Everyone is Kadir Catalbasoglu’s brother: the students, the landlord, the cop or two who come in regularly, the guy with sagging jeans and cap turned backward. Even the faces he’s never seen before, Kadir greets the same way.
“What can I do for you, brother?”
In front of a long, low, stainless steel counter, Kadir’s brother, Bahaettin, (who happens to be his actual flesh-and-blood sibling) spins out pizza crust like he’s a DJ: two hands, fingers spreading, beating a silent rhythm on a disk of flying dough. Kadir’s 12-year-old son, Hacibey, trundles from the tall front counter, where he has to stand tip-toed to answer the phone, to the back table, where he sneaks a furtive pinch of dough, apron trailing between his legs. Mario wields the long-handled pizza peel as though it’s a javelin, thrusting it in and out of the arched mouth of a tile-lined fireplace, miraculously clearing everyone around him, even as Mustapha slips by, whirling to miss the long metal spear. Mario has worked for Kadir for two years, and Mustapha, for five months. They are both his brothers. And standing tentatively at the back of Brick Oven’s kitchen, in quiet wonderment of this clockwork machine (Bahaettin spin, Hacibey roll, Mario jab, Mustapha whirl), I am a brother too.
Fresh yeast looks like tofu, feels like clay. Mario piles a few small squares on the kitchen scale — the smell is overwhelming: a combination of yogurt and gym socks and something, homey and warm, that I can’t quite place.
“Are you sure you’re OK with me knowing the secret recipe?” I joke, as Mario and Hacibey take turns measuring and dumping ingredients — salt, sugar, warm water, a whole 30-lb. sack of flour. Even I am being put to work — I’m about to learn how Brick Oven’s distinctive, crispy, thin-crust dough is made. Mario laughs at my mock apprehension.
Hacibey turns on the Hobart mixer, which stands about as tall as he does. A comically outsized spiral dough hook twists into action, and I immediately picture it like a drill sinking into the floor of Brick Oven, charting a subterranean course for China. As the dry ingredients ride precariously high in the Hobart’s bowl, poofing over the rim in little wisps, Mario uses his hand to test the consistency — deftly avoiding the mixer’s hook — and adjusts the amount of flour. He then stops the machine, disengages the enormous bowl and calls to Mustapha to help him lift it onto the counter, sliding the dough across the steel surface like an enormous slain beast.
Next comes the task of carving up the prostrate mound into pizza-sized portions, rolling tight little balls that will rise evenly. Mario hacks pieces of dough from the heap, which is just starting to relax into the steel table, then throws each slab, knife still in hand, upon a small kitchen scale. Nine ounces for medium, 15 for large, 23 for X-large — he rarely needs to make an adjustment before winging the slabs my way.
He’s shown me how to tuck in the edges, rotating around and around the smooth ball, pulling the dough out over itself until it’s firm, and then twisting the little knot that remains into a smooth navel. Hacibey, at 12 already able to offer me constructive criticism, hovers near enough to correct my technique, rearranging my finished dough-bellies into white stacking trays, where they will rise. I’m slower than the others, a little unsure, but my fingers are gradually limbering up — by the time Kadir walks in from a delivery, I no longer feel like such an imposter, standing behind the counter with flour in my hair.
Kadir moves across the small kitchen like water on a hot skillet — rushing around, here greeting a customer, there taking the phone from his son, now explaining to me — without missing a beat — about how the finest quality tomatoes are imported from Italy, or how he based the design for his oven on wood-burning models from “back home.” His snippets of conversation, tossed over one shoulder while he engages in a high-speed two-step with a carving knife, are making me nervous.
An order for a Cesar salad comes in, and Kadir pulls two heads of Romaine from the fridge. In a blur, he’s scalped them over the waste-bin and removed the stem ends, tops and outer leaves. Then he slams them down on a counter, and the two heads disappear under the flashing blade of his knife, dissolving into a lacey pile: chiffonade — little rags. The knife flicks the whole pile into a big bowl, guillotines a tomato and demolishes an onion before it can even think to make anyone cry. I half expect Kadir to blow on the blade and stick it into his belt.
This is not Kadir Catalbasoglu’s first rodeo. When he came to America as an immigrant from Turkey 18 years ago, he was a young man “full of dreams.” Even then, he had a cowboy thing going on. He’d seen “Knight Rider,” and it was that show — the Lone Ranger with a badass car — that set Kadir on his quest to “make it” in the States.
“I started out a dishwasher,” he recalls. “But life made me a cook.”
He explains that even working as a busboy — at a Cape Cod restaurant that’s long since gone out of business — he was around the kitchen enough to learn how to wrangle food.
“Some people,” he says, knife flying, “they just don’t have the touch. They may think they’re working hard, but turning an egg over easy” — he grins and winks at me — “now that’s hard work. If you break the yolk, forget about it.”
Of course, there aren’t many eggs being flipped around the Brick Oven, but don’t think for a second that Kadir is limited to pizza. He’s started a number of restaurants since coming to the States, most of them in the New Haven area.
Some old standbys that you might not realize are his progeny? A-1 on Broadway, Istanbul Café on Crown Street and the newest addition, Whalley Deli and Grocery on Whalley Avenue.
While most of his restaurants have passed on to new management, Brick Oven is still home base for Kadir and his family. With its enormous, one-of-a-kind wood-burning oven and labor-of-love faux painting, one might be tempted to think that the Brick Oven is Kadir’s pièce de résistance. Indeed, while there are more than a few surprise touches hiding in the space (you’ll have to ask Kadir yourself about the enormous gilt-framed oil painting above the counter —he’s too shy to let me tell you about it outright), Kadir’s creativity is far from restricted to his Howe Street establishment.
A one-time aspiring painter and photographer who also started his own construction business, Kadir’s skill-set and attention to detail seem boundless. Even the new deli, just campus-side of Orchard Street, is far from the average convenience store. At eye-level, you’ll see the same mini-mart aisles of never-to-perish pre-packaged goods, but look down at your feet, and you’re treated to a different sort of enduring artistry. The floor in Whalley Grocery and Deli is a stunning mosaic of granite and marble that Kadir salvaged and pieced together himself.
Kadir is almost painfully modest. He doesn’t like to talk much about himself, and he keeps insisting that I write “only about the pizza shop.” But he also can’t help betraying himself a little; as he leads me up a narrow set of steps to the spaces adjacent to and above the deli — as he checks on the renovation’s progress, he glistens with just a touch of pride.
He explains his knowledge of the construction business — it started because he was always figuring out better, cheaper, more sustainable ways to build his restaurants. In the end, he found he coul
d do everything that his contractors could, and he liked having the extra measure of control. He’s since put his skills to use on other types of projects, including a new Turkish community center in West Haven. Part of Kadir’s motivation is his son, Hacibey, in whom he hopes to instill and maintain Turkish tradition and values. He speaks for many community parents when he says, “We want them to know where they came from, who they are.”
But Kadir was also simply happy that he had skills and knowledge to contribute to the Center’s construction.
“When you’re building a restaurant, you learn how to do everything. This tile,” he gestures, back in the Brick Oven, “I did this tile. You don’t have to be a scientist. Just willing to learn.”
Indeed, given Kadir’s Turkish background, the pizza itself was a learning process — but one that he knew he could master.
“When I first came here, I worked in different diners, different pizza places,” shrugs Kadir, who affirms that he eats his own pizza every day. “And I believed in myself — I became confident that I could do this my own way.”
Part of “his own way” means splitting logs in Brick Oven’s parking lot: two to three tons of every few days, delivered directly to the restaurant by a friend — in exchange for a large cheese pizza, of course. And despite Brick Oven’s disparate ethnic background — Mario is from Mexico, and Mustapha is from Morocco — no one is complaining about Kadir’s approach to this Italian mainstay.
“I don’t want to make some big deal about it,” Kadir says, “But everyone who comes in here — they say it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had. Ask them yourself.”
And I do. As I sit at a small table next to the door, a fellow comes in for a slice. When I ask him how the pizza is, he replies, “The best.”
I want to jot down his name, so I can tack it to my article … but after a moment of fumbling, I realize I don’t have a pen.
No matter. I’ll just write that he’s my brother.