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When Your Dad Owns A Pizzeria, The Pandemic Means Learning To Make The Perfect Pie

Paul and Francesca Montanaro at Katonah Pizza & Pasta in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Paul and Francesca Montanaro
Paul and Francesca Montanaro at Katonah Pizza & Pasta in the Bronx borough of New York City.

In the middle of March, when the coronavirus forced schools to shutter around the country, Francesca Montanaro, 11, abruptly transferred from fifth grade to "pizza school."

She started calling into her Zoom English class from a small table squeezed in the back of her father's pizzeria, Katonah Pizza & Pasta in the Bronx borough of New York City. Surrounded by sacks of flour, she wrote an essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream in a room filled with the aromas of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

And she has also been helping out at the pizzeria: answering phones, assembling cardboard pizza boxes and learning to use the cash register. She's there at least a few days a week, sometimes for 12-hour stretches.

Both of Francesca's parents are essential workers. Her father, Paul, has been providing food to walk-in customers, as well as large orders to nurses, police officers and emergency medical services workers. Francesca's mother, Jessica, is an intensive care unit nurse at Mount Sinai Morningside hospital, which has been inundated with COVID-19 patients. Under normal circumstances, Francesca's grandparents would provide child care when both her parents are working, but the family doesn't want to risk them getting exposed to the virus.

At the pizzeria, Francesca enjoys joking around with her dad's co-workers and the customers, but she does admit that being there all day can be a drag.

"Sometimes I feel bored, mostly because there's nothing really to do there for an 11-year-old like me," she said. "It's not like it's a jungle gym or anything like that. It's a pizza shop."

Recently, Francesca sat down with her dad to talk about life during the pandemic. She wanted to know if her being at the pizza shop bothered him.

"Well, to be honest with you, it does stress me out, only because I know for a kid, your patience is what it is, and sometimes I see that you're bored," Paul told her. It troubles him to see her cooped up in the shop all day. But, he said, "I want you to also know that you're very calming and soothing to me. Having you there in my time of stress has calmed me down, because you're built that way."

Francesca said she gets frustrated that her dad is often so preoccupied at work, and she sometimes feels lonely.

"The hardest part for me is you're usually busy. And I feel like some days I could just sit in the back without you even noticing me," she told him.

Paul said he understood. Being together at the pizza shop hasn't been exactly quality time for father and daughter. But the pandemic has given them no other option. "It is what it is," he told her.

One of Francesca's jobs at the pizzeria is assembling pizza boxes.
/ Paul and Francesca Montanaro
Paul and Francesca Montanaro
One of Francesca's jobs at the pizzeria is assembling pizza boxes.

"I do want you to know that sometimes I feel very guilty that you're there with me so many hours, because sometimes mommy doesn't pick you up until 7 o'clock at night or 8 o'clock at night," he said.

Even though the situation isn't ideal, Paul said, for his part, he loves seeing Francesca at the pizzeria. "I've seen you learning the register, and you know how to handle money now," he said. And he recalled with pride the day Francesca made her first pizza.

"You made the perfect pie," he said. "It was perfectly round. I couldn't believe the amazing crust you made. Even my pizza guy was like, 'Oh, my God, she is a natural!' "

Francesca had one final question: "Do you think you'd want me to take over the pizza shop and run the business?"

"I wouldn't want you to do what I do," Paul said. It's not an easy business, he said. He encouraged Francesca to model herself after her mother's path into nursing. "Whereas I can feed people, mommy can save lives," he said. "And not to say that I'm not intelligent, but I see how you are and I see what you can be, and I know that that would be a lot more than what I've been in my life and am. And I think you're going to use that brain and do much better things than what I do."

Francesca is hoping to become a nurse or a psychologist. In the meantime, she's spending her summer scooping Italian ice at the pizzeria.

This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, with help from Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. The editors were Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Thanks to Jessica Deahl and Andrea Hsu of NPR.

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Sarah Kate Kramer
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