291 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, (203) 792-1500, www.pizzerialauretano.com
Jay Nachowitz books jazz musicians in top-notch venues around the world, but when he tells his artists about an opportunity to play at a pizza parlor in Bethel, they have a quizzical reaction.
"Then they play there, and they love it," said Nachowitz of Preferred Artists in Ridgefield. "This is a listening room and the artists really appreciate that."
Located in the Hub Market strip mall, Pizzeria Lauretano has presented jazz shows since it opened six years ago, starting with local musicians and branching out to include more established talent.
The upscale yet casual venue recently hosted sax-man Houston Person, who received a standing ovation, played an encore, stuck around to pose for photos and took home some take-out. Apart from a few rumblings from audience members, the only prolonged talking that transpired during the show came when the waitresses announced the specials.
"You name it, I've played it," said Person about the venue. "Anyplace we can hook it up, I'm ready."
Person has performed and recorded with a number of big names, including Lena Horne, Ron Carter, Lou Rawls and Etta Jones. He and a local backup band consisting of Roger Post on drums, Joe McWilliams on electric piano and Bill Crow on bass, effortlessly turned up the intensity as the songs chugged along.
Propelled by Crow's driving, relentless bass, Person's sultry solos hopped, skipped and jumped over the melodies to several standards. Slow songs drifted along in a dreamy haze, while the saxophonist reeled off a furious flurry of notes in "Too Late Now."
Post handled subtle rhythmic shifts with ease and McWilliams tripped the keys fantastic, showing some flash in the song "Sunny."
Sunday shows start and end early, generally running from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. In addition to a modest cover, there's sometimes a food and drink minimum of $10 or less. Monthly Wednesday night performances are free.
During Person's show, several potential patrons came to the door, opened it halfway, looked inside and turned right around. Post had set his drum kit up so close to the door that someone not paying attention could have easily tripped over the floor tom and ride cymbal stand.
Owner Michael Lauretano, who presided over a full house of about 50, found some time to soak up the music during Person's show. A jazz fan, he put on a CD of the music when he first opened and a customer suggested that it would be a good idea to have shows, since several jazz musicians lived nearby.
"This all fell into place, it wasn't something that I planned," he said. "There's a tremendous pool of talent to call on and the big problem is getting everyone who wants to play and is worthy of playing in here."
A graphic artist in a previous career, he decorated the walls with travel posters of the Italian coastline along with work by local artists. He recently held an opening – with free pizza – for painter Ginger Hanrahan, whose work will hang through August 30.
In the kitchen, Lauretano pays exquisite attention to detail. The menu is limited to a handful of pasta dishes and salads, a dozen or so wine selections and six bottled beers. He buys produce from Cherry Grove Farm, a local organic grower.
Lauretano makes his pizza in true Neapolitan style, using select ingredients (including flour imported from Naples), ensuring that the dough rises at room temperature and keeping the wood-burning oven at over 800 degrees.
The most expensive personal pie on the menu, the Margherita D.O.C. ($17.50), which stands for Documentazione Originale Controllata, consists of extra virgin olive oil, imported buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil.
"We probably can't sustain any more jazz shows, since we're not in an area with a large population," Lauretano said. "But it lets us distinguish ourselves and shows off what we're about – a casual bistro. It kind of fit our brand."
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