There may be no fine dining in the tunnels, but we found a chef-driven restaurant there. We had so much fun chatting with Joey Galluzzi of Brooklyn Meatball Company that we wanted to go back and learn more about his history as well as his plans to open more locations in Houston.
Galluzzi was born a proper New Yorker in a Brooklyn hospital. “I’m not telling you when!” he said. “It was a long time ago.” (Galluzzi isn’t really that old.)
Many of Galluzzi’s values were shaped by his Sicilian grandmother. He learned about cooking from her. As he recounts her history, he paints a picture of a different, more trying era. “She was the oldest and had four brothers. He mother died when she was eight, so she essentially took care of four brothers and a dictator of a father. She had to cook for them every day.”
It was a different time indeed. Even when Galluzzi’s grandmother was a married adult, there were certain expectations and duties. “The first thing she’d put on is her apron,” said Galluzzi. “She didn’t know how to drive a car or pay an electric bill. My grandfather did all of that and he’d take her to the store. She would just cook from morning to night.”
The folks who lived through the Depression knew the value of a dollar. “I used to get yelled at for using one too many paper towels. You didn’t throw the bottle of ketchup away when nothing came out. You put two ounces of water in in and shook it up,” he laughed.
It was a special time in Galluzzi’s life. “I’d come home from school and it would be just her and I. I would sit there and she’d always have a job for me. I’d watch her and she would tell stories about growing up in the Depression. It was a beautiful time of my life that brings tears to my eyes. It will be beautiful forever.”
Being a chef, though, wasn’t on his radar for a long time. He went to college and got a degree in international finance. “I got a job on Wall Street right out of college,” Galluzzi explained. “I was a stockbroker, and I hated it.”
He got out of it and went into insurance instead. It still wasn’t the right fit. “I liked it a little more, but I had to be someone every day who I couldn’t stand being,” he said. “Every time you meet somebody — especially in the demographic we were looking for — right away you’re in a position where you want something from them. The industry just brainwashes you. Tell them what you do. Get the meeting. I didn’t like that. I didn’t feel comfortable. I was very successful. I never did business with friends. I developed marketing programs where I could do business outside of friends and family. The only time I did business with friends and family was if they asked me. Even then, I was reluctant to do it.”
Galluzzi got married and became a father, which increased the need to be financially responsible. “I felt that artificial ‘jail,’ if you will. That ‘Now I’m stuck’ feeling. But I always had that dream in my heart of owning a restaurant. One day, my partner said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you do it now?’ ‘I can’t do it now!’ I had a vision of maybe one day when I’m retired of sitting at a bar with a suit on. ‘Hey, send them a bottle of wine.’
Galluzzi was in Manhattan during 9/11. "I was about a mile away," he recalled. "For four weeks, those ruins burned. What you could never see or understand from the news is the smell of death that encompassed the city. There was a strong north wind for four weeks after that pushed that smell of smoldering uptown. It was incomprehensible."
If 9/11 had happened during a previous year, Galluzzi might not be with us today. He used to work on the 40th floor of the World Trade Center when he was still in the insurance business. "We used to come down to take a break, and I'd look up at this building going a quarter-mile up into the sky. It's just unbelievable that someone was that sick."
He moved with his family to Florida in 2003. His wife (now ex-wife) was originally from Houston and not entirely comfortable in Manhattan. Furthermore, raising babies in the busiest city in the world isn’t easy, either. Galluzzi’s company had a strong presence in Florida, so it made sense to move out of New York.
The move to Florida, however, proved nearly disastrous. “I bought a $2 million, 7,000-square-foot house that turned out to be filled with defective Chinese drywall. Google it. It off-gases toxic fumes that could be harmful for young babies and other people. My kids were babies at the time. You wonder if you could have something growing out of your head in 20 years. I thought I’d be in my beautiful dream home at least until my kids went to high school. Instead, it was uninhabitable. I was shell-shocked. My insurance denied the claim and I said, ‘You know what? Let’s move back to New York.’”
The 2008 recession, which hit New York and Florida very hard, started to change his world picture. “I saw my clients, guys worth hundreds of millions of dollars, literally panicking,” reminisced Galluzzi. “I started to think, ‘No matter how rich or poor, no matter how much stock you have and all that, you’ve still got to eat. You still have to wonder what you’re going to have for dinner tonight.'”
That thought gave Galluzzi the inspiration that would eventually become Brooklyn Meatball Company. “It hit me like a lightning bolt. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if people could come and eat the food I grew up on? Authentic Italian flavor, but make it accessible and affordable. I grew up with no money, but every Sunday, my grandmother would make a meal to die for. Most of the time, it was meatballs and macaroni. Why? Because it was cheap and you could really get those flavors into it: lots of fresh herbs, fresh garlic, good quality meat, great sauces and extra virgin olive oil. To get it outside, you have to spend $30 a plate for it, and it’s just not nice to do that to people.”
Moving back to New York gave Galluzzi his first big break in the food business. “I was working out in the gym. I had eaten all my daughter’s ice cream the night before and felt just terrible. I went in around 10 a.m., which I never do. I’m on the bike doing cardio and on the TV monitors, I see [Food Network star] Bobby Flay saying, ‘We’re at Rockefeller Center. We’re looking for ideas for [NBC series] America’s Next Great Restaurant.’ I said, ‘Oh my God!’”
Galluzzi got off the exercise bike, ran to Rockefeller Center and stood in line to talk about his concept, Saucy Balls. Despite the easy innuendos, he said it was actually his daughter, who was seven at the time, who came up with it. The initial concept got him a spot on the show. His most important lesson from it was that he still had a lot to learn.
He earned a runner-up place on the show, which, considering what happened later, might have been even better than actually winning. The winner was Jamawn Woods with healthy soul food concept Soul Daddy’s, all three of whose locations shuttered almost as quickly as they opened: within two months.
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In the meantime, Galluzzi was finding out what his runner-up place would get him: virtually nothing. “I was out for three months taping in Hollywood like a movie star. I’m thinking I’m going to come home, get calls from Martin Scorsese. (laughs) I thought I was going to be on Leno. The silence was so eerie. I just couldn’t take it. I had a good Facebook following, but I just expected this whole different life. On top of that, now I’m going back and selling insurance. I just couldn’t do it another day.”
Galluzzi then took what might have been the most constructive step possible toward his restaurant career. On November 5, 2010, he called Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Austin. “They said on Monday, November 10, they were going to start their next round of classes. The plan was that my ex-wife — wife at the time — was going to Houston to set up shop with the kids. I would meet them every weekend.” Sadly, the plan also marked the beginning of the end of his marriage.
Feeling absolutely determined to be a chef, Galluzzi packed up his TV, computer, desk and his bulldog, Maggie, and drove to Austin.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Chef Chat with Galluzzi, where you’ll learn how Brooklyn Meatball Company started, his expansion plans for the future and his dream restaurant.