Sal's Pizza in New Zealand was started by 2 longtime friends - Nick from Auckland, New Zealand and Ciaran from Queens, New York. And here's how it all came to be...
For Ciaran, it started nearly 15 years ago while on a trip to the Gold Coast. Hungry for a pizza he was recommended to try a popular local pizza place - he thought the pizza wasn't bad, but coulda been better considering how many people were raving about it. This got him to thinking about how a great NY pizzeria would do half a world away.
Within days of returning to NYC Ciaran went to see Salvatore 'Sal' Leo, who owned Sal's Pizza in Little Neck, Queens, New York - and asked him if he'd ever share his recipes? Sal said whenever ready he'd be happy to! (Keep in mind Ciaran had been eating Sal's most of his life and knew Sal [and his son Brian] for years.) So, that invitation stayed with him in the back of his mind for well over a decade.
For Nick, after spending 4 years at college in the US and having made multiple trips to NY he'd always wished there were a pizza parlor in Auckland that 'served a great slice.'
So, fast forward to the afternoon of Thursday January 3rd 2008 (EST) - Nick and his brother were in New York visiting Ciaran and his brother for New Year's. Still suffering from the lingering effects of a slightly extended New Year's celebration - N and C decided to order a large cheese pizza from Sal's.
After polishing off the pizza Nick got to saying how great it would be if only there were pizza 'that good' in New Zealand. Ciaran mentioned to Nick Sal's offer from years earlier. So although not a new thought for either of them, it wasn't until that conversation that the 2 pieces of the puzzle came together and they began researching the idea of actually doing it (in Auckland).
10 weeks later Nick was back in the US - coming through LAX - with 5 liters of Auckland tap water in his suitcase. The next day they were using that water to mix the flour in Sal's kitchen in Little Neck, Queens'. 24 hours later [after the doughs had risen] they used those doughs to make pizzas and served them to regulars of Sal's - and everything tasted delicious. It was THE MOMENT for them and they decided that night to go for it!
Now you may be asking yourself why Nick went all the way back to Auckland just to get 5 liters of tap water?
Well, if you walk into any pizzeria in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, Long Island, etc. and ask the pizzamaker what makes the crust so good, they will always tell you the same thing - because of the New York water. Now, without drilling too deep into the science behind this, NY municipal drinking water has it's own unique mineral composition that makes it among the smoothest to drink. For over 100 years - New York bakers, pretzelmakers, bagel joints and pizzamakers have been crediting the water as being their secret ingredient.
So Nick and Ciaran needed to see if water from NZ stacked up and did the hard yards to bring it all the way back to NY and test it. And as it turns out – quite poetically, NZ water works too - beautifully smooth and great for making a tasty pizza crust.
Now the story behind this story has to do with the name of their company in NZ. As you know, they trade under 'Sal's Authentic New York Pizza', but their actual company name is NZ Waterworks Ltd. – people never understand that and assume they're a water supply/power company or something. Well, now you know the true story behind the company name:)
We are proud to say that all of our base ingredients are AUTHENTIC and painstakingly imported to New Zealand - the Wisconsin mozzarella, California tomatoes, New York state milled flour, pepperoni, and meatballs.
Our sweet tomato sauce is made fresh daily using Sal's famous ORIGINAL RECIPE (and to his exacting specifications). The same tomato sauce formula was used in Sal's of Little Neck from 1975 through June 2010 (when Sal retired from the pizza game and finally closed his doors).
We are proud to serve you AUTHENTIC New York Pizza...
Speaking of imports, one of the luckiest breaks early on (and we had our fair share of good fortune) was convincing the son of Sal - Brian Leo - to come down to Auckland. Sal himself was nearing retirement and with a little coaxing from his mother and sister - Brian agreed to relocate and be our head pizzamaker at Sal's in New Zealand.
It's worth re-iterating what we wrote about Brian on our Facebook page in April 2011, "this guys has the sauce running through his veins like few others, been slingin' dough since age 5 1/2... these days we like to refer to him as the Roger Federer of pizzamakers. Arrived in New Zealand January 31st 2009, we'd like to think a better place for it..."
Our doors finally opened on July 5th, 2009 - a small 280 sq. ft takeaway joint - to little fan fare and fewer customers. Nick, Brian and Ciaran froze their pants off for most of those first 3 months - standing with backs touching the handles of the Bakers Pride ovens to stay warm.
But things started to heat up quickly - the earliest customers (many of them local muzos) fervently spreading the word. By October things began to fall into place with Sal's catering to some of the biggest performers/touring shows - from Lady Gaga to Cirque de Soleil to AC/DC. At the time we held a Facebook contest asking people to guess what pizza Lady Gaga had ordered from Sal's? We received hundreds of responses - and for the record, she ordered a 1/2 cheese 1/2 pepperoni pizza.
We opened our second pizzeria on K'Rd in August 2010; a third shop opened in Takapuna May 2011. Sal's Parnell opened July 2012; Sal's Queen Street opened June 2013 followed by Sal's Jellicoe Street (Wynyard Quarter) in August 2013; Sal's Victoria Street (Hamilton) opened March 2014 followed by Sal's Henderson in August 2014 and Browns Bay November 2014. Manukau coming soon...
Salvatore Leo was born in 1941 in a little town called Corato in the Puglia region of southern Italy. A few years later, his mother, Graziela, hoping to provide a better life for her eldest son, sent him to live with two of his fathers brothers in New York.
Sal took up residence with his Uncle Charlie, Aunt Lena and his four cousins in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He entered fifth grade alongside "American" Sal, speaking no English except (as legend has it) to proclaim himself a New York Yankee fan after "American" Sal professed his Brooklyn Dodgers allegiance.
Sal graduated from high school in 1959 and his first job was helping out his cousin Richie at Richie's pizzeria - Corato Pizza - in Ridgewood, Queens. It was here that Sal discovered his talent for pizzamaking.
Unfortunately, Richie didnt need Sal full time, so while Sal continued to work at the pizzeria he took a job at Terminal Hudson Electronics in Manhattan; Sal worked there for 11 years.
Tired of working for someone else, Sal saw a classified ad in the local paper - pizzeria business for sale in northeast Queens. The store was run down but the price was right.
Sal borrowed some money from his in-laws, put $3,000 down and bought the place. With the help of his wife, Angie, he refurbished the business, used his cousin Richie's time-tested recipes and opened Sal's Pizza of Little Neck in 1975.
Sals Little Neck Pizza was more than just a place to get delicious pizza, it was a neighborhood institution, a place to share a good meal with the family or grab a pie to go. It was an old-school neighborhood gathering place, where people would come to debate Sals colorful opinions.
The pizzeria was one of a kind and remained a neighborhood staple until Sal sold the business in 2010.
These days Sal is happily retired and constantly threatening to move the family to South Carolina, but still lives just down the block, about 100 yards from the old shop in Little Neck, Queens.