All Roads Lead Back to Brooklyn
By Palmer Hasty
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn native Tommy Bonfiglio says that New York pizza has been a passion for him since childhood. When he turned 50, after an already successful career as a tax attorney, he felt he was too young to retire, but it was time to do something different. He called it “a new chapter.”
“I didn’t want to just go to the beach and fish.” For a long time he and his wife Yvette had dreamed of starting a business together.
Tommy had always wanted to open a Pizzeria that would serve the “perfect” coal fired pizza he grew up eating in Brooklyn. Yvette, also a Brooklyn native, according to Tommy, is a “fabulous cook.” She had always dreamed of opening an Italian restaurant with a casual, rustic atmosphere, like the taverns in the Tuscany region of Italy, but with a modern twist.
So they compromised and decided to open Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza restaurant with an Italian décor, a bar and big tables with lots of room and, of course, the unmistakable coal burning stove along a brick wall behind the counter.
It turned out to be a great idea. Currently they operate three very successful coal-fired pizza restaurants with a tavern-like atmosphere in Red Bank, Bricktown and Paramus New Jersey. Pizza Today magazine reported that all three restaurants annually take in $6 million. In fact, in October of last year the magazine named Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza to its list of Hot 100 Independent Pizzerias, pointing out Tommy’s status as one of the top revenue-generating pizza restaurants in the country.
Pizza is not the only item on the menu. Bonfiglio said that the wings cooked in the coal fired oven are actually the biggest sellers. He told Pizza Today, “my distributor tells me I sell more chicken wings than chicken places, it’s that coal oven…I just put a dry seasoning on them and bake them. That’s it.” Pizza of course, is not far behind in popularity and sales.
Why did Bonfiglio start his venture in New Jersey and not Brooklyn? When Bonfiglio first tried to open a coal fired brick oven pizzeria in Brooklyn in 2009, he ran into the New York laws that ban the use of coal. Only restaurants that were already using coal-fired ovens when the laws took effect, and grandfathered in, were allowed in Brooklyn.
In a recent phone interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Bonfiglio was quick to point out he harbored no hard feelings- he just simply went across the Hudson River to New Jersey with his venture. “I also thought it was a good idea, great New York quality pizza in New Jersey. A lot of Brooklyn natives live in Jersey. Brooklyn people still tell us how grateful they are because they just couldn’t get good pizza here.” Someone once posted on Yelp: “it's definitely a welcome addition to the eateries in Red Bank. It's hard to find something similar anywhere other than Hoboken/Manhattan/Brooklyn.”
Bonfiglio was born in 1960 in Bay Ridge and lived at 73rd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway. When he was six years old, his family moved to 2254 Bergen Avenue in Bergen Beach. It was during this period as a kid in Bergen Beach that he developed what became his life-long passion for pizza. He frequented the local mom-and-pop pizzerias, like Lenny & John’s. “I also loved the pizza at Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s. Looking back, there were no Subway shops then, it seems like we went to the pizzerias every day. That’s when you could get two slices and a soda for a dollar.”
As many of the Brooklyn natives we interview point out, it was a different world in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 60s.
Bonfiglio reminisced for a moment: “In Brooklyn, you grew up quick, as a kid you went out the door and the world began. It was the best place to grow-up. You were outside until the sun went down playing all types of games with your friends on the block. I played stick ball and skully in the middle of the street with about 40 kids. Brooklyn was such a tight-knit community, everyone knew everyone.”
After a brief pause, he continued. “And everyone looked out for you. I remember the older Italian ladies would report on you. It was like your parents already knew what you did that day when you went back home. For a swing in the backyard we had an old tire hanging from a large tree limb by a rope. From a kid’s perspective I always remembered this big wide open backyard, but when I would return as I grew older it kept looking smaller and smaller, and it struck me how we all lived so close together. I have such amazing memories from those days that I wouldn't trade for anything.”
Bonfiglio lived in Bergen Beach until he left home at 20 to attend Brooklyn Law School, where he studied tax law. After graduation, he became a tax attorney and started his own firm, Bonfiglio & Asterita in Staten Island. By the time he decided to go into the restaurant business with his wife, his tax firm had become very successful.
When he decided to venture into a second career, he and his wife had two goals: to travel and do what Bonfiglio called his “pizza research,” as well as integrate charity work into his new business. “My father was an NYC cop, so I grew up middle class and now I have more than I ever expected to have, so Yvette and I wanted to give something back.”
Yvette Bonfiglio also works with the Ashley Lauren Foundation. Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza is an official partner with the non-profit foundation that provides help and relief to children and their families coping with pediatric cancer. Yvette volunteers with the foundation hands-on as much as possible, while Tommy’s restaurants coordinate the “Child of the Month” program with health care centers throughout New Jersey and Metropolitan New York.
The “Child of the Month” program allows the child (and their family) to visit and have, as Yvette says, “full reign of the restaurant.” The kids get to order anything they want with the computerized cash register, and along with some help from the grownups, they prepare and cook their own pizzas in addition to having (a favorite of the kids) limitless access to the soda machine. “We don’t have the ability to cure the kids,” Yvette said, “but at least we have a chance to provide them a venue so they can spend a really fun afternoon free of the on-going burdens and profound stress of dealing with pediatric cancer.”
Bonfiglio is also currently preparing a “Tommy’s USA” franchise model with eyes on the Miami area in South Florida. He made it clear that South Florida was just the first of many places he had in mind; “I mean, of course, I’d love to see a Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza in every town in America.”