Restaurateur Brings Gourmet Pizza From Manhattan to Queens

By Paul DeBenedetto on December 21, 2012 9:05am 

EAST ELMHURST — Some immigrants are lured to the United States by the promise of achieving the American Dream.

For Raúl Bonetto, all it took was a copy of the movie "Wall Street."

As a young man living in Argentina, Bonetto had no interest in living a Gordon Gekko lifestyle. He was more interested in the film's setting: New York City's bright lights drew him in, and he credits the film as the reason he moved to the U.S.

"When I saw the city on the big screen, I said, 'What are you doing here?'" Bonetto, who was 22 years old at the time, recalled. "'I should be there!'"

By 2008, Bonetto lived in an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and was a successful restaurateur who had owned seven restaurants in the city since moving to the U.S. in the late 1980s.

But that year, amid a growing financial crisis that put many restaurants out of business, Bonetto suffered a setback: his apartment was destroyed by an infamous crane collapse, two days before his birthday.

He decided to take a break, selling his remaining restaurants and traveling the world.

Now back in the U.S. and living in Astoria, Bonetto has ditched the bright lights of Manhattan, reentering the world of restaurant ownership in a residential Queens neighborhood.

Pagliaccio, a new gourmet pizzeria at 84-15 Northern Boulevard on the Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst border, is a far cry from his previous restaurants on the Upper West Side.

"The space is bigger, and the rent is cheaper," Bonetto said. "In Manhattan, in a good location, you need to spend a lot of money."

But Bonetto is no stranger to the area. As the owner of a string of Latin American restaurants in the 1990s and early 2000s, he often bought his ingredients from local shops like Despaña Foods, a restaurant and grocery specializing in Latin foods at 86-17 Northern Boulevard.

After researching the neighborhood, Bonetto found that there weren't any other businesses like his selling gourmet pizza. He decided to cater to the neighborhood's large Hispanic immigrant population, pulling in Ecuadorian and Colombian influences to top his pies.

The restaurant, which opened in October, offers average New York-style pizza by the slice, and customers are free to request their own toppings. But Bonetto only puts his gourmet pies on the menu.

"You can make your own pie if you want," Bonetto said. "But I try to get people to think about the flavor, and not to think about which combination they want to make for this pie, or whatever."

One of those pies is called the Despaña, which features chorizo and three cheeses — manchego, cabrales and goat cheese — sourced directly from the store. Another is the Colombiana, a take on a Hawaiian pie, but without the tomato sauce — just pineapple and ham — which is a style similar to pizzas found in Colombia.

But the restaurant's signature pie is the Circo, Bonetto said. It's a thin-crust pie with sliced pepperoni, sausage, pancetta, green peppers and onions, served on a special tray created by Bonetto that holds three sauces: a red pepper sauce, a parsley and basil sauce and a spicy green tomatillo and jalapeno sauce.

Bonetto is perhaps best known for his empanadas. The former owner of restaurants Pampa and Gauchas, he has been featured making empanadas on Good Morning America and the Food Network. Spinach, beef, chicken and ham and cheese empanadas are all on proud display at Pagliaccio.

The name Pagliaccio means "clown" in Italian, and is inspired by the opera Pagliacci. The title fits the theme of his previous two pizzerias, Traviata and Rigoletto, both named after operas and located near Lincoln Center.

In the future, he plans to design a back patio similar to an Italian plaza, complete with cafe tables and a fountain. But for now, Bonetto, who went from a bustling metropolis to a residential neighborhood, has a modest goal: to run a small, successful business.

"Not a big restaurant," Bonetto said. "Just a pizzeria."

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