In recent weeks, there has been quite a lot of debate and discussion about the State of New Jersey taking over many aspects of Atlantic City to help save the city and reverse the losing streak that the casinos have been on for three years. Will this plan work? Certainly the mayor has his own reservations about what the state is proposing, and is not afraid to speak his mind on the subject. It has the makings of a long and drawn out battle.
But there is one person on the ground right now who is helping to save Atlantic City, and he’s doing it with…pizza. His name is Michael Hauke, and his pizza shop is called Tony Boloney’s.
The name of the place might make you chuckle and roll your eyes. You might doubt the power of one pizza shop in the battle to turn the tide in Atlantic City. But after spending a few hours with Mike – a few flour-coated hours – we’re believers. We were graciously invited to attend one of Tony Boloney’s pizza making classes on a Saturday morning, and were amazed at Mike’s knowledge of pizza and enchanted with his passion for food and for doing what he can to make AC a better place.
Before we get into the pizza making, let’s go back to this past summer’s Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival, where we met Mike for the first time. He and some of his crew were taking part in the Guy Fieri Cheesesteak Battle. And this is the Mike that presented himself that night: He was yelling. He was demonstrative. He was even dancing with his cheesesteak.
So imagine our surprise when we walked into the pizza place on Oriental Avenue (right near the foot of the Revel construction) on a Saturday morning, only to find this reserved, bespectacled guy claiming to be Mike. But it was the same guy, and we were quickly donning our pizza-making aprons and getting our arms floured up.
The first idea that Mike wanted us to understand was to not think of pizza as pizza. Instead, he wanted us to think of pizza as bread. Now why would this be? Well, it would make you concentrate on the crust more, for one thing. But the bigger reason was that, in his research, Mike found that pizza was seen as a different kind of street food back 100 years or so ago. Back then, you didn’t buy by the slice; you bought by the pie. You also didn’t pick up your pizza piping hot. The pie was room temperature, folded into a wedge, and placed in a bag. Since the edge of the crust was most visible, it was important that it looked as good as possible. You can order a ‘Street Style’ pie at Tony Boloney’s if you are so inclined, by the way.
While we were getting a historical education on pizza, our hands were getting deep into flour, working our white powdery mesas into an ever-widening circle. Then we added the water and yeast, and gave that a good mixing. Slowly, we worked the flour into the mixture and had made dough – dough that wouldn’t be ready in time for us to make into pizzas, since they would need time to let the yeast do its thing and make the dough rise. Thankfully, Mike had doughy discs all ready for us to make into our pizza crust. Stressing the need to make sure our dough had enough flour coverage, he gave his disc a flour drenching, dropping it into a flour bowl with a PLOOFF, sending flour up and out of the bowl. Mike encouraged us all to do the same, with each one of us getting that satisfying PLOOFF sound with the accompanying plume of flour.
It was stretching time next. Mike showed us a technique that allowed us to stretch out the dough without touching the edges. He also demonstrated different kinds of stretching methods that are used by different pizza makers. Some of the techniques he learned from his days working at a restaurant in Italy, where he began by sweeping the floors and observing how things were made. Clearly this is a man who is willing to do the work and pay his dues to learn and grow.
For the sauce on our pizzas, it was simply a matter of taking roasted and peeled tomatoes, squishing them up with our hands, and spreading them over crust. At Tony Boloney’s, they roast and peel their own tomatoes, and are doing that fresh every day (they don’t even have a freezer!). The cheese we used was not shredded or sliced mozzarella; if I can remember correctly, the cheese was sliced scamorza, a similar cheese. Apparently good mozzarella is too “wet” for pizza baking. This was the only time it was allowed to have something on the crust, because having some melted cheese on the edge would be an added attraction to those grabbing their street pie back in the day.
All that was left was to slide our pies onto the pizza peel and get them cooked in the oven. A few minutes, and the pies were finished and lovely. We also were able to sample one of Tony Boloney’s pies ‘street style’, and enjoyed that very much.
Towards the end of our class, folks from around the neighborhood starting peeking in and asking when the shop would be open to customers. Quite a number of them did, actually. This is when I really started to think about how important this little pizza joint might be. The city of Atlantic City – not the casinos, but the actual city itself – needs anchors in neighborhoods to help them become vibrant. Even though Tony Boloney’s does not have the history as, say, White House Subs or Tony’s Baltimore Grill, it’s going to become one of those places very quickly (if it hasn’t already happened). It’s going to be one of those ‘before you leave AC, you need to try them’ places.
As an added bonus, we got a chance to chat with Mike while we cleaned up and got the store ready for the day. The man is passionate about not only pizza but food of all kinds. He gave us some suggestions of places to try in town…and some places to avoid. Mike indicated that he is looking to open more restaurants in town, and that they would not be pizza joints. I was really excited to hear that, because it indicated to me that Mike is here for the long haul. We talk and hear so much about the problems with Atlantic City (and Mike shared his own issues), and yet here is someone who has drawn a line in the sand out on the inlet and is saying ‘Let it begin with me.’ And from seeing the folks waiting to get in, as well as chatting with a few customers that sat down as we were leaving, it has already begun.
Tony Boloney’s – 300 Oriental Avenue, Atlantic City. 609.344.TONY.