As we mentioned in part one of our Chef Chat with Joey Galluzzi of Brooklyn Meatball Company, being on a reality show doesn’t solve all problems. After landing a runner-up spot on America’s Next Great Restaurant, he was confronted with something he didn’t expect: silence. There were no calls, no talk show invitations, no book advances.
So, Galluzzi took his future into his own hands and went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Austin. For the former New York stockbroker and insurance salesman, it was a huge, daunting change. “I was scared out of my mind,” says Galluzzi. “I had two kids, a wife and the responsibility of having to take care of them. I had a little bit of money put away, but after the recession [of 2008], it got really tough. But at the same time, as I was driving to Texas to go to culinary school, I felt like I was on a path paved by God. If I’d taken my hands off the wheel and closed my eyes, I still would have gotten there. I believed with every fiber of my body that I was doing what I was meant to do.”
Galluzzi loved culinary school. “I was so excited to put my chef coat on every day and hear what the instructors had to say. The chemical changes that occur while you cook food and what happens when you use different acids and sugars — I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could,” he said.
Some days, he’d be plagued by doubt and think, “Man, what am I doing?” and then remember, “Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to be doing this.”
America’s Next Great Restaurant was long done filming but hadn’t aired yet. It was shown when he was only a month or two away from graduating from Le Cordon Bleu. Not all his classmates appreciated having a reality show star in their midst, but others were supportive. “There’s always haters wherever you go,” said Galluzzi with a shrug.
When he graduated in July 2011, he moved to Houston and opened Brooklyn Meatball Company. When Galluzzi first visited Houston with his wife (now ex) in 1999, it didn’t make a good impression on him. It seemed like a good ol’ boy town, and with his noticeable Brooklyn accent, he felt like “he’d come from Mars.”
These days, though, he loves Houston and part of that has to do with the city’s continuing evolution as a diverse metropolis. “Now, it’s so diversified!” exclaimed Galluzzi. “There are so many more cultures and restaurants. There’s night life and city life. You can feel the hustle here. I feel like I’m in the fourth-largest city, and I love it.”
Since he makes casual Italian food, he doesn’t necessarily get to use all the techniques he learned in culinary school on a day-to-day basis, but he’s happy to have the education.
Galluzzi’s first choice of location — a place near the 59 and 45 interchange — didn’t work out. Like other circumstances in his life, it probably ended up for the best. “I always saw it as a fast-casual type place, but on the street level. That location excited me because it had a New York feel, but what I didn’t know was that it wasn’t really a good area for a restaurant. No Houstonian in their right mind would ever go.”
A friend of his knew about the space in the tunnel that was coming available and that is how Brooklyn Meatball Company ended up being born underground in May 2012.
These days, the former insurance salesman is happy to sell his authentic, casual Italian food and make small talk with people who would have previously been hot insurance sales prospects. Galluzi says, “Over here, I can just talk about last weekend’s game or just be a guy and say, ‘Hey, what’s up? How you doin’?’ And they’re happy to see me, because they’re coming for this delicious food.”
“For all intents and purposes, it is a restaurant,” says Galluzzi. “You’re buying, you’re ordering, you’re cooking, you’re prepping, you’re cleaning, you’re serving.”
Indeed, Galluzzi even behaves as if it’s a normal restaurant. Most days you can see him on the food court side of the counter doing expo — overseeing staff, giving instructions and running orders out to customers waiting at tables. “I want to create as much of a positive experience for everybody who comes here as I possibly can,” he explained. “Everybody who comes to that register — I look at them as a blessing. They could go anywhere. They could go upstairs. But they came here and they’re spending money they earn at a job they probably don’t even like. When you work in an office, lunch is an escape. It’s a special part of the day.”
There are advantages to his lunch-only tunnel location, too. The rent is less expensive than for a street-level place and the lunch-only schedule allows him to coach his son’s baseball team in the evenings.
Soon, Galluzzi will literally see the light at the end of the tunnel — at his second location, aboveground at the Shops At Houston Center at 1200 McKinney. He expects to open next week — July 7 — if all goes well. “It’s still a food court, but it’s a step aboveground. I can actually see daylight!” he laughed. Thanks to the extended hours there, he’s pondering a “social hour” in the afternoons and serving cappuccino and cannoli.
It might have opened a bit sooner, but Galluzzi is a busy guy. Among other things, he appears every two or three months on KHOU’s morning show, Great Day Houston. It’s something he’s done since he first started coming to Houston. “They consider me part of the family. Anytime they want to get people to laugh and give the audience a good time, they call Joey,” he said with a smile.
It’s likely not the last additional location of Brooklyn Meatball Company. Over the next two or three years, he wants to open three more stores, for a total of five restaurants. He believes that’s the number — and the revenue — that would attract substantial investors. He’s not really interested in franchising his concept, although it’s not outside the realm of possibility. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but it would be the last thing I would do,” mused Galluzzi. “Franchising is like taking your little baby, giving it to somebody and hoping they’d bring it back in one piece. It’s not a control thing. There are just other ways I’d rather grow. It’s not off the table. If we had the right team and could execute it, it would be something I’d consider, but nowhere in the near future.”
His dream place is a full-service restaurant with a full menu that reflects all the specialties of his Italian heritage. “There’s my Colossal Shrimp Parmesan. Chilean Sea Bass Oreganata. My Zuppa di Clams and Mussels. It would just knock your socks off. You’d just drink the sauce.”
Unlike many chefs, he also gets to occasionally dine out in the evening. Galluzzi loves sushi. He thinks it’s a good, healthy source of protein (Galluzzi himself is rather muscular and health-conscious), and his favorite places include Oishi and Soma Sushi. When he really wants to treat himself, he goes to Uchi. He actually met proprietor Tyson Cole, a fellow Le Cordon Bleu alum who visited while Galluzzi was in culinary school in Austin.
“Rarely do I say ridiculously priced food is worth it, but there it is,” Galluzzi explained. “They use ingredients of the highest quality, and it is put together using painstaking techniques and patience.” He also admires Tony’s — both the restaurant and its proprietor, Tony Vallone. “Even at his age, he’s still going to Italy every year looking for new and better wines, better ideas, and when you eat there — that kitchen is a dream.”
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Galluzzi’s first question for first-time visitors to Brooklyn Meatball Company is, “How hungry are you?” If they’re pretty hungry, he recommends the special plate half of a meatball sub (it comes with two meatballs), choice of sauce (pesto, marinara, spicy marinara or gorgonzola) and the choice of spaghetti, rigatoni or the house salad. A free drink comes with the combo.
Two meatballs are really filling, actually. “I always say that you can come here for anything from a light, nutritious snack — like two turkey meatballs with pesto sauce — all the way up to a full-blown Sunday dinner, like the ten-pound plate of pasta with meatballs. I use very high-quality proteins. The beef meatballs are made from USDA Choice-certified Angus beef. My turkey meatballs are 91 percent lean Butterball meat. They’re protein-rich foods and are very filling.”
Galluzzi’s other secret to his terrific meatballs is fresh herbs and garlic. He believes when high-quality ingredients are used, everything else can be simple. It’s the Italian way. “When I make a steak, I use olive oil, salt, pepper and that’s it. Some people make rubs with 8,000 different ingredients, and it’s just not necessary.”
Galluzzi wants people to know that his passion for food is genuine. ‘When people recognize me from the show, they say, ‘Hey, you were the most passionate.’ I want them to know that I’m not doing this for money — as crazy as that sounds. I’m doing this for the love of food and people. When they eat here and I bring their food to them and refill their soda, I think they see that. Brooklyn Meatball Company was born from this passion. Everybody deserves to have delicious food that’s cooked with the best, freshest ingredients available, that’s cared about with love at an affordable, accessible price.”