Don’t be something you’re not. That’s the advice Ed Conover, owner of SLICE of Palm Beach Gardens. His pizzeria has been open three months.
“I want to be a mom and pop neighborhood pizzeria,” he said. “That put off some of the customers of the old place that was here – they were doing a full-blown Italian restaurant. The customers get mad because we don’t have seafood or veal on the menu.“
What he does have is pizza – made totally from scratch. He makes the dough, grows the basil, and hand-crushes tomatoes for the sauce he also makes.
“I get up early – I’m here from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days,” he said. “I do it all. It’s hard work, but I love it.”
He’s used to hard work – the 48-year-old is a former heavy-equipment operator, and ran bulldozers and cranes at construction sites in South Florida and South Jersey. “I was working on that big airport rebuild in Fort Lauderdale,” he said.
So what drove him from pushing dirt to throwing pizza?
“When I worked in a pizza place as a kid, I had so much fun – I just wanted to have that fun again. The shop I worked at as a kid, we were all young. It was a very busy place, but we all worked together and had fun.
“I opened this place to have fun again.”
Conover, originally of Staten Island, N.Y., has no formal training in the kitchen. “I just know what tastes good and goes together.”
He’s using recipes inspired by his grandmother’s – though not her exact ones.
“My grandmother’s pizza was the best. She influenced me. My mom and grandmother are full Italian. My mom never learned to cook – my grandmother did all the cooking and wouldn’t let her in the kitchen. But I spent so much time with her – she just turned 90. I learned to cook watching her as a kid.
“I’ve begged my grandmother all these years for her dough recipe…she tells me she’ll leave it to me in her will,” he said, laughing.
The pies he makes are, for the most part, traditional. “All we had were sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms growing up. That’s what I know.”
He calls the modern pizza combinations he’s seen “designer” pizzas.
“I have requests for stuff I’d never thought to put on a pizza – I remember when ham and pineapple became popular – Hawaiian pizza they call it. Then they started getting crazy. On the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, they put baked ziti on your pizza, or French fries. A loaded baked potato pizza – you can get anything on a pizza there.
“I do a pizza with shrimp and fra diavolo sauce. And I make a roast beef one with brown gravy instead of red sauce, and provolone cheese. You wouldn’t think it would be good, but it really is. One day, I was here and made myself one and a couple of people saw it and tried it and they liked it. That’s as exotic as I know, though.”
It’s all from fresh ingredients – on that, he’s a stickler, he said. “You can’t compromise on quality. Everything here is made fresh. I make my dough from scratch, and my sauce. You can buy pre-grated cheese in the bag. I won’t do that – it’s not fresh once it’s grated. So I buy the blocks and grate my own fresh every day.”
There are pastas and salads on the menu as well, but the focus is on the pies.
He does buy rolls for his sandwiches. He tried making the breads himself, but it was too time consuming, he said.
“I tried several rolls and found a great bakery in Fort Lauderdale who delivers them fresh. They’re very good rolls.
“I buy bushels of mushrooms and slice them myself. I season them and cook them – never use mushrooms from a can. I grow my own basil in the back so I have it fresh all the time. I make a pizza with the fresh basil, mushrooms, and cheese – it’s almost like a Margharita.”
The best sellers are the traditional pizzas, but his best sandwich is a Philly cheesesteak, he said.
“I get prime rib, and slice it thin. Then I throw it on a flat-top grill, season the meat and the mushrooms – always fresh, not canned. I can put any cheese on it they want. But yeah, I have Cheez Whiz in the back. Some people ask especially for it.”
A specialty of the house is a “panzarotti,” a fried calzone – sort of. “It’s a pizza turnover, no ricotta. “There’s sauce, cheese, and whatever toppings you want. Then it’s deep fried – it gives it a whole different texture inside and out. They’re incredibly delicious.”
He says he’s not seen them anywhere else down here and believes they’re a product of the Jersey shore.
His other specialty is zeppole – fried dough sweetened with powdered sugar. His signature ones are filled with cannoli cream that he also makes himself. These are sprinkled with powdered sugar, and if the customer asks, drizzled with chocolate or caramel syrup.
“I call them fried dough sweet poppers,” he said. “Everybody loves them.”
He’s just now telling locals about the pizzeria, handing out flyers. His customers have come in through word-of-mouth, including the former owner of a popular pizzeria behind the plaza. “Albert used to own Alberto’s pizzeria behind me. He comes in a lot and has sent so many people to me – he loves my pizza.”
He thinks Slice will catch on. “It won’t be for lack of hard work. I think people will find out about my quality and integrity. I’m here from open to close – watching every sandwich, and I make every pizza myself. I’ll put my food up against anybody’s. All my customers know I stand behind my food 100 percent.”
What advice would he give to a potential restaurateur? “’Are you crazy?!’ Seriously, my advice would be to make sure that you are passionate and committed, because opening a restaurant will consume every waking minute of your time. And make sure that you have fun and love what you do, because it will help you through the stressful times.”
SLICE of Palm Beach Gardens
- 9910 Alt. A1A (Promenade Plaza), Palm Beach Gardens
- 561-360-2633; sliceofpalmbeachgardens.com
- Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; midnights on some weekends; delivery available.