Friday, August 12, 2016

When in Rome – Or San Diego – NAPIZZA Rocks

Did you know that beautiful, laid-back San Diego is leading the charge (think Lightning Bolts) to popularize Roman-style pizza in the U.S.? Did you know that the home of Tony Gwynn’s Padres, Balboa’s Park and Coronado’s Island was discovered by the Germans in 1904, and is named for a whale’s private parts? No, that’s not right—the bit about the whale and the Germans, I mean. I was trying to impress you, faithful Pizza Perspective readers. But it’s true, I just got back from the city with the greatest weather in the universe (no exaggeration there). I swear, friends, countrymen, the Roman-style pizza at NAPIZZA in San Diego’s Little Italy (and another location) is the manna that passionate pizza lovers, and surfers, munch on when they open their eyes in Heaven.

My PMQ amigo Daniel Perea and I visited NAPIZZA last month to shoot a video. Our fortunate California mission was to highlight the gnarly by-the-slice pizzeria and top-shelf flour, Polselli, that infuses the dough foundation of NAPIZZA’s “Best-In-San Diego”-rated hunks of airy, crispy Pizza al Taglio. That’s the old-school name for pillowy pizza squares loaded with ultrafresh meats, cheeses, sauces and veggies aligned on flush rectangular pans. Like living, never-wilting edible museum pieces, the vibrant red, white and golden crust canvasses are enticingly showcased in NAPIZZA’s rapidly replenished glass serving shelves. Until a chosen slice is scooped up eagerly by smiling servers and handed over to hungry patrons. 

And speaking of hunks. The cozy gathering spot, featuring first-come seating inside and outside, right next to the Little Italy banner on India Street, is the life’s work of a couple of breathtakingly beautiful humans. Roman-bred Christopher Antinucci and Giulia Colmignoli are a real couple. They have real kids, in addition to their devoted NAPIZZA staffers. The day and night shifts function smartly—as tightly as any genetic clan, hustling and laughing, igniting pizza enlightenment in the New World. They’re building a thriving business slice by slice with an ambiance that feels almost like a chatty community market. The entire Little Italy neighborhood is an eclectic mix of traditional Italian merchants and eateries mingled with up-scale, trendy shops. Throw in the ship-lined waterfront, museums, parks, beaches and pro and college sports, and who could possibly disagree with the great Ron Burgundy? It IS a proven fact, Ron, and scholars agree: S.D. is the “greatest city in the history of mankind.”

Christopher and Giula agree with the fictional Anchorman that their adopted hometown is, really, a great place to run a business and raise a family. The copacetic coastal vibe and ocean-cooled natural landscapes perfectly match their health and fitness-focused priorities. They’re as passionate about the bountiful southern West Coast environment as they are about their fast-selling pizza and gourmet salads featuring wild-caught salmon and tuna. Giulia consulted with a Whole Foods nutritionist to develop the salad menu with an eye and a taste bud tuned to locally sourced produce and the fight against heart disease and diabetes. “San Diego is a city of fit-minded people who love to play outside in the beautiful natural resources and weather we enjoy here,” says Giulia, who is proud of NAPIZZA’s “Go Green” business model.  “We recycle as much as possible, use environmentally friendly building materials and even use a motor-assisted bicycle for deliveries.”

Conserving natural resources is top-of-mind for the NAPIZZA team, but their Roman-inspired pizza legacy cuts no corners . “As a native of Rome, my first impression of American pizza was that it tended to be heavy and overly greasy,” Christopher admits candidly. “Giulia and I grew up in Rome going to pizzerias where Pizza al Taglio was something light we could eat as a high-quality snack without feeling bloated. When we became partners, we looked around at pizza opportunities and we took a gamble on the pizza we already knew and loved. Our goal was to bring an ancient tradition from Rome to San Diego.” 

After studying the demanding pizza-cooking style themselves formally, from farm to kitchen, in Italy and the States, Christopher and Giulia hired a seasoned head pizzaiolo, Alessio Poli. For this skilled pizza chef, transforming flour, water and yeast into fluffy, chewy bliss, even in a steamy, cramped, deck-oven radiating kitchen, is an irresistible drug. Today, four years after the launch of the NAPIZZA flagship, San Diego has acquired an insatiable appetite for the wheat and cheese-based fuel that once powered the Roman legions. Modern Roman adventurers Christopher and Giulia have marched to success on the same source, opening another NAPIZZA in a San Diego shopping center. “We’re more confident than ever that Roman-Style presents the biggest growth potential of any pizza segment on the market,” Christopher says. “Along the way, I’ve learned that you sometimes have to accommodate the American pizza palate.” A palate, by the way, which Christopher discovered, doesn’t dig that European delight, potatoes on pizza. So, along with classic toppings and imported Italian ingredients, NAPIZZA has added American favorites like bacon and barbecue chicken among its 12 slice varieties.

During our short San Diego Roman working holiday, Daniel and I internalized (we chowed down on) the pizza heritage of two great cultures in one dynamic pizzeria. At NAPIZZA we experienced, simultaneously, The Eternal City and the city of Comic-Con, which, coincidentally, was spewing Superhero-garbed geeks into the streets as we drove to our hotel in the rental go-cart they classify as an economy car. We did make it to Coronado Beach, where it was 80 degrees, sunny and breezy. I documented, birds, waves, kids in waves, the most elaborate sandcastle ever constructed, a beach wedding with formally attired bride and groom, and a bikini model photo shoot. If you think I’m making that last part up, well…I love you Ron Bergundy.  Let’s agree to disagree.

Forget that! Check this out!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Pizza Getti Leaves the "H" and Oakland Behind

Pizza people have a wonderful devotion to family tradition. I was settling in at the PMQ Mothership here in Oxford, Mississippi, on the Tuesday after the July 4 holiday weekend when a Dallas pizza clan dropped by. Kyle Rotenberry is distantly related to Star Trek visionary Gene Roddenberry (Gene changed the spelling). Today Kyle captains a historic pizzeria, Pizza Getti, that has blazed a fast-Italian course in food-trendy Dallas since 1968.

Kyle and his lovely wife, Karla, docked at PMQ with their three young children during their self-described “foodie” trip from Texas to the Rotenberry ancestral homeland of Oakland. Not that Oakland! Not the hard-scrapping West Coast city across the bay from San Francisco, but Oakland, Mississippi, a laid-back, one-stopsign, off-the-highway berg 20 miles from Oxford with a minuscule population of 500 friendly souls. Folks in Oakland tend to favor collard greens and fried chicken over pizza, but that didn’t stop the Rotenberry brothers (Kyle’s uncles) from securing the tribe’s pizza business legacy.

But only after Bob, Dave and Dale Rotenbery left Mississippi in the early 1960s courtesy of Uncle Sam to experience the bigger world. Kyle’s dad Bob was a Marine stationed in Hawaii, when he met, and married, Kyle’s mom Vivian.  The couple ended up, ironically, in San Francisco, Bay Area sister city of the California Oakland where the Raiders play. Native San Franciscan Vivian found a successful, if unlikely, cultural and romantic mix with her country-bred husband. Bob was mixing paint himself for application on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge when a call came from his brothers in Dallas to come together as pizza selling paisons. The concept was spaghetti and pizza for dining in and carry-out. The name of the restaurant in East Dallas continues to be Pizza Getti.

“Yes, ‘getti’ is a typo, but when dad any my uncles had the sign made, it came back spelled that way,” explains Kyle. “When the signmaker said it would cost $600 to make a new one, my uncle said, ‘Looks good to me!’”

Errantly titled or not, Pizza Getti has been making spot-on pizza, spaghetti, subs and, sometimes, lasagna, since 1968 at three different locations in the same East Dallas neighborhood. “The community started out as an upper middle class neighborhood where families hung out after high school football games,” says Kyle, who grew up in Dallas and graduated from Baylor in 1993 while contemplating a career in technology. “It went through a down-in-the-dumps era and is now on the upswing.” In 2001, after accepting a buy-out package from his corporate dream job, Kyle got an offer from the family he couldn’t refuse. “My brother said, ‘Why don’t we buy out Dad and be Pizza Getti partners?'’’
With his dad retired, Kyle bought out his brother in 2011 and stood, temporarily, as the only Rotenberry left carrying forward the proud, if misspelled, Pizza Getti name. In 2014, Uncle Billy Rotenberry proved you CAN go home again when he returned to his roots in Yalobusha County, Mississippi. Billy asked for permission to go for the Getti, opening his own version of the family franchise in Water Valley, a short drive from Oakland. The Southern outpost of the Mississippi-ready Pizza Getti micro-chain was popular, but shortlived, with Billy’s passing ultimately closing PG’s Mississippi doors in 2015.

Growing up, Kyle’s family made frequent trips back to the Magnolia State. With the demise of the Water Valley Pizza Getti, Kyle’s surviving Oakland South relatives urged him to gather the family and experience Mississippi hospitality firsthand during their 2016 summer vacation.  Kyle planned the Rotenberry pilgrimage around America’s birthday with a stop in Greenville, in the Mississippi Delta, to sample the famous hot tamales his family had touted for decades. But another nearby Mississippi hot spot beckoned—an advanced pizza civilization where no Rotenberry had gone before.  “I’m a long-time subscriber to PMQ Pizza Magazine,” Kyle says. “I check out the web site and I thought, 'Since we’re so close to Oxford, why not stop in?'”

We’re glad Kyle and family could fit us in. We even took advantage of the visit to videotape this interview with Pizza Getti's skipper. Below he shares some valuable insights about running a historic pizzeria in the midst of an evolving, cutting edge restaurant market like Dallas.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Make a Video, Earn $1000, Trigger the Pizza Singularity

This is for all you would-be Scorseses out there.  Or just the operators who want to sell more pizza. PizzaTV has a great opportunity—and a $1,000 check with your name on it. All you need to do is send us a video about your pizzeria (30 minutes or less, and preferably, much shorter and sweeter) and your friends at PMQ will screen it and conduct our own Pizza Academy Awards evaluation. The best entry, based on the careful evaluation of our panel of experts, will earn one of you aspiring movie auteurs the "dough" and a feature posting on Relax, Star Wars-level CGI isn’t required, just solid story-telling and watchable images. Hint: At PMQ we find closeups of delicious pizza fresh out of the oven sexier than the movie Nine and a Half Weeks. Now that’s hot!

Your next question: What’s Powered by PMQ Pizza Magazine, the Wall Street Journal  of the international pizza industry, PizzaTV is an app, a website and the official online video home of the Pizza Universe. Click on right now and you’ll find our developmental site highlighting pizzeria profiles, news about the U.S. Pizza Team and pizza culture, along with some of the most colorful characters in the restaurant world.

Ultimately, with your help, as you claim your own channel, you’ll discover dynamic tools to reach a wider audience of pizza consumers. That’s right, imagine an up-to-date nationwide coordinated pizza marketing network where you can increase online orders, post social media messages and offer loyalty rewards programs. Not to mention live-streamed interviews with pizza chefs and marketing experts, and instructional videos on industry must-knows like dough-mixing targeted to your mixers and flour options.

The video you’re going to submit to PIZZATV for this $1,000 contest—whether you win or not—can be the pilot plug-in to an online connection with PMQ. One that can boost your worldwide visibility with your favorite videos, pizza specials and personal story. Once registered with, you’ll be empowered to list your business hours, accepted credit cards, regular and special diet menus and delivery options. Even participate in coordinated regional and national pizza promotions. Claiming your channel is one click away. Go to PizzaTV com and click on the top-left “Claim Your Channel” button. You’ll be taken to our registry page for step-by-step instructions on how to join the PizzaTV team. The first 1,000 participants receive a free premium listing.

I know signing up for stuff is a pain, but wrap your head around these bottom-line numbers. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but video scores 1.8 million of them, according to Forrester Research. Get the picture? OK, visualize the fact that 85% of companies say video has helped them achieve their marketing goals. Can you look into the camera and say “Cheese.” says 100 million internet users watch online video every day, and adds U.S. adults spend 1 hour, 16 minutes watching videos on their digital devices.

So, we’re excited to see what you’ve got in your camera bag. Send us your video by July 1 and we’ll announce the winner on Aug. 1. And even if you’re not ready to send a video right now, visit, look around and make yourself at home. Claim your channel and start your video journey toward the pizza singularity. I made that part up about the Pizza Singularity. Just sounds cool. But I’m serious as a Jedi light saber dissecting a loaded veggie pie when I say, in the words of Rick (Bogie in Casablanca if you’re not really an auteur), “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I’ll take a Liver With That Pepperoni--A Pizza Rebirth

I’ve been thinking about the power of pizza to heal the soul and the body. In a story for May’s PMQ Pizza Magazine, I had the privilege of writing about a remarkable leader from a one-stoplight town of less than 2,000 residents. Don Van Zant reflects exactly what it means to have your tenuous mortality green-lighted. 

The owner of Cardinal’s Pizza in North Lewisburg, Ohio, says be careful not to blink or you’ll miss his 40-seat restaurant 45 minutes northwest of Columbus. Don found out he had terminal liver cancer in July 2012. His doctors said a transplant was his last, best hope, and in October of that year he received a donor liver at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center from a young man who had been critically injured in a truck crash only hours earlier. So, you ask, wasn’t it Don’s team of oncologist and skilled transplant surgeons who saved his life? Yes, technically it was medical science and the selfless gift of a young organ donor named Drew Mason from Owen County, Kentucky, and Drew's family, who returned Don Van Zant to his beloved Cardinal’s Pizza. Don refers to Cardinal’s as North Lewisburg’s info center, adding, “Townsfolk seem to have my place on speed dial.”

But pizza played a pivotal role in Don’s recovery—and the lives of many people he touches. Here’s how.

Since buying Cardinal’s in 1994, his pizza restaurant had been the focus point to Don's dynamic existence as a successful businessman and tribal elder. Cardinal’s is North Lewisburg’s unofficial civic center for community advancement—the gathering spot where little league teams and seniors and church groups and families and the Kiwanis Club convene—and The Donald (This one doesn’t have much hair) holds court. But after Don got a new, unexpected, chance to keep doing the only job he had ever wanted, his life’s purpose, as well as his liver, was reborn.  After meeting his donor’s family in 2013, Don established the “Drew Mason Memorial Scholarship” at Owen County High School in Kentucky, where Drew graduated in 2004. Since presenting the first scholarship gift of $2,500 to Drew Mason’s sister, Don has followed up that pay-it-forward gesture by expanding this year’s annual award to six $1,000 grants.

That’s six lives changed. Six futures improved with a helping hand in a part of the industrial Midwest hit hardest by economic dislocation. Six youngsters picked up by the love of pizza. All the money for the Mason Scholarships, you see, is raised at Cardinal’s Pizza hot-ticket fundraisers. Don, who swears he never met a slice of pizza that wasn’t his best friend, keeps an olive jar tip stasher on the front counter. His still successful transplant means Don can no longer eat his favorite food—as much. But he happily conducts pizza sampler donation parties throughout the year at Cardinal’s and multipurposes the occasions to educate patrons about the vital importance of organ donation. In the end, the example of Don, his Ohio Cardinal’s team and the good folks of North Lewisburg is a case study in how running a pizzeria dedicated to making good pizza and reaching out to neighbors can enrich the human spirit. Those magical ingredients of compassion, dough, sauce and cheese go a long way toward a better world.  But you pizza guys already knew that.

Monday, April 18, 2016

For Dough-Spinning World Champion, Victory at Last

In the pizza business, where margins of profit and loss are tight and often unpredictable, the difference between success and shutting down can be elusive. Small things, like the weight of the toppings you put on your pizza or cutting an exactly sized dough ball, can have a huge cumulative impact on the bottom line. In 2016 at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, Gold Medal winner Jammie Culliton used precise dance moves and a heavy helping of dough-spinning sleight of hand—and feet—to claim his first freestyle acrobatics title after two frustrating years of second-place finishes.

The St. Petersburg, Florida, pizza chef and entrepreneur was narrowly bested last year by Japanese techno-dance virtuoso spinner Takumi Tachikawa. With two consecutive near misses on the pizza world’s biggest stage, Culliton went back to work last spring in sunny St. Pete with one consuming mission. He would push his dance-infused, high-speed behind-the-back, between-the-legs and flat-on-the-floor dough juggling antics a notch higher. He even kicked in a couple of signature hand-stand dough boots. When the purple-striped shirt and trademark fedora-decked pizza athlete concluded his performance April 13, the dial on the fans-go-crazy noise machine read “11.”

Leading going into the freestyle acrobatic finals, Culliton refused to buckle under the pressure of being within a floury grasp of his life’s ambition. He never seemed to break a sweat during his five-minute routine, but after the announcement that he had finally tasted victory, emotion set in. The tension of two straight years of tantalizing runner-up anticlimaxes washed away in the excited screams of spectators and his ecstatic American teammates. They hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the Parma arena in a scene that carried similar emotional intensity as the iconic moment when the World Champion Green bay Packers shouldered legendary Coach Vince Lombardi on the frozen tundra. Culliton beamed broadly and, perhaps, shed a tear or two of happy relief as his exhilarated Groupon U.S. Pizza Team colleagues shared the release they had all waited for. When asked how it felt to finally hit paydirt, Culliton said simply, but profoundly, “Feels pretty damn good!” He added, “This was a long-time coming—12 to 13 years working on this skill and my seventh trip to Italy.”

The new World Champion may have found extra motivation from two years of razor-thin second banana angst. But he wants future dough-spinners to know victory, in competition and running a pizzeria, is built on the hard-working shoulders of perseverance and teamwork. "In my first competition, I came in last," he admits. “If that can be an inspiration to anybody....if I can start from last and win gold, you guys can, too. But it's not about being the champion. It's about being part of a team. I couldn't have done any of this without each and every team member who has been supporting me all these years."

Jamie Culliton knows better than anyone, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.” Authentic winners, in the pizza business and life, understand the secret to success is what you do after you lose.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

U.S. Pizza Athletes Pursue Italian Dream

The Groupon U.S. Pizza Team is preparing to compete in the international pizza equivalent of the World Series, Super Bowl and Olympics all rolled--and stretched and spun--into one. Seventeen pizza chefs representing pizzerias from New York City to Tucson, Arizona, will journey next month to Parma, Italy, and the World Pizza Championship April 11-13. The Viale dele Esposizioni will be the arena bustling with the sounds, movements and many languages of 600 competitors from around the world. They'll test their cooking and dough-handling skills in three days of intense pizza combat.

In this 25th edition of the world's most prestigious gathering of pizza virtuosos, and the 16th year that PMQ Pizza Magazine has organized a competitive U.S. team, the Americans are bringing something fresh to Europe besides the dough and ingredients in their bags--a roadmap to success.

St. Petersburg's Jamie Culliton stars in acrobatics.
"We've always been serious about competing, but in the last few months we've implemented a leadership, coaching and advisory structure that can help us achieve the same outstanding results in the culinary events that we've earned in acrobatics," says Mike LaMarca, owner of Master Pizza, based in Cleveland, and a veteran USPT member. While acrobatics superstar Jamie Culliton of St. Petersburg, Florida, has earned second-place honors the last two years in Parma with his dough-juggling, tunes-pulsing dance routine, U.S. pizza makers haven't sniffed the top three award spots despite their kick-butt creations. That's the context for his peer pizzaioli picking LaMarca, the dynamic Ohio entrepreneur and innovator, as team captain The new skipper says his goal "isn't to stifle our guys' incredible creativity, but to align our overall approach  more closely with what the judges expect." Newly named culinary captain Gino Rago of Panino's in Chicago--and a frequent returnee to his home country--will further fine-tune USPT's recipe and presentation tactics. 

"Yes, our intention is to win, but the first metric of our upgraded USPT structure will be dramatically improved culinary scores," LaMarca says. "We're after an upward trend that leads to team growth and effective advocacy for this industry we all love." The second-generation pizza visionary (Mike's dad, Jim, is a cherished advisor) says his sights are aimed at accomplishing more than merely scoring more cooking points in World Championship events with Italian names like Classico, Pizza-In-Teglia (Pizza for Two) and Pizza en Pala (Pizza in a Pan). LaMarca believes passionately the USPT can be a vehicle to drive marketing opportunities, best-practice promotion and worldwide exposure for independent pizzerias and operators.

LaMarca, right, and Lenny Giordano of Mona Lisa Pizza.
While discussing the potential of the re-engineered USPT, LaMarca recalls a magical moment from his past when he stood in his first Cleveland pizza store on the eve of opening and knew, despite budget challenges, that his own hard work and imagination would lead the next day to the thrilling sound of happy customers and clanging cash registers. He thinks the hard work and example of USPT can inspire that same dream in the world's future pizzeria operators. "Those of us on the team understand that this effort is about something bigger than us as individuals," he explains. "We want to promote and support the pizzeria industry around the world in partnership with PMQ and, ultimately, be part of something that will last and have value long after we're all gone. A big element in that future success is constantly recruiting talented new team members (like this year's rookies Drew French, founder of Your Pie, and pizza acrobat Scott Volpe, owner of Fiamme Pizzeria Napoletana) while honoring and leveraging the wisdom of our veteran members." 

In an industry where independents are losing market share every day to the corporate pizza giants thanks to pronounced technology, marketing and social media shortfalls, the long view may seem like too little. But Parma, the gastronomical heart of Italy, is a great place to start.    

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pi to the Maximus for Pizza Lovers

If I had to list my 10 favorite things in the world alongside my 10 biggest bummers, pizza and math would line up at roughly parallel position in the bottom half of each group. I know that sounds uncomfortably close to a math problem—and math problems make my ears sweat. I stopped paying attention to math in seventh grade when Mrs. Anderson introduced that knee-slapper about John taking a train from New York to Chicago at 60 MPH while Jane jumped the AMTRAK from LA to Chitown going 90. She added some more facts I couldn’t follow and brought the whole damn travelogue together with a request to know how much quicker the obviously fake-named Jane would arrive in the Windy City. My elegant one-line homework response was uncluttered by numbers and cross-outs and algebraic symbols: “They should have taken a plane.”

To each her own, but I’d never conflate numbers crunching with delicious pizza hot out of the oven. I’m well aware, though, that you pizza operators have no choice but to do the math. In fact, geometry threatens to subtract from U.S. pizza profits thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s calorie-listing requirements on chain pizzeria menus. Unless the recently passed Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, now awaiting Senate confirmation and President Obama’s signature (could be a long wait), stops this train, pizzerias specializing in “non-uniform” sectors, like the Chicago square-cut-style standout Rosati’s Pizza, might be forced to list calorie counts by the pie instead of the slice.

You know, the only course I ever flunked was high school geometry. I earned that F word legitimately with a semester’s worth of feckless fear tinged with frustration. Finding the value of angles in Isosceles Triangles on a test or homework, for my undiagnosed ADD-short-circuited teenage mind, was equivalent to finding my dad’s missing car keys (ALWAYS lost by me) before the short-fused Naval aviator blew his lid. The probabilities of a solution, in either case, hovered imperceptivity North of Absolute Zero.  Now the number 0, of course, is shaped like a circle—and a clear majority of pizzas—as you left-side brainiacs will so smugly attest.

Which brings me to National Pi Day and Pi’s mystical relationship to the common people’s beloved cheesy dough discs.  I know you thought I was angling for a Mystic Pizza reference, but that’s one of the few 80s flicks I somehow missed. Conversely, you trigheads never seem to miss an opportunity to quote your hallowed axiom that “Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, measuring 3.14 159265… going on forever without repeating. Forever means eternity, dudes and dudettes, and eternity is the opposite of zero, and that’s very cool! It’s awesome, even if I’m much more familiar with Debrah Kerr’s beach-scene position in From Here to Eternity than the position of zero in the set of whole numbers. Point is Pi isn’t lost on math nerds or pizza pie lovers who come together March 14 (3/14, get it?) every year to celebrate two elemental constants that hold our vast universe in balance. And yes, it’s a good day to score discounted pizzas. So Pi to the maximus my math-inclined friends and countrymen!