It’s the start of yet another day at Astoria Family Pizza. Family is the operative word.
Jose Guaman is making the pizzas, gently kneading the dough for what he calls “three baby pies” to complement a large one that will be sold slice by slice, each with a different topping.
As he slides the silver pans into the oven, his wife, Maria, his 22-year-old son Jose and his daughter-in-law Carolina – the “family” referenced in the establishment’s name — are in the kitchen preparing and plating other dishes from what can only be described as an eclectic menu whose base is three dozen varieties of pizzas.
Along with the baked manicotti and souvlaki platters, they are dishing up some of their Ecuadorian favorites, including Bandeja Montanera (rice, beans, fried pork skin, egg, corn cake and sweet plantain) and Chaufan (fried rice mixed with calamari, chicken, egg, shrimp and beef topped with scrambled egg and avocado).
Jose, who is 65, has been making pizzas in Astoria for over two decades, ever since he left his family and the small Ecuadorian town of Biblián.
He had seven children, you see, so he came to New York City with his son Jorge in the hopes of making enough money to support his substantial family.
He had no idea that it would be 13 years before he saw them again.
His hard work paid off.
He sent money home regularly, and in 2003, he bought the business on Ditmars Boulevard by Astoria Park.
Jose always figured that he’d return to Ecuador to reunite with his family, but that’s not what happened.
In 2013, Maria and five of his six other children, sponsored by an uncle who lived here, joined him in New York City.
It was, the younger Jose says, severe culture shock.
“I knew zero words in English,” he says. “I learned the language by helping my dad at the counter and making deliveries, and my dad taught me how to cook and make pizza. Although my father called home every week, this was the first time I’d ever met him. It was a strange feeling.”
Having his family with him, he adds, eased his adjustment.
Jose, who was 14 when they immigrated, was accustomed to hard work; circumstances required him and his siblings to help their mother out on the family farm, where they raised vegetables and animals.
“She used to work 10 and 12 hours a day,” he says. “I started helping out when I was little. By the time I was in high school, I was working there after school and on weekends.”
There was no question that they would all pitch in to help the elder Jose at Astoria Family Pizza while they began taking charge of their own lives.
Jose met Carolina, who is from El Salvador, when they were students at Newcomers High School in Long Island City. They married a year and a half ago.
He graduated from Borough of Manhattan Community College and enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
To pay for his tuition, he took bartending jobs.
And a couple of days a week, he helped out at Astoria Family Pizza.
Then, in 2019, Jorge suddenly got sick.
The mysterious illness that killed him turned out to be covid.
He was 36.
Jose, who at 22 is strong and tall and possesses the gravitas of a much older man, didn’t hesitate to step into his place.
“Losing my brother was hard — on the family and on the business,” he says, adding that he had to learn how to say there were now only six, instead of seven, children in the family. “But we were able to stay open.”
He adds that he doesn’t mind the non-stop shifts.
“I’ve always worked really hard,” he says. “When I was bartending, I realized that I didn’t want to work to make somebody else’s dream come true. It’s been hard, but it’s for me – and my family.”
Everyone in the Guaman family works seven days a week at the restaurant; there’s not enough money, at least not now, to hire additional staff.
“We have one person who works for us who is not family, but we consider him family,” Jose says. “He’s been with my father a long time.”
Since he came on board full time, Jose has instituted a number of changes at the restaurant, the most noticeable of which is the interior renovation.
“We added a bar,” he says. “And we’ve applied for a liquor license.”
And this is only the beginning.
He’s thinking of buying a food cart so they can sell slices in the park and cater private pizza parties.
And he talks of opening additional restaurants.
When their shifts end, Jose and Maria return to their rented house in Kew Gardens, which they share with Jose and Carolina and two other sons.
“We’re saving up to buy a house for the whole family,” Jose the younger says, with hope in his voice.
Jose, who is set to graduate from John Jay in the next year and a half, has been working so many hours at Astoria Family Pizza that he hasn’t fully figured out his future.
But whatever he ends up doing, wherever he goes, he knows he will not be alone.
His family will be with him, if not in person at least in spirit.
And that, he says, is all that matters.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling