During the pandemic, local food trends were affected, especially pizza purveyors. From certified authentic Napolitano to Detroit-style pan pizza, there is a kaleidoscope of choices in town for pie lovers.
The Aug. 5 opening of Danny Boy’s Famous Original in Bunker Hill at the newly renovated Halo atrium complex represents the latest pizza salvo across Downtown’s dining bowl.
Specializing in New York-style pizza, Danny Boy’s is a loose homage to the dollar slice corner joints. Unlike most of the other new, local pizzerias that cater to an expectation of regional authenticity, single pizza slices are for sale here. They cost a bit more than a dollar, but unpretentious accessibility is the point here.
It all reflects the sensibility of chef Daniel Holzman, the mastermind behind Danny Boy’s Famous Original. A native of Manhattan’s Yorktown neighborhood, Holzman grew up in humble circumstances on 83rd Street and First Avenue in the 1980s.
At age 14, he interviewed for his first real restaurant job. “My mom worked nights,” he said. “My big brother was out with his friends, so I was a bit lonely. My mom helped me get a job in restaurants to keep me out of trouble.”
Through a family friend, an interview was arranged with a chef at a local French restaurant.
“It was a Wednesday after school,” he said. “The chef said to be there at 3 p.m. I got off at school at 3 so I got there at 3:30, and he showed up at 3:45. He said, ‘You’re lucky I was taking a haircut, because otherwise you would have been fired for being late.’”
That chef was Eric Ripert, and the restaurant was the legendary Le Bernardin. Holzman worked there through high school. Then, with Ripert’s help, Holzman attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park on a full scholarship from the James Beard Foundation. “We didn’t have a ton of money growing up. I was not planning to go to big boy college,” he explained.
Suffice to say, it was an unusually auspicious launch for a guy who’s now slinging slices on Hill Street. Holzman fell just shy of graduation from the CIA, when he became absorbed during an externship with chef Jean-Louis Palladin.
“Extraordinary chef, way ahead of his time,” Holzman noted.
Working in the kitchen of the chef’s eponymous and influential Washington, D.C., bistro, Palladin, young Holzman’s interest and attention was fully engaged, and he never returned to school in Hyde Park.
At age 18, Holzman was dispatched by Palladin to Las Vegas, which then began a decade for Holzman on the West Coast. Working at various fine dining venues, he toggled between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Then, a high school friend — Michael Chernow — called Holzman with a yen to start a restaurant back in New York City. Holzman returned to his roots, and in 2010, the pair opened The Meatball Shop. An immediate success, the operation spawned a cookbook and a small chain of still thriving outlets.
“I expanded it to a number of restaurants. I didn’t have the resume for the job I had,” he said. “Not my passion. Looking to transition out, I hired a CEO, and that took a couple of years.”
He also felt the pull to leave the city and return to Los Angeles.
“It’s hard to be a New Yorker and not say New York is the greatest city in the world,” he explained. “It’s such a special place. But the energy, (unless) you have a reason to live in New York, it’s a lot. It’s a hustle. So, I needed to get the hell out of New York is the nice way of saying that.”
Holzman’s older brother lives in Venice with his family. That’s where Holzman landed on his return to Southern California. A Sunday morning hangover served as inspiration for his focus on pizza.
“I was sitting at home. I was little hungover, and I was craving pizza, that comfort food when you need the thing that you ate when you were a kid. I couldn’t find it anywhere,” Holzman recalled.
“It’s Ray’s Famous Original in 1985,” he said referring to the unlicensed name used by a profusion of independent pizza stands in New York at the time.
Pizza making was not unknown territory for Holzman, but retro-engineering the classic New York slice quickly became an obsession.
“I started making pizza at home,” Holzman said. “I had worked in restaurants with pizza programs, so I understood (it) fundamentally and had some experience with it. But then you start doing it and the deeper you get into it, the more it opens up and there’s just more and more to learn, just like anything else.
“I think it’s authentically New York style. Authenticity is a moment in time, right? It’s the pizza that I think of when I think of my childhood in New York City in 1985. That is what it’s authentic to.”
The menu at Danny Boy’s Famous Original is straightforward and true to Holzman’s native instincts.
“It’s an 18-inch pie cut by six, which is a really big slice,” Holzman said. “I think it’s almost too big. But you can’t really cut it by seven, otherwise you give your staff an aneurysm.”
There are eight pizzas offered by the slice or as a whole pie, plus three specialty pizzas available in a whole pie only. Among the eight are cheese ($4/ $24), pepperoni ($4.50/$27), meatball ($5/ $30), and white pie with mushrooms ($4.50/$27).
There are also vegetarian turns and two takes on a pan-style Sicilian, one vegan. The specialty pies are the Meat Master ($33) with pepperoni, sausage, salami and smoked ham; the Papa John’s ($27) with sausage mushroom and onion; and the Buffalo chicken ($30) with breaded chicken, Frank’s Red Hot sauce and ranch dressing. There are also more than 20 extra topping ingredients ($2-$6).
Three sandwiches are $11 and include meatball Parmesan; chicken Parmesan; and sausage, pepper and onions. There are also three salads: a Caesar ($9), a Greek ($10) and the Italian Combo ($11).
Holzman engaged restaurant broker Rachel Rosenberg to hunt for locations. Rosenberg suggested the new Halo development. “We came down here and I really fell in love with it. It feels like New York City. It feels like a place where New York pizza could thrive,” Holzman said. It also helped to have an amenable landlord.
“There’s not a lot of places with the population density and foot traffic to support a slice joint,” he says. “The people from Brookfield (the landlord) have been an unbelievable pleasure to work with.
“It’s big, big company. I’ve never had such a nice landlord. Through the pandemic, they could not have been more generous and supportive.”
Construction had already begun on the space, when the pandemic descended last year. The project was put on pause, and Holzman managed to complete a new cookbook in the meantime with longtime writing partner Matt Rodbard. Titled “Food IQ: 100 Questions for My Friend the Chef,” the book is scheduled for release by HarperCollins in February of next year. “It’s a journalist asking home-cooking questions. It’s a question, an article to try to illustrate the answer and then a recipe,” said Holzman, explaining the book’s concept.
For now, Holzman is focused on his humble lunchtime pizzeria. “I wanted to have a restaurant that was accessible to people, where it was affordable to eat. Nowadays, just because it’s inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s poor quality.” Holzman emphasized.
Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, Danny Boy’s Famous Original should quickly attract a cadre of neighborhood regulars. Remember, there’s an affable and thoroughly authentic New Yorker at the ovens.
“For me, the important part of a pizzeria is the relationship with your guests, and that’s the fun of it. That’s the whole point of it. People should come say ‘hello,’ even if you’re not having a piece of pizza. Come say ‘hi.’ I’m here.”