Tue 1 Mar 2011
There is a man in Drogheda whose reputation became known to me the day after I moved to Ireland. I was sitting in the immigration office of the local garda station waiting for my Irish ID card and chatting with Dennis, the head officer there. As soon as he heard I was a food and travel journalist, he insisted I try La Pizzeria, an Italian restaurant that had been in Drogheda for over 20 years and was still going strong. But his recommendation came with a caveat: “Don’t be late and don’t do anything to make Jian Carlo mad.”
Over the next few months I got more referrals to La Pizzeria from taxi drivers, shopkeepers and my new Irish friends. And every single one of them included their own version of Dennis’ warning. From what I could gather, this Jian Carlo guy was basically Drogheda’s version of Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” character, who infamously dismissed fickle or slow-moving customers with a thunderous “NEXT!” before demanding they leave the premises. But customers always came back because they couldn’t live without his delectable soupy creations. To be honest, it didn’t exactly make me want to run over to La Pizzeria, despite the fact that basically everyone in town raved about the food there.
It wasn’t until my parents visited in October that I finally tried La Pizzeria, and we did so only because we’d already exhausted the small number of good restaurants in Drogheda (we’re not exactly the culinary capital of Ireland). My first thought after biting into my perfectly-crisp, thin-crusted pizza margherita was: “WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO TRY THIS PLACE?” In between bites I noticed a spritely Italian man irritably slapping pizza dough with the palms his hands while scowling at the anxious-looking wait staff. “I think he’s the most nervous man I’ve ever seen,” declared my mom. He definitely seemed high strung and a little bit angry, even.
Since then, I’ve been back to La Pizzeria more times than I can count. And every time I go, Jian Carlo is a little bit nicer to me…I’ve even gotten a smile here and there. And after asking five times and getting no response, he finally agreed to talk to me in person. One morning he invited me to La Pizzeria and fixed me an Americano and we had a nice chat. For Jian Carlo, his philosophy is simple: “I don’t do it for money. Of course I need money to live but my policy is to give the best I can and to give pleasure to the people. I just need enough money to eat and to pay the bills I need to pay,” he says.
Though he initially arrived in Drogheda for a three-month stint training other chefs on pizza making, he’s still here after 22 years. In a nutshell, no one could make pizza like Jian Carlo and when the investors threatened to pull out if he went back to Italy, he stayed. But little has changed in the last two decades; from the tablecloths to the Chianti bottles that hang from the ceilings, long-time Drogheda residents say the place looks the same as they day it opened – maybe just a little more worn. “I remember some customers when they were dating then engaged and then married and they had children and now the children are teenagers and they come back here,” says Jian Carlo, cracking the faintest of grins.
People come back because, unlike a lot of local Italian restaurants, Jian Carlo isn’t catering to the oft-fickle tastes of the Irish palate. “I know other Italian chefs who say, ‘They will never understand Italian food so we give them this, it’s good enough.’ But if you teach the people to eat what we’re eating in Italy, they will come along,” he says. “I don’t like to give rubbish to the people. I’m not perfect, but I try my best.”
Jian Carlo may not be perfect, but he’s certainly a perfectionist. He’s constantly multi-tasking; even though he’s busy tossing and baking pizzas every night, it’s not unusual for him to step away from the pizza oven to assist a waitress in clearing tables if she’s especially busy. He frequently sprints across the room into the back kitchen for quality control checks and if he’s not happy with a pizza he’s made, he’ll throw it in the bin and start again. As for his status of being a contrary grump, Jian Carlo responds with a hearty laugh. “Ah, that’s just my reputation! And it’s part of the atmosphere.”
38 Peter Street
Drogheda, Co. Louth
Open every day except Wednesdays from 5 p.m.