The only thing more surprising than a Jewish kid from Long Island having worked in an Italian pizzeria are the surprisingly essential lessons I garnered twirling dough and eating Italian ices.
And yes, my favorite flavor is Tutti Frutti. Don't judge.
Back in college, I spent my summers working behind the counter of a small Sicilian eatery, where just about everyone there outside of the owner only spoke Spanish. 100 percent authentic Italian food this was not. Starting on day one, my boss Antonio expected me to know exactly what I was doing at all times. Which was unfortunate. In life, I've learned, it's always better if people don't expect too much from you.
Years later, my first day as a Production Assistant startlingly mirrored this. For one thing, everyone again spoke an exotic dialect; "We need a setup before the martini. Checking the gate!" The language of TV/film was new to me. The martini had nothing to do with drinks, the setup had nothing to do with a date, and the gate did not pertain to fencing.
I was also given a thousand tasks without training, just as I had been given in the pizzeria. I still recall Antonio yelling at me for not mopping the floor the way they do it in the military. I told him I'd never been in the military. He told me this was my military.
On that first day in a production office, I again had no idea what I was doing. No one taught me how to read call sheets. Communicate with people on set. Collate scripts. You have to figure it out. So when I eventually became the one doing the hiring, I too didn't bother helping the new employees. Not even the good-looking ones.
Which brings me to what I learned next from the pizzeria: the handsome and beautiful of this world are treated better. During the dinner rush one time at Antonio's, I spotted a brown eyed-girl who just walked out of Van Morrison's song. We'd flirt and chat while patrons waited impatiently. I'd give her anything she wanted, like extra garlic knots. And sometimes I'd even give her things she didn't want, like my phone number.
While I don't know much about her (spoiler alert: she never called), that pretty face would have done well both below and above the line (sorry, TV/film lingo!). I can't tell you how many times I've seen a good looking person climb the ladder with ease while others are left on the bottom rung scratching their unattractive heads.
With this, it's wild the way the opposite sex has responded to both of my positions. In TV and film, you're doing something unique and compelling, just as behind the counter of a pizzeria you're the guy in charge, calling the shots. And women, I've learned, appreciate a man in power. No matter what he's doing, or what he looks like. Why else do you think Newt Gingrich manages to have so much sex?
(It should be noted, however, that in L.A., if you say you work in entertainment, the person you're talking to will either tell you that they also work in entertainment or want to work in entertainment. Then they'll ask what kind of car you drive. All while staring at their phone while this conversation is going on. Because no one makes eye contact in L.A. Unless it's via FaceTime.)
Another important rule Antonio taught me was to always respond with "15 minutes." Also known as: Tell them what they want to hear.
"15 minutes, Jesse," said Antonio, before smacking me on the ass and going outside for a cigarette. I'd always hoped he'd cut down on both habits. He never did.
I always told customers their order would be ready in 15 minutes. Didn't matter how many orders were ahead of it. Or if the oven broke down. Or if the cook quit and took all the chicken with him. Yes, that happened once, and it was weird.
And let me tell you, everyone tells you what you want to hear in Hollywood. But I don't need to tell you that. Unless you want to hear it?
Probably the most valuable lessen I learned, though, is to expect the crazy.
I once had a woman who looked like a raisin and smelled like an Amtrak restroom come into the pizzeria, lay her head down on the counter, and weep.
By her side was a disillusioned rottweiler she referred to as Central Bark, though I'm pretty sure his dog tag said Sam. She would have me cut a slice in ¾'s just for Central Bark. She'd then pay me with stamps. Not food stamps. Postage stamps. I'd tell her that's not currency. She'd weep again. It'd be a whole thing.
This prepared me for when I had to assist some extremely "emotionally charged" producers. For instance, one time I didn't add enough milk in my producer's tea. Then added too much milk.
Then she bit me.
Physically I have no scars. Emotionally, however... oh, they're there.
But at least I was prepared. All because of what I learned in the pizzeria. And while I never heard back from brown-eyed girl, and I haven't had a Tutti Fruiti in years, I do always make sure to carry ¾ slice of pizza in my pocket.
Just in case I see my old pal Central Bark.