Gordo’s Pizzeria is the hot new place in East London for you to get your pizza pies. Founded and run by Jesse Elias, Gordo’s was born into a pandemic, first opening its doors over summer. Far from the ideal circumstances under which to launch a hospitality business, Gordo’s nonetheless grew an impressive customer base and built a real community around itself, both on and offline (mostly on for now, as one might imagine).
All the way from Los Angeles and then New York, Jesse worked for several years as an Assistant Manager for the authentic pizza kings of London, Yard Sale Pizza. Opening a food and wine business during a pandemic may seem daunting, but Gordo’s Pizzeria proves a shining example of what some serious hard work and passion can achieve. Jesse took some time to chat with Hawkker about his story, making a home for himself in London, and the magic of pizza.
So Jesse, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got into making pizzas?
Well, I’ve worked in hospitality most of my life. Started during university, took a quick break when I finished my degree, but didn’t like it and went back to hospitality. And after that, moved to London seven years ago or so.
Where were you before that?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, then I worked my way East and ended up in New York for a while, before I came out here.
What drew you to London?
Oh mate nothing, soon as I got here I just desperately wanted to get back to New York! But I couldn’t really afford to move back there, as it’s almost impossible to pay rent and save enough money for a flight from London to New York. So to be honest, I was a bit stuck here, but now it’s home. My daughter was born here, and I have another baby on the way, so it’s very much like a real London family!
Did you have any favourite joints in New York?
I was working in natural wines in New York, at a place called Henry's BK, which was a really chill job. Working in wine in New York is really fun because the way it’s set up, if you sell food at a market, you can’t also sell wine – so there’s a sh*tload of wine shops everywhere. It’s ridiculous. Today you can find a natural wine shop on almost every block.
I did not know that natural wine was so big in New York!
It’s just because of the way the law’s written. There’s also an anti-monopoly system that means you can't own more than one shop. You end up working in these shady shops for some dude, and it’s technically owned by his seven-year-old son or something [laughs]. And it’s all cash in hand, it’s so funny.
What a set up.
Yeah right? Then I moved out here and worked at Borough Wines for a bit, and after that I left to run a pub in East London, and that was bare heavy. So then I took a break for two years and after that, I worked at Yard Sale Pizza for about three years.
Yard Sale is great, how did you come across them?
You know what? It was just a place I really wanted to work at, so coming from a General Manager position, I was just like, “I deadass want to work for them” and I applied for the Assistant Manager position. I got the job and was trained up by my now fiancée, which is how we met [laughs].
Two birds, one stone!
Totally! But when I started there I was still a bit wet behind the ears. I’d only been working as an Assistant Manager there for like, a month and a half, before they told me I'd be working at the Clapton branch, which was their busiest shop. It was so busy and so tiring, that it got to the point where I thought they were going to fire me, or at least I thought, “I really deserve this firing, man”.
So was working at Yard Sale what led you to start up your own pizzeria with Gordo’s?
Yeah definitely, and I’ve always just loved pizza. Who doesn't though, right? But I started getting this idea that I really wanted my own thing, you know? I like the freedom of having my own schedule, doing my own thing, not really having to answer to anybody. So yeah, I started my own pizzeria. The first spot I was gunning for fell through right before the first lockdown happened, but it actually saved us because it was much closer to the City.
That would have been very difficult to recover from.
Yeah, it would have completely f*cked me over. Then during lockdown, this spot became available in Dalston, which is where we’re currently at. I just jumped on it, and we got it only three weeks before lockdown lifted, so we did a very quick refurbishment: clean, put the pizza oven in, and we just got going.
How has it been for you as a food business owner, since the first lockdown?
It’s been quite nice, man! Our overhead is down low, everybody’s getting paid, the community is really nice. And we did our first collaborative project just three weeks after we opened, which is mental.
Who was that with?
With Good Morning Neighbour.
The pickle brand! You use their gherkins on your pizzas, don’t you?
Yeah, that’s them. We literally just met through Instagram. I think that the pandemic has encouraged that sort of communication, because you can’t just go to places to meet people at the moment. It’s become a lot more acceptable to slide into people’s DMs.
How important do you think social media has been to building your business?
I think tonnes, man! My screen-time is like five hours a day at the moment.
You get that lovely notification from Apple every Monday?
Yeah, like “Oh, wow”. It does take up a good chunk of time, but it’s a really good tool. It allows us to interact with customers, and how I operate is if you DM us, I will DM you back. I really care about getting back to people, and I also think it’s nice to be a brand that can really acknowledge its customers like, “Hey, I see you there," you know? It replicates that social interaction that you can’t have in shops right now.
And now in lockdown 2.0, how is Gordo’s Pizzeria operating?
Well, we’ve always offered take-away options, so we’re doing a lot of that. We’ve been operating through Deliveroo, but since last week we’ve been doing our own local deliveries by bike. It’s something we created to keep my Front of House working with enough hours. One of my top priorities was, “How do I keep my staff employed?”. I have a responsibility to take care of them. We managed to borrow bikes from mates, and so we launched our own delivery service last Tuesday. And because we don’t have to think about people dining in, we’re able to focus solely on the take-away and delivery process. So we’ll build up a system for that, and hopefully after lockdown eases, we can continue our own delivery service.
How would you describe the essence of Gordo’s?
We’re literally just about making the best pizza we possibly can, having good wine, and listening to trap music. Which is all I ever wanted to do [laughs].
I’m here for that. What are some of your favourite things on your menu?
Our Puttanesca pizza is by far my favourite thing. It’s basically like puttanesca pasta but on a pizza – anchovies, capers, onions, chili flakes. And topped with parmesan, it’s just so good. There’s also the Italiano Maximo, which is new to the menu. It’s got guanciale, which is cured pig cheek – a really fatty, posh bacon. You could use it instead of pancetta for carbonara, to give you an idea! It’s quite salty, and the pizza is quite hangover-centric: white base, guanciale, pecorino, black pepper.
Sounds amazing. And where do you see Gordo’s going in the future?
I would like to keep this shop, ideally forever. And as for the brand, we’d like to build off of this and maybe introduce a “slice-shop” one day – I have a real soft spot for the New York slice. I was the heaviest I ever got when I was living in New York, like 220 pounds or something. It was just too easy and addictive to grab a slice whenever, as a meal, as a snack. I’d just be walking somewhere and get one along the way for the hell of it.
When it’s just a dollar, why not? Just going back to natural wines, how would you introduce them to someone who's new to natural wine?
I think the value of natural wine comes from the fact that it’s usually more ethically grown and produced, so that gives it more backbone. I say 'usually' because there has been some recent controversy about a famous natural wine producer. But for the most part, it’s more ethically made. I wouldn’t necessarily say it's always going to taste better, but the likelihood of a natural wine tasting good is a lot higher than a non-natural wine. It’s often priced quite reasonably too, whether by the glass or by the bottle, if you’re not going too crazy. Altogether man, it’s just really good. And with buying natural wines, you'll usually be helping a smaller business. You can choose to spend money into your community rather than sending money out of it.
Couldn’t agree more. And as a last question, what do you think makes the best pizza?
J: Oh man, I got asked this the other day! To be honest, the pizza’s dough is the most important part to it – if you get that wrong, you might as well toss it in the bin. I like mine very Neapolitan style, but with a really fluffy crust. Nice bit of leopardine on it, and a nice soggy middle. I love it man! I also think you’ve got to ration the cheese a bit too, whereas some people like to really pile it on, which to me makes it way too stringy. You’ve got to find the balance with the flavours you’re working with. You don’t want anything to overpower the pizza.
Absolutely. I personally love a charcoaled edge! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I’d just like to say that it really is so important to shop locally. It’s not like we can depend on people coming in from all parts of London anymore. So the more locally you can shop, the better. So, my advice for people would be to shop local when and where they can. Oh and also, we have some merch coming out in November, so keep your eyes out for that!
We’ll be waiting! Thank you so much for your time today.
No problem, my guy!
More information on where to find Gordo's Pizzeria here.