Lorenzo Colella has known Paul Mauk since he was a kid growing up on Forest Street.
The eatery his parents had opened in 1967, Joe’s Pizza, sat for most of its life just two doors down from Mauk’s Tequila Mockingbird, and Colella would come to see the family friend as a mentor.
Colella’s mother Annunziata passed away two years ago, his father Giuseppe in May. Soon after, he lost some help at the pizzeria, now on Locust Avenue, and consulted Mauk, who had sold Tequila last summer after a successful 25-year run.
Mauk volunteered to help out, and in just a few months, he’s made an indelible mark at Joe’s, primarily through encouraging Colella to trust his own talents as a chef and in tweaking a pizza recipe that’s been feeding New Canaanites for decades.
“One of the main things he does is motivating me mentally, and making me realize I have a lot of capability and what I do is unique,” Colella said. “How to pull it out of myself and show people and make the product better, really waking me up.”
Colella said he attended a Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March and “met some amazing people and made dough with famous pizza champions.”
“So I learned their techniques, and Paul woke me up, taught me that I had learned some amazing things, but I was stuck in a rut,” Colella said. “With my father’s passing, it’s my turn.”
That realization has led to introducing the “autolyse” method of creating dough, where instead of mixing all the ingredients at once, flour is given time to absorb water on its own, making it stronger, Colella said.
“It’s a little tweak to my father’s recipe, so it’s more like Italian bread from Arthur Avenue, more crispy,” he said, referring to an area of the Bronx, N.Y. that features Italian food shops and restaurants.
Mauk said he offered to help Colella, on a volunteer basis, “because I’ve known him since he was a little boy.”
“I think it’s been tough for him because of his parents’ situation,” Mauk said.
Since helping out at Joe’s, Mauk said he’s been impressed with how the younger chef has sought out new ideas from pizza makers nationwide, and how open Colella is to change.
The late Giuseppe Colella and his very specific ideas on what goes into a Joe’s Pizza pie have long held sway over his son, Mauk said, and Colella himself has been surrounded at the eatery by kitchen workers who are not as advanced as Lorenzo Colella himself.
Even so, Mauk said, Colella found the wherewithal to connect with fellow pizza-makers and has found himself embraced by “big shot pizza guys” who recognize the young chef as one of their own.
“They trust him,” Mauk said. “The secret is safe with him.”
One fundamental change has been that, in the past, Joe’s Pizza used whole wheat in its dough “because it replicated what Joe was used to in Italy from when they emigrated here, because they hadn’t figured out how to refine flour as well as we had in America.”
“So [in] the pizza here, they always had whole wheat, which really doesn’t work well for New York-style pizza,” Mauk said.
That’s changed, and the crust is earning high marks from Joe’s Pizza regulars.
“With the first guy I was scared, he’s like ‘What did you do with the dough?’ ” Colella recalled. “I was nervous—did I screw up a 51-year-old pizza?—and he was like, ‘It’s amazing.’ Thank god. So it’s all positive. Lighter and crispier. We’re still tweaking it.”
Other changes include hand-cutting chicken tenders and wings instead of using frozen poultry, Colella said. He also began using the open kitchen’s vast pizza oven to cook his popular chicken wings, and he’s kept up with demand by baking them there in batches of up to 800.
For Colella, Mauk’s presence in the kitchen—even on a limited, volunteer basis—has empowered him as a chef while still tying him to his family’s deep roots on the block.
“I remember him from when I was a kid as someone who always had a cool car and was always around,” Colella recalled with a smile. “He had this white rally-looking Toyota, and he couldn’t believe I remembered it. It was such an awesome car. I remember him from an early age and he remembers me, too, since day one. He’s always been a kind of mentor. At Tequila, I would go in for late-night drinks and creep into his office, just sit there and ask for advice for a long time.”