An Interview with Pasquale Cozzolino

Pasquale Cozzolino

 

Chef Pasquale is a man not so easily defeated. Once starting from humble beginnings, Pasquale Cozzolino made his way from Naples, right after the economic downturn in Italy and set his sights towards New York City. What had started as a hope to bring more opportunity for himself and his loved ones eventually turned into more: fulfilling the dream of becoming an Italian chef, and publishing a lifestyle that had caught the attention of audiences worldwide, “The Pizza Diet”. As long-standing chef of Ribalta, he too now faces the challenges that all restaurant owners are experiencing: How can we adapt to COVID-19, and how will this affect our future?

 

 

1. When and how did you get into the pizza making business?

I am a chef, but I first learned pizza during school in Naples, Italy. I was lucky because they built a woodfire oven during the years I was present. I was fourteen years old when I had my first approach to pizza in chef school, and some of my classmates are where they are now because of that oven: owners of some of the best pizzerias in Naples. 

After school, the staff would invite us to practice with them in the pizzerias in Naples, and looking back, it happened to be one of the best experiences of my life! I was able to get all of the education for free, and on the other side, they had free workers. It was a win-win scenario for us both.

The reason why I love to make pizza and take care of my pizzas as much as my other culinary dishes is because when I was a kid, I was in love with the movements of the pizza-maker. 

 

2. As a culinary chef, you create many exquisite Italian dishes. Is pizza your favorite dish to make, or is it the one you are most known for?

The reason why I love to make pizza and take care of my pizzas as much as my other culinary dishes is because when I was a kid, I was in love with the movements of the pizza-maker. 

Growing up in my family, my mom was very strict on everything and only allowed us to eat pizza once a month. I mean, we had a big family! When you want to eat pizza with a big family you’ve got to all go out together, and pizza gets expensive. My family wasn’t rich so even eating pizza was a hassle. I told myself, “One day I will be a pizza maker, because I will be able to eat pizza anytime I want!” It is my favorite dish, and I love making it every day.

 

3. Life—and business—have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one challenging moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?

The biggest moment of celebration I had was when I wrote my book! We sold 120,000 copies, and it became available to people on many different platforms such as Amazon, Google Play, hard copy, etc. It was the best of the best in my pizza career. 

The most challenging moment was when I first had to show and demonstrate my skills to convince the man who would allow me to stay in the United States. I first came to America several years ago because there was an economic crisis in Italy, and I decided to change my life to give more opportunities to both myself and my family. My mother had just lost her job, and I had to help pay for the house as we had just bought it. So I came to the United States with absolutely no money. I had enough to buy a plane ticket and one week’s stay at a YMCA hostel, though, I didn’t realize the hostel drastically increased their rates after a certain amount of days. I quickly found out that I did not have enough money to pay the hostel, so I started sleeping in the subway. 

But while I was sleeping in the subway, I actually met a guy... I noticed that he was wearing a business suit designed by a brand originating specifically from Naples, Italy. The place where I am from. I asked him, “Are you Neapolitan?”

From there, we started to chat. He learned that I was a chef and pizza maker, and I learned that he was about to open a restaurant in New York. That was when I had to prove my skills to him. I had to convince him to create a visa for me when I left New York shortly and had to go back to Italy because my vacation days had ended. Thank God the hostel raised their prices, otherwise I would have never made it to where I am today! 

 

Pasquale Cozzolino 2

 

4. In your opinion, what is the trickiest stage of the pizza making process to get it just right?

I think pizza is very simple in terms of ingredients. We are talking about flour, water, yeast, and sea salt. I think it is really challenging to get your dough to the right point, as in timing or what we call in Naples, “the point of dough”. It’s not weak or too strong, but just right. We also use a term coming from Greece called “kalo” to define the right point of this moment, also meaning “cute” or “well done”!

 

5. Several years ago, you became very popular for your journey of losing 100 pounds and publishing your book called, “The Pizza Diet”. How has your life changed since receiving this recognition?

It was actually the article before the book that brought me recognition. The story was that I had lost weight, and the journalist was coming to do a story about my restaurant, Ribalta, when she saw me skinny. We already knew each other before this, so she asked me how I had lost weight and I told her, “I did a pizza diet!” 

She thought I was joking. But really, I had one pizza a day and I explained to her what I had been doing. I thought this was merely for fun, but she went, “Wait a minute, forget about the interview for the restaurant. I want to learn more about this.” 

After talking for about a month and explaining my diet, the people at the New York Post tried it and lost weight. We did a huge interview with photos, and they gave me the first page of the New York Post and an entire page inside. After this, my social media went crazy. I went from 300 people following me to 10,000. My book came from Random House, which is one of the biggest publishers. They had first approached me with a message on LinkedIn and I honestly thought it was a scam, so I didn’t answer. However, after they tried another two times I thought “Okay, maybe. Let’s give them a chance.”

After publishing the book, I had the opportunity to travel all over the world! I traveled to Chile, Colombia, Argentina, all over South America; Italy, Japan, and Europe in general. I was invited to shows such as Good Morning America, The Chew… everything. It was life changing, actually.

 

Pasquale Cozzolino 3

 

6. On a more serious note, the world is facing a sudden and difficult time in history, and we are sure pizzerias have been affected everywhere. From a business perspective, how have you been adapting to face the challenges the Coronavirus epidemic brings? 

To be honest, even I am still struggling to find my way. Unfortunately we cannot have any real, lasting solutions, only help from the government and it’s all words. If you go to apply for loans, such as the PPP, to help support your employees, the form is very confusing. Even my accountant has said, “Please give me some days to read this and figure out what is going on here.”

The only thing I can suggest is to keep relationships with your suppliers. Your food suppliers, your landlords, with your clientele, and try to get a line of continuous communication until they understand your problem. Only by doing this can you find a landlord that will come closer to you and wait on rent payments, or help find a better solution that works for the both of you. For us, we have been able to re-negotiate and pay our rent at the end of our contract.

Just wait. Hold on, and as soon as you can take help from the government, apply. Get through these moments as best as you can.

 

7. Having grown up in Naples, how has this affected the way you view the news concerning Italy’s Coronavirus crisis?

I’m not sure if this will answer your question, but to me, it’s very sad to see. What is going on [in Italy] is happening to New York, little by little. I hope that the people in Italy, Naples especially, can move easily through the other side of this pandemic. Otherwise, many businesses will close and no one will have enough money to eat, turning into a social problem. 

 

8. What's next for you? What do you think is next for the pizza industry, particularly in the US?

I think once we all try to go back towards establishing normality, little by little, there will be a lot of restrictions. Maybe they will force us to wear masks in the restaurant and have a minimum distance between tables, the business side of things will change a bit. 

Being the personal chef to the Mayor of New York CIty, I have been able to hear from experts discussing this. Business will change, and perhaps as a society, our business models will focus on deliveries.