowds, Mr. Giraldi said.
“We struggled,” he admitted. “The economy, confusion of the menu, the neighborhood—it all added up to, you know what? It’s not as successful as we’d like it to be. And you know what really hurts us? No liquor. If we had liquor, it would put us over the edge. But we don’t have liquor.” At least not yet.
Mr. Giraldi had recently begun talks with yet another hifalutin chef when he came to the sudden realization that maybe fine dining wasn’t such a great idea for the area or the current sluggish economic situation. “We had a deal,” he said, “until one day, I said, ‘Self, wake up, for chrissakes! Why would you bring in somebody even better than Akhtar, or as good as Akhtar, when the people don’t want it?’ They want it on Friday and Saturday night but they don’t want it all the other nights.”
He turned to fellow restaurateur Luigi Comandatore, his current partner in the downtown eatery BREADTribeca, to come up with something different. They settled on pizza—but not your usual greasy slice. The partners, which further includes Bread co-owner Dario Milanin, who previously ran a pizzeria in Italy, are aiming for something more authentic.
“There’s nothing really as great-tasting as bread and tomatoes with cheese, but you don’t really get it here,” said Mr. Giraldi, who likened the average New York pie to “a bad woman, in many ways—‘Oh, I love you, I’m really horny.’ And then, ‘Hey, that wasn’t really great.’ That happens with pizza. To me, a lot.
“You think it’s easy,” he continued. “You get it at the table and you have beer. And everyone’s, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ you know? But it’s never really great. And, in Italy—in Naples—it’s great.”
SITTING DOWN to discuss the new concept one recent afternoon, Mr. Giraldi and Mr. Comandatore expressed confidence in the more casual business model of a pizzeria. But after waiting a half-hour for an assistant to retrieve coffee from a nearby deli, one wondered whether E.U.’s many pitfalls would continue to haunt the place.
“Do you think we’d be able to deliver the pizza better than we can order him coffee?” Mr. Giraldi asked his partner. “That makes me crazy!”
Mr. Giraldi conceded that the concept of a new style of pizzeria had already lost some of its novelty, as other prominent restaurateurs, including Keith McNally and Jim Lahey, have both launched similar concepts in recent months. But he and his partner insisted they are going to even greater lengths to elevate the hallowed pie.
Beyond the pricey new rotating pizza oven, Mr. Giraldi and Co. are importing a new chef straight from Naples and seeking official certification through the esteemed Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. “I’m Italian,” said Mr. Comandatore. “I don’t want to make a pizza that’s embarrassing.”
The newly refurbished restaurant, opening March 24, will be renamed Tonda—which is Italian for “round,” in homage to the first circular pies made in Naples many centuries ago.
The partners further aim to enhance the menu with a little bit of the previously banned aperitivo. “I believe that, and I think Luigi agrees with me, that beer and wine in this pizzeria will work,” Mr. Giraldi said. “But, it’s the East Village. Why can’t they come in and have a drink with it? You tell me. So we’re going again. We’re trying again.”
It seems the onetime whipping boy has already made in-roads with his old foes in the neighborhood. In January, the local Community Board 3, which had staunchly opposed him in the beginning, finally approved his renewed request for full liquor service—albeit with a slew of conditions. (The State Liquor Authority has yet to grant the full license.) On March 16, the community board will consider Mr. Giraldi’s overall change of operation.
“They trust us to the degree that we are not liars, which they accused us of being,” Mr. Giraldi said. “They know we’re trying to make it work with legitimate food. They realize I don’t have my film pals showing up in limousines, clogging their streets. I’m like, ‘Guys, you don’t understand—I’m in bed at nine o’clock. I don’t party any longer. I don’t get off on nightlife.’ It’s a legitimate place.
“Will pizza work? We hope so. We think so. We’re going to give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, we do something else. It’s like me shooting dailies all the time. You like? You don’t like? You move on to the next day.”
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