In 2008, the North American pizza scene changed forever. That was the year Roberta’s opened in a desolate patch of Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Fast-forward nine years and Bushwick has become prime real estate, and the idea of honey being drizzled over a blistered pepperoni pizza is no longer strange—at least not in some circles. Once only available to hip young things willing to endure a long wait at the cozy, no-reservations restaurant, Roberta’s pizzas are now available in the frozen aisle at Whole Foods. What was once cult has gone mainstream.
It’s a brave new world of pizza, and in it there is one man who is living his best life. From humble beginnings, Anthony Falco has carved out a career to become an international pizza consultant.
Falco grew up in Texas in an Italian-American family that has roots in Poggioreale, halfway between Palermo and Sciacca. He became obsessed with pizza at an early age, thanks to his great grandmother Lena’s pizza, one that his grandmother Mary continued to make in the same style. “It wasn’t a type of pizza,” Falco recalls. “To them it was just ‘pizza.’”
When he was 11, his parents divorced, and his dad Frank moved from the land of Longhorns football and chicken fried steak to New York City. Falco began spending his summers there, feeding his pizza obsession. “We went to Patsy’s; that became Grimaldi’s; that is now Juliana’s.”
In Austin, the young Falco began flexing the powerful work ethic he’d inherited from his mom, Susan, who held two jobs and put herself through college after divorcing Frank. Falco worked in restaurants in Austin while he was still in high school. “I cleaned a lot of squid,” he recalls.
After graduation he couch-surfed through California, then Hawaii, then Seattle. “I had got into NYU and I was treating this time like a year off—the plan was always to end up in New York.”
In Seattle he worked as a dishwasher in a pool hall, then cooking at a fast-casual pasta chain before becoming a full-time web designer. “When you cook great food for people, you put love into and they eat it, you get love back. People really respond, they hug you. No one’s going to give you a hug after you make them a website.”
Falco took a sabbatical from web design and went to Amsterdam, Thailand and Indonesia. He drove around Sicily with his dad to get in touch with his roots, then went back to Seattle and opened a tiny Belgian frites shack. ““I had all these dreams of turning it into a concept I could roll out across the country.” He made fries and aioli until his fingers bled.
And then a Neapolitan pizza joint opened up next door. Falco was transfixed—there he was, an Italian-American deep-frying frites, when next door a guy from Napoli was creating pizzas in wood-burning ovens. “I thought, ‘If I never have to change fryer oil again it will be too soon. I could work in front of a wood fired oven all day.’”
Falco decided the time for New York was at hand. He left the frites operation in the hands of his business partner and moved to Brooklyn, where he ended up slinging drinks in a version of Bushwick that arguably no longer exists. “It was just rubble, whole blocks of buildings that had been torn down. A no-man’s land.”
There he worked as a bartender at the now-defunct Sweet Ups, where he met Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy, who would later open Roberta’s with Carlo Mirarchi. (The restauarant was named after Parachini’s mother.) Paranchini and Hoy asked if he wanted to buy-in.
Falco wanted a piece of the Roberta’s pie, but he had no cash to put up. He’d sent all of his money to his dad Frank, who was dodging a drug charge and hiding out in Mexico. (Frank Falco was part of the biggest hashish smuggling ring on the West Coast, and he remained on the lam for 15 years before surrendering in 2008.) Choosing to ensure his fugitive pop’s precarious survival in Mexico during a violent drug war, Falco didn’t have the resources to invest in what would become, in the words of New York Times food critic Sam Sifton, “one of the more extraordinary” pizzerias in America.
Instead, Falco threw himself into the enterprise in every other way he could. As Angelo Womack, his friend and former co-worker from the founding crew at Roberta’s, puts it, “What Falco did for Roberta’s—his drive and aggression—he created their mobile units, their frozen pizza production. He doesn’t sleep. I’ve seen it—he sleeps, like, three hours a night.”
Womack, who was an opening partner at the Oak and Rye pizzeria in Los Gatos, California, still sings the praises of the Bushwick restaurant that changed pizza as we know it. “Roberta’s is the mecca for new-school pizza. Period. No one at that time was in any way comparable. They set off an absolute revolution. It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not New York style. It’s an Americanized new-school pizza and it’s still sweeping the country.”
In November of 2016, after nine long years and countless pies, Falco and Roberta’s parted ways. He suddenly found himself with no job and no plans. He posted a goodbye on his socials, to the institution he had helped create, and pondered his next move. By January he was in Chicago for his first pizza consulting job, then Brazil soon after. “And then it just started stacking up one after the other. It was about halfway through the year where I realized, ‘OK, this is what I do,’” recalls Falco.
Even now, he’s giddy about it. “I was in London doing a pizza pop-up, then meeting a client about doing a restaurant in Kuwait before we flew to Japan to do research into the pizza scene there. That’s when I realized—I was like, ‘It doesn’t get any more international pizza consulting than this.’”
I meet Falco at General Assembly pizzeria in downtown Toronto to learn exactly what “international pizza consulting” actually means. Formerly home to a furrier, the space has been transformed into a gleaming white temple to pizza; two dome-shaped Neapolitan-style wood ovens blaze away as the crew loads uncooked pizzas in and blistered wheels out. When General Assembly’s owner, Ali Khan Lalani, hired Falco to consult, he was already six weeks into construction. The first thing Falco did was tell him his blueprints were all wrong. Ali took him at his word, called a halt to construction and had everything done to Falco’s specs. That’s some serious faith in a guy who’s found all of his clients through Instagram.
Although Lalani has been in the restaurant world since he was 12 years old, his instinct to trust Falco’s vision proved correct. “If I had stuck to what I had come up with and not listened to him, I don’t think I would have been able to sell 600 pizzas on opening night,” he tells me a week after opening the doors to a ravenous public.
What Falco brings in his capacity as consultant is not only impeccable knowledge about how to design a deadly efficient pizza kitchen. Through years of working pop-ups in suboptimal conditions, and the decade-long process of birthing and re-shaping the institution that Roberta’s became, he was part of the movement that changed people’s perceptions of what pizza itself could be, elevating it to a new status; his vision, fully realized, lies in bringing the most harmonious, beautifully simple pizzas to the table. Take the whipped cream, for instance—a move he learned from pizza guru Joe Beddia of Pizzeria Beddia in Philly. At General Assembly, Falco tops pizzas with whipped cream, chorizo and cilantro and it works like a dream. In a normcore world, his minimalist breadcrumb toppings and spare hand with the cheese make for a purer pizza experience, and beautiful Instagram shots.
I ask Falco if saying that you’re an international pizza consultant works as a pickup line. “I’m married,” he laughs before admitting, “there are pizza groupies.” Of course there are.
Despite all of the fame and acclaim, Falco still remains true to his roots. He recreates his grandmother’s pizza—originally made with crumbled sausage, some onions and finished with a sprinkling of fresh breadcrumbs to soak up the sauce—everywhere he goes. The first iteration became the famed Millennium Falco at Roberta’s, but it can also be found at Bráz Elettrica in São Paulo, Brazil as the Senior Falco, made with jalepeños; at General Assembly in Toronto, it has fried garlic and is called the Falco Sausage. At Marquee Pizzeria in Coralville, Iowa, it’s just the Falco, made with fresh Iowa pork.
And those roots run even deeper than just a dish on a menu. Falco missed out on owning a piece of Roberta’s in order to help his dad. His career is an ode to his grandmothers. Like any good Italian boy, he values family above all else.
Those pizza groupies haven’t got a chance.