NEW YORK - Gabriele Lamonaca perfected his signature mixed-mushroom pie — made with 96-hour dough, imported Italian floor, homemade pesto sauce, and burrata cheese — while stuck inside a Midtown studio during last spring's lockdown.
"It was challenging for me trying to keep up with my girlfriend trying to keep everything clean," Lamonaca said.
Now in a more spacious Harlem apartment with a kitchen more worthy of his creations, Lamonaca still dreams of opening his own pizzeria — a plan delayed by the same pandemic that's devastated so many restaurants all across this city.
"I will make a pizzeria," he said.
But while waiting for that grand opening, Lamonaca honed the craft he learned at pizza school in his native Rome and started posting pictures of his creations on Instagram.
"Friends and friends of friends saw it online," he said. "They wanted me to make it for them in exchange for money."
Uncomfortable taking money from friends, Lamonaca looked to his grandmother in a small village in Italy, who in the months following World War II would trade her fresh bread for a neighbor's chicken eggs.
"So that's something that I kind of brought back here to modern-day New York," he said.
"I've received wine," he said. "I've received pizza. I've received bread. I've received drawings even."
The burra-pizza ("I call it burra-pizza," he said, "because it's burrata and pizza") we watched him make in his Harlem kitchen Lamonaca traded for some homemade pasta from a chef of an Italian restaurant in Gowanus.
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"Every barter is a total surprise," he said.
Lamonaca does not take requests. Only rarely has he bartered away the same kind of pie twice, tinkering through this pandemic with the menu of offerings at his still aspirational future pizzeria.
"I think right now I know exactly what people want from pizza," he said.
And Lamonaca plans to continue trading away three to four experimental Roman-style pizza pies a week for whatever his prospective pizza-eaters can offer him, until he finds a spot in which to open up his first restaurant and offer his creations in exchange for real money to any who want them, hopefully by early this summer.
"I like the fact that this meal-barter thing was born really out of kindness," he said, "out of the necessity for me to do something about the sad situation I saw around me in Midtown."