NEW YORK — Somewhere between my first and second slice of New York-style cheese pizza — seriously good New York-style cheese pizza that I later learned was the product of a 50-year-old Sicilian recipe via the Bronx — Steve Crivillaro and I had an amicable disagreement about the NFL playoffs.
He wanted the Broncos to win.
This Steelers fan, wearing a jacket that showed my loyalty and sparked the football debate, wanted anybody but the Broncos.
We jawed back and forth, laughing and having a good time because that’s what Steve and the guys at Clinton Square Pizza do. They don’t just sell killer pie; they also serve up entertaining conversation.
As I found out, everyone who enters the small restaurant with four tables in New York’s Lower East Side is like an old friend. Men like Arturo, who proudly says he only eats pizza at two places — this spot and one in Staten Island. Women like the two who giggled as they flirted with Steve. Young families. Kids on the way home from school. Even Utahns. Hugs, handshakes, kisses on the cheek, laughs and friendly chats are just as big of staples there as warm garlic knots, cheesy thin slices and thick, square-shaped Sicilian pie (the secrets of which, this friendly owner will tell you, are his dad’s recipe and allowing the dough to rise on the oven for five hours before baking).
“Some people say we’re like a pizzeria barber shop,” Steve later told me. “They come here to talk.”
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Our football banter took a sharp detour when the affable 28-year-old found out I’m a sports writer from Salt Lake City who covers the Utah Jazz.
An online editor could’ve written a “You won’t believe what happened next!” click-bait headline at that point of the conversation. What Steve proceeded to say in his strong New York accent took me by surprise.
The unexpected Karl Malone sermon lasted for minutes. It was so riveting, so heartfelt and so unlike a New Yorker to praise a basketball player not named Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier or Carmelo Anthony that I was compelled to capture his exuberant delivery on video.
Steve, loving a chance to spread the good word of Karl Malone, was more than willing to share another passion-filled testimonial for the camera. Some evangelists thump the Bible. Some praise from a podium. Steve preached with fervor while standing between his pizza oven and food display during a Friday lunch rush.
“If I had to pick any power forward — and I’m a New Yorker — I’m going with Karl Malone. Karl Malone is my favorite power forward of all-time. Also, in my opinion, he’s by far the best,” Steve exclaimed.
“He’s the most physical. The guy played with such aggression. He never let you get away with anything. If you pissed Karl Malone off, he was going to get you in the long run.”
The pizza preacher continued.
“He has the second-most points of all-time. If there were still Karl Malones in the league, the league would be different. I freaking love Karl Malone. The best. Number one. Always. Over Tim Duncan. Over Dirk (Nowitzki). Over Kevin Garnett. I’m taking Karl Malone. 100 percent.”
Can he get a “Hallelujah!?!”
The equivalent of that happened when I posted a 30-second clip on my Twitter account (@DJJazzyJody).
As I’d anticipated, Steve the Pizza Guy/Malone missionary, was a hit with an audience comprised mostly of Utah Jazz fans. The video has been retweeted 59 times with 194 likes and 11,592 impressions.
“Did you get his number?” a female Jazz fan nicknamed Sinnie responded. “I want to marry this man!!!”
“Ditto,” Chris Alvey, a male Jazz fan, replied.
“Pretty much the best thing ever,” a fan with the Twitter handle @UGottaLovItBaby wrote.
“I think this guy is a better Jazz fan than me,” Justin Sweeney tweeted, “and I spent my childhood constructing a Karl Malone shrine.”
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If the story ended here, it would be a fun one.
A lifelong Karl Malone fan — a New Yorker who owned Dream Team cards and a book as a kid, wore the two-time MVP’s jersey and watched The Mailman with his Malone-loving dad in the Bronx from the age of 8, no less — became an Internet hit around the Jazzland community.
Steve’s video was even retweeted by the official @utahjazz Twitter account with some apt emojis — 💯🍕💪!!!! — and the hashtag #NewFavoritePizzeriaInNYC.
What are the odds that KSL.com Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen and I just so happened to stop by this pizzeria for an inexpensive lunch as we walked toward the Subway after the Jazz practiced at nearby Basketball City?
The fun story gets even better — 32 times better, you might say.
One of the Jazz fans who thoroughly enjoyed Steve’s speech about The Mailman’s physically dominant and prolific career happened to be the Hall of Fame player’s biggest fan: Kay Malone.
Kay, the former Jazz player’s wife of 25 years, tweeted that she and her husband had searched unsuccessfully for the best pizza place in the Big Apple and added, “We will definitely go see him.”
Mrs. Malone then got in touch with Mr. Malone to tell him about his fan from the borough famous for being the home of the Yankees.
Not long after that, Steve looked at the ringing telephone at Clinton Square Pizza as the words “Private Number” popped up on the screen. Kay had looked up the shop’s number and left a message with Charlie that The Mailman might give Steve a ring. He was a bit skeptical.
“There’s no way. I’m thinking she’s busting my chops,” Steve said. “The next thing I know — right, Charlie? — freaking Karl Malone calls.”
Charlie, Steve’s co-worker, was as pleasantly dumbfounded as anyone.
“The power of social media,” Charlie said. “It’s incredible.”
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Steve looked at his phone in disbelief.
“No way,” he said. “Is this Karl Malone!?”
Malone answered back, “Yeah. You all right?”
“I’m in shock,” Steve told the 14-time NBA All-Star. “I wonder if anyone’s going to believe me that I spoke to Karl Malone on the phone today.”
Believe it or not, it’s a phone call this pizzeria will never forget.
“For a Top 10 — dead or alive — basketball player to call my phone, I cannot freaking believe it,” Steve said. “One of my childhood heroes. It was Karl Malone in basketball. I liked Barry Sanders in football and I liked Don Mattingly in baseball. Those are my guys.”
For about 18 minutes, Malone and Steve covered a wide variety of topics while the NBA legend took a break on a hunting trip and the pizza savant took a break from his afternoon duties.
They talked about Malone’s kids, including son Karl Jr., who plays football at LSU, and his daughter, Karlee, who’s a model for a big agency in New York.
They discussed how Steve got into the pizza business (a dream he had thanks to his dad, Fred Crivillaro) and his life (getting better by the phone call).
Malone told him his “gift to the fans” was staying true to his word and remaining retired when he retired.
“I want you guys to remember me when I’m on top,” Malone said.
Steve certainly will.
“One thing that really impressed me, you know if someone’s a super-duper star they’re going to talk about themselves a lot? He did more talking to me about other things and about myself, asking me questions about me, than he did talking about himself,” Steve said.
“I thought that was so cool. He was so humble for that. You’re Karl Malone. You don’t got to ask me, the New York pizza guy, what he likes, but he did and that made it that much cooler. He’s a great dude. I liked his accent.”
The Mailman even delivered an inspirational message, telling Steve about how his father died when he was a kid.
“He said people probably didn’t expect him to do much because he went through that when he was younger,” Steve recalled. “He said he ended up always being humble, staying hungry, trying his best. He said that his point is: ‘Anything is possible in life.’”
In return, Steve thanked Malone for how he played the game. He told him, “You’re a class act and you’re the best player, in my eyes, ever. … You’re the man. You’re The Mailman. YOU’RE THE FREAKING MAILMAN!”
Malone, whose illustrious NBA career spanned from 1985-2004, also made Steve a promise.
“He says the next time he’s in the city, he’s just going to walk in here.”
Be still, Steve’s beating heart.
“He said he likes his pizza like this: thin, crispy, light sauce and the meat lover — every kind of meat except pepperoni,” Steve said. “Karl does not like pepperoni, so Square Pizza does not sell pepperoni the day Karl Malone comes here.”
Steve laughed, as he often does, while making that announcement.
“We make that good here, the meat lover,” continued Steve, rattling off all of the meat he’s going to load onto Malone’s pizza — sausage, bacon, chicken, meatballs — on the day pepperoni gets banned from his shop. “He’s going to like that if he comes here.”
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Steve said he had told everybody he knows — his dad, his mom, his aunt, his friends, customers — about the call from Malone about five seconds after they hung up.
“Made my year,” Steve proclaimed.
That night and the following day, New York City was hammered by the second-largest snowstorm in history. As a result, Steve, the guy who cheered for the Jazz in the NBA Finals in the late 1990s while all other Bronx friends jumped on Michael Jordan’s bandwagon, was stuck in his home. He was with his dad, a New Yorker whose favorite NBA players are, in order, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing.
They made good use of their time in the blizzard, reliving highlights from the career of John Stockton’s sidekick. (Steve is also a huge fan of Stockton, by the way.)
A big smile emerged on Steve’s face as he daydreamed about what it’d be like if Malone played for the Jazz in 2016. Steve laughed while saying his friends just don’t understand how good The Mailman was, especially considering how he played when “the NBA was at its peak,” as the pizzeria owner put it.
“There were a ton of tough guys in the league. If you put Karl Malone in the NBA right now, forget it. Forget it. These softy guys, he’d kill them. Right? Don’t you think?” a fired-up Steve said, not pausing to get a response. “They wouldn’t go to the hole like they’d be going. Forget about it. Those guys knew how to play. Me and my dad liked the tough guys.”
Now more than ever, they have a fondness for the tough guy who’s particular about his pizza toppings and who played for a team 2,000 miles away.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Steve said. “A Bronx boy’s favorite player is out there in Salt Lake City.”
It’s even crazier, of course, how a Bronx boy’s favorite player called him up a couple of hours after a random sports conversation.
“I can’t believe The Mailman called me up,” Steve said. “I have been talking about this nonstop. … I was a local celebrity here for a few days.
Just imagine how his fame will grow the day a 6-foot-9, 272-pound pepperoni-hater walks through the door of Clinton Square Pizza.
“You’re going to have to get me on a respirator,” Steve said. “If Karl Malone walks through that door, I’m going to faint.”