A man expertly working pizzas into a stainless steel pizza oven in a restaurant kitchen.
Travel & Culture

A Brooklyn Pizzeria Fights Through COVID‑19

It’s impossible to walk into Dough Vale unnoticed.

The owner, Giuseppe Cangialosi, welcomes every customer with a loud greeting, even if he’s kneading out dough or slicing prosciutto. If it’s your second time at the restaurant, the chances are good Giuseppe remembers your name and some minute fact about your life: the last time your parents were in town, whether your dog is sick, how many siblings you have. Giuseppe has the photographic memory of the archetypal neighborhood bartender, except his restaurant is BYOB and serves the best pizza in New York. 

Maybe his recall is inevitable, given the intimacy of the surroundings—Dough Vale is tiny. A wooden bar demarcates the dining area, with half a dozen tables fanning out. Behind is the open kitchen, which Giuseppe mans single-handedly, more out of necessity than choice. It would be hard to fit another person.

More importantly, though, Dough Vale is a family restaurant. Giuseppe’s wife, Leah, is usually the only other “employee” present, serving as hostess, waitress, and DJ. The restaurant’s namesake—their 3-year-old daughter, Valentina—rounds out the crew, often occupying a back corner watching videos on her phone and eating cannoli filling. 

In the age of Instagram and gentrification, it’s hard to believe that such places still exist outside of movies, but they do, tucked away on quiet blocks and unseen by the prying eyes of top 10 lists.

Located in the heart of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Dough Vale is the kind of restaurant that keeps dreams of romanticism alive in New York. In the age of Instagram and gentrification, it’s hard to believe that such places still exist outside of movies, but they do, tucked away on quiet blocks and unseen by the prying eyes of top 10 lists.

As COVID-19 rips through the country, these are the establishments most threatened by the changing economy. Dough Vale opened just nine months ago. Though it’s been steadily building a customer base, margins are still razor-thin. When I visited last month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo had just decreed that restaurants could only do delivery and takeout, immediately tanking upwards of 90 percent of Dough Vale’s business. Even so, Giuseppe was confident that the restaurant would survive. “We’re going to be ok,” he told me. “We have no choice.”

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Giuseppe perfected the recipe three years ago, but has been working on it for almost three decades. Growing up in Palermo, Italy, he first started making pizzas professionally at 13 and continued when he joined the army at 18, where he worked in the kitchen and cooked for a thousand people at a time. 

In 2001, Giuseppe’s cousin was getting married in Pennsylvania. “I came over here for three months and I got stuck for 20 years,” he said. 

Giuseppe stayed with his cousin, but had trouble finding a job. One day, he was walking down the street, feeling “a little blue and down” when his neighbor stopped him. In turned out Giuseppe’s neighbor was from the same town in Italy, so he hired him to work at his pizzeria in Bensonhurst. 

Giuseppe still didn’t speak any English or know his way around New York, but it didn’t matter much. Everybody at the pizzeria spoke Italian, and even the pizza tasted the same. “It was like I never left Italy,” he said. 

Over the next 20 years, he began to experiment and grow more comfortable working with different types of flour and preparations. In 2005, he took a vacation to Brazil. On a layover in Sao Paulo, he met Leah. Except for a six-month stint when he lived in Brazil, he’s been cooking pizza in New York, in restaurants all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

 

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Giuseppe always dreamed of owning his own restaurant.

He knew how competitive it was to open one in New York—especially a pizzeria, which are more ubiquitous than fire hydrants. That’s where the idea for the dough came from: He heard about people’s intolerance to bread, so he wanted to make a dough that was low in gluten and still delicious. 

With Leah’s help, he found the perfect storefront in Williamsburg and started building the restaurant from the ground up. He discovered a beautiful brick wall behind the sheetrock and ripped it down, restoring the original wall brick by brick. He scavenged wood from a construction site near their home in Bensonhurst and started building the bar and tables. He often slept overnight at the restaurant, because he lived so far away. “I felt like it was my baby,” he said.

When he finally opened the restaurant, business was slow. “I used to have one or two tables a day,” he told me. “$100, $200. I put all my energy into it, and little by little, I built everything.”

I’ve been going to Dough Vale since October. I remember in the early days, we would be the only ones in the restaurant. By the end of the winter, though, there would often be a wait, with delivery people streaming in to pick up orders. Giuseppe and Leah started hosting musicians on Monday nights and people would linger, drinking and eating, until past midnight. 

Photos by Leo Schwartz

That Tuesday in March, the restaurant was empty.

Valentina sat in her stroller in the corner; Leah at the bar, logging delivery orders. Giuseppe was by the oven, imported from Italy, methodically cooking one pizza at a time—a change from his usual rhythm of juggling five orders. 

The occasional person stopped by. Carlo, who helps out on busy nights, came by to pick up a delivery. One longtime customer stopped by to escape the quarantine in his apartment. He dropped off a 6-pack of beer, chatting with Leah and Giuseppe about the likelihood of the world ending. Eventually, he picked up his two pizzas and headed back home. A couple sat by the bar as they waited for their order: the eponymous Dough Vale NYC pie, with fior di latte cheese, porchetta, and mushrooms. They both worked as servers in midtown and had been laid off.

COVID-19 hit the city like a slow-moving hurricane. We knew it was coming, but we were still in shock. Everything was uncertain. Everyone who came in talked about rumors swirling around: checks for every American, sales tax and rent relief for businesses, a quarantine that would last a year. I asked Giuseppe how he was dealing with the upturn. He looked up from stretching out dough.

“I take it day by day,” he told me. “Yesterday, I was walking to come over here, and I said to myself, is this a dream? Is this real?”

He put the pizza on a peel and slid it into the 700-degree oven. 

“Today, I woke up, and told myself, okay. It is what it is. It’s bad, but I still have to do what I have to do. Tomorrow, I don’t know. I’m just going day by day.” 

Around midnight, Leah put Valentina in her stroller and began the long journey back to Bensonhurst. Giuseppe stayed back. He was experimenting with a new bread recipe, which he thought he could start selling as a to-go option. 

“Thank God I have people who love me, still coming over here for pick-up,” he said. “I wish I could kiss and hug every person.” 

Written By Leo Schwartz Multimedia Journalist A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.
A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.