No matter how many Passovers and summers Jason Weisberg spent visiting his grandparents in Bay Harbor Islands, nothing prepared this Long Island native for the reality of living in the 305.
“It’s like the Twilight Zone,” he said.
He came with a mission: to bring pizza. Specifically, Greenpoint’s Paul Giannone’s style of pizza.
To learn the craft for Paulie Gee’s, Weisberg, an ex-Wall Street analyst, volunteered at Giannone’s lines-out-the-door popular pizza palace for a year and a half, doing everything from mixing dough to schmoozing customers.
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The classic China Palace and its Biscayne Boulevard neighborhood, he thought, was just gritty enough. Inside, it is nightclub-dark with original signs and a retro pinball machine. Lots of hard surfaces including concrete floors and metal chairs that will guarantee you don’t stay too long. Though open since September, it’s a definite work in progress as Weisberg gets used to local tastes.
The most prized element of the interior is the giant igloo-shaped, Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven that is the centerpiece of the open kitchen.
On the first night we visited, Paulie himself stepped up to the table in his UM baseball cap to see how we was likin’ everyting.
The thing is this pizza is not for everyone. Many people don’t like or just have never met a Neapolitan-style pie quite like this.
What distinguishes Paulie Gee’s — in addition to some very inventive topping combos — is dough that has been proofed for three days and then cooked in a wood-burning oven at temperatures around 1,000 degrees. In and out in 90 seconds.
The result is a somewhat doughy — seemingly raw — center and a cornicione or ridge that is pocked with big, black blisters that the untrained eye would see as burned. The bottom of the pie is spotted in black char with a layer of ash. It is pliable and airy without the crackly crust of a Roman pie or a New York style slice that many expect.
On several visits we found the quality to be uneven. Sometimes flabby and overly salted, other times perfectly scorched and chewy. But always airy and light, with quality toppings (if a little over the top).
Owner Weisberg is passionate about using local ingredients in the more than 20 pies that include Miami exclusives such as the Jewbano with pulled pork, Canadian bacon, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and kosher dill pickle slices.
Cherry Jones combines handmade mozzarella, Gorgonzola, dried Bing cherries, and prosciutto di Parma with a touch of honey, making for a sweet and sour delight.
Our favorite is the aptly named Hellboy with mozzarella, Italian tomatoes, thinly sliced, hot, Berkshire soppresatta (Italian cured and dried salami) and a drizzle of sweet chili-infused honey. Please, don’t ask for pepperoni. They don’t have it, and soppresatta is better.
There are a few other offerings, like the Cheek Corea salad with crispy curls of guanciale, lightly dressed with a just a whisper of basil, olive oil and lemon. It’s a refreshing side but for the gigantic pieces of escarole and crunchy chickpeas that needed more time to soften.
Lots of vegan options are welcome, although the nutritional yeast makes everything taste like something cooked up for a Woodstock revival on Earth Day.
There are also a few off-menu items, but it may be up to you to discover them.
No one mentioned meatballs in three separate visits. I spotted them during a stroll to the bar. We had asked the waitress if there were specials, but the starry-eyed waif couldn’t have been more clueless if we asked her to list the Kepler-confirmed transiting planets and their star systems.
Though we had already over-ordered, we asked for the meatballs. She came back to say, “Sorry, someone in the kitchen ate them,” but added there was half a meatball left if we wanted that. We thought she was kidding. She returned to our table of empty plates with half a meatball, cut-side up, crusted over where it had been reheated. We did like the slightly spiced meatballs on another visit smothered in sweet tangy sauce and lots of gooey mozzarella. But pizza is why you come here.
Desserts could use more variety. They include a popular Nutella pizza as well as a hot honey sundae with ice cream (vegan options, too) from Azucar, Suzy Battle’s Calle Ocho Cuban gem.
Just don’t expect to enjoy any of this at home in front of Netflix. Like most artisanal pizzas, these are not built to travel. They should be eaten within moments of being pulled out of the flames. In a box, the pizza steams and gets soggy.
Still, Weisberg allows take out if people come in and order from the bar so that pies don’t sit while customers battle traffic. “It’s not a militant thing,” he insisted during a phone conversation after our visits. “It’s just that otherwise the food is done, ruined.”
Miamians complain. They complain about the prices, too.
His advice? Drink more. Craft beers are all $7. The mostly Italian wine list offers fine options. Rose drinkers can get a glass of Chateau Minuty from Provence for $10 — likely half what you might pay over the bridge.
It’s still easy to spend a C-note on date night. Which would be OK if the service and the setting were better and the food more consistent.
For now, as Rod Serling might say, Paulie Gee’s finds itself in “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge.”
Or, in other words, Miami.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rod Serling’s name.
Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Instagram and Twitter @VictoriaPesceE @BakeTheWorldBetter
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Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Place: Paulie Gee’s Miami
Address: 8001 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-558-8315; PaulieGee.com/Miami
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; noon- 11 p.m. Thursday -Saturday and noon-10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Prices: Starters and salads $10-$15; pizzas $14-$20; dessert $6-$10
FYI: Parking is free in the private lot; wine and beer only; corkage $25; reservations for tables of six or more; no delivery; take-out only when ordered from the restaurant; MC, VS. Live jazz Tuesdays starting at 7 p.m.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)