Thursday, December 17, 2015

& Then There Were Pizza Tats

Listen I love pizza. My appreciation has grown leaps and bounds since I signed on with PMQ Pizza Magazine just one year ago. And NO, it’s not because they pay me to like it. As a 7-year-old at my Knights of the Round Table-themed birthday party, I scarfed down the better part of a whole pepperoni pie. Of course I hurled buckets and it was some pretty traumatic comeback sauce blended so noxiously with all that purple icing and the chocolate milk half gallon chaser. Nope, even that didn’t put me off pizza. But I didn’t fully appreciate it, yet.

I ate a lot of it in college and ordered a ton of it for my kids after I richly earned my status as a single parent, twice. The history, the tradition, the Roman legions, the difference between a Chicago Deep Dish and Neapolitan, between pecorino Romano and buffalo Mozzarella, between  a peel and a spoodle.  Learning just a little about dough and ovens and regional styles and sockeye salmon-topped specials makes me dig it all the more. No pizza love deficit from me. Still, got some news for you—I’m not about to brand myself with a tattoo of my favorite slice or even the name of the international pizza communication company that employs me for that matter.

I love my job. OK, not as much as pizza, but the team at PMQ is a swell bunch of folks with some very talented writers, editors, graphic designers and videographers. Even though we have an impressive logo that you’ve no-doubt enjoyed yourself as a loyal PMQ reader—you know, the cute little slice triangle arrowhead injecting the Q tail thingy (printers terminology), it ain’t ever going on my shoulder, or forearm or butt.  I won’t be following in the needle-chiseled path of those dudes and dudettes who work at this happenin’ pizza joint in our nation’s capital called &pizza. The passionate ”pie tribe” (yep, that’s what they call themselves) can’t wait to meander a few blocks down the street in their little bohemian section of D.C. to acquire their free tattoo courtesy of their generous, some would argue visionary, bosses. Yes, I too thought D.C. was entirely populated by up-tight politicians and lobbyists. Who knew it boasted its own Haight Ashbury. Turns out &pizza will even throw in a free tat for customers who purchase $1,500 worth of pizza. Their customers literally sign their loyalty in body ink. Who needs coupons?

Yes, ampersands are cool, I guess. I’ve worked more than 33 years in writing and publishing and I do admire a well struck “Special Character.”  The flowing Ampersand might even be my favorite in tight competition with the elegant, but emphatic, exclamation mark.  Much as I adore typography, for my taste, paper is the proper medium for all those noble typefaces, not skin.

But that’s just old-school yours truly. I have an ex wife who shocked me one evening by revealing the tiny, tantalizing rose tattoo just south of her right hip—and this is a Republican, Chamber of Commerce-connected  WASP  mother-of-three. I liked it. A lot. On her. That tattoo didn’t save our marriage, but it did open my mind a bit to the value of body art in certain contexts. The thing is, though, you better pick your epidermal tracings with the judgment of Solomon, with an eye toward eternity, or at least your own personal expiration date. OK, maybe I’m evolving on tattoos, but I’m just not ready! Great place for an exclamation mark.

Here’s the bottom line: What’s going to endure? Your girlfriend, your wife, your country of origin, your puppy, Justin Bieber, your workplace, your favorite food? None of us really know—but if I had to stake my next child support check on it, my money’s on the cold pizza. Come to think of it, for a modest ($20,000 smackers) bonus from my wonderful bosses, I might be motivated to visit my local tattoo parlor and affix my undying PMQ devotion to my left butt cheek. If I ever get married again, I’ll tell her it stands for primordial magical quest?  


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Peak Pizza Consciousness Arrives…Maybe

Pizza drives pop culture like no other food. I grasped this undeniable reality when I was researching story ideas for a new video show we’re launching soon at PMQ. In fact, we’re launching an entire PizzaTV Network next year with programs targeted both to pizza consumers and pizzeria operators. That decision, in itself, says something about the preeminence of pizza as America’s favorite food and frequent passion.

Rock bands sing about it; celebrities wear its patterns on cheesy outfits; championship-winning football coaches give multi-thousands away at stadium parties; and leading presidential candidates fuel their campaigns on it. Pizza is as traditional as a classic Neapolitan served steaming out of a brick oven in an up-scale restaurant, and as cutting edge as a custom-made prosciutto, pear and arugula pie coming off a fast-casual production line. It’s as ubiquitous as cyberspace, where it’s sold digitally through on-line ordering systems integrated with point-of-service technology and electronic coupon and menu-posting websites and social media platforms. Pizza is as close as a button on your smartphone. Pizza is everywhere.

And that bothers some folks, like the researchers who claim pizza is making our school kids fat, addicting pizza junkies and causing men to pork down at the pizza food trough at the local buffet line to impress the ladies. Of course another study defines “pizza lovers” as women in their 30s who work out twice a week. So much for scientific consensus. I’ve written extensively, in my first year as a pizza pundit, about guys losing weight and shedding cholesterol points on pizza-only diets. Never heard of a pizza pundit? Well, we PPs are the guys and gals who know that dieticians also say homemade, veggie-heavy pizza can be the perfect family meal for nutritious togetherness. And working backward from picky kids (sometimes), pizza weddings are the latest thing in affordable, yet chic, scrumptious nuptials.

Pizza news, pizza costumes, viral pizza videos, pizza holiday wrapping paper pointing toward early February and the mass media footballpalooza where pizza replaces turkey as America’s truly super holiday supper. We haven’t quite reached the Singularity, but we may have achieved peak pizza consciousness as a society. I coined that phrase by the way so send those royalties my way … or don’t. It’s Christmas. Knock yourself out. We pizza pundits are a generous lot.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Can’t Stomach Mr. Tubby as Pizza Power Icon? He’s Not!

OK, I hear ya! Some of our faithful readers had a beef—maybe a cow—with the lead photo on our last This Week in Pizza Newsletter. It covered a story about a research study that finds men tend to pig out when eating with a woman in some kind of primordial power play that goes back to who owns the biggest castle apparently. To illustrate the point, we found a photo of an especially gross looking guy wearing a badly stained wife-beater undershirt poised just north of his lower belly bulge and sagging sweat pants. Not a pretty picture.

A couple of concerned fans have questioned our sanity as a communications company dedicated to helping pizzerias sell America’s favorite food. One dear reader said the image would “turn off many people,” and he has a good point. He added that “we must have a good reason for doing it” and I’ll admit my response is maybe not good enough. You see, we love pizza around here and we absolutely dig the great people in the industry who make our company possible. Yes we wholeheartedly want to help you all sell pizza, run successful businesses and make a unifying contribution to your communities. As journalists and graphic designers, we also want to make dramatic impressions with our words and images. Especially in our online newsletter, we strive to grab you, captivate you and engage you with headlines and graphics that pull you in and prevent you from distractedly clicking on to the next story, the next website, the next sensory experience. So we try to be bold. In this case, the Neanderthal dude seemed to make the point of the story in a compelling way that made us chuckle.

But this blog is called Pizza Perspective.  And when I think about the perspectives of my readers who are working hard to support a new mindset of pizza as a healthy part of a well rounded diet when eaten in moderation, I’m not smiling. I have written extensively in PMQ Pizza Magazine and on about pizza’s nutritional benefits and great fit as part of dynamic lifestyle. In our May 2015 issue the cover story “Why Pizza’s Good For You” was illustrated by this image of a fantastically fit pizza fan. We even used this photo in a poster called "Seven Reasons to Enjoy Your Favorite Food Without Worry," which can be downloaded at and put up on pizzeria walls to promote a healthier image of pizza.

To hammer home the point of pizza’s rising power position in the health-minded millennials’ diet, we featured this image of today’s research-documented “typical pizza lover” on the cover of our December 2015 issue.  By the way, the story cites another study finding that 63% of pizza lovers are women, more than half are younger than 45 and that 68% of this group works out at least twice a week. So much for Mr. Tubby being the face—or the stomach—of pizza popularity today.

Throughout the year, in our magazine, website and newsletter, we have featured stories and images depicting people losing weight on pizza diets, pioneering approaches to healthier crusts and toppings and incorporating pizza night into healthy family eating plans. We’ve also pointed out the problems with government-sponsored studies that blame pizza for extra fat in school menus.

So Don Hunt (yes that Don Hunt) of Hunt Brothers Pizza is right that PMQ is all about giving you a hand in making pizza even more popular as we move ahead into 2016. Check out the exciting stories we’ll be producing online, in print and on video, which will hopefully make your job easier. Mr. Hunt closed his much appreciated note with “Other than that (our redneck pizza-pounding poster boy) I enjoy getting your emails. God bless you all.”

From your pizza advocates at PMQ, same to you Mr. Hunt, and blessings to our pizza family around the world. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Pizza From the Heart: A Love Story With Five Points

The amazing growth of Five Points Pizza as an East Nashville landmark is a classic love story. It’s a tale of two young, attractive attorneys who fell in love, and chose to leverage their training and lucrative legal careers to pursue their shared dream to own their own pizzeria. It’s a testament of devotion to a remarkable team that manages to blend hard work, musical passions and the sheer joy of offering their Music City neighbors delicious food in a fun, family-friendly space. It’s a lesson about Five Points’ commitment to a once sketchy neighborhood that’s coming back with the same energy that has revitalized one of America’s legendary cities.

David and Tara Tieman met on a setup date fresh out of law school. The attraction was immediate and Tara’s mom, who raised her red-headed daughter in New Jersey, was understandably happy about Tara's budding romance with a Tennessee tax attorney. “My mom was used to me dating artists and guys struggling a bit financially, so the prospect of me marrying a lawyer got her pretty excited,” says Tara with the wry smile of a storyteller poised to deliver a knockout punchline. “Then David and I decided to open a pizza shop with no experience whatsoever.”
The Tiemans, were married and already living in their historic East Nashville neighborhood in 2010 when Tara saw a for-lease sign at the 1012 Woodland Street address while driving to their house five blocks away. “I immediately called David on my cell phone and said we have to get down there and talk to the owners,” Tara recalls. At the time, Dave was immersed in a tax law practice that was meeting his financial needs, but falling short of his soul’s deepest longings. “I didn’t know the first thing about running a pizzeria but I knew that’s what I wanted to make a change—and Tara was fully on board,” David says. “So I contacted my best friend, Tanner Jacobs, who had run several restaurants (Jacobs is now the Tieman’s Five Points partner) and I began researching pizzeria operations the same way I’d research a law case.” The Tiemans even served a short apprenticeship at a New York City pizzeria to prepare for their new lives as pizzaioli.

In September 2011, Five Points launched, featuring a small dining area and bar serving authentic New York–style thin-crust pizza, salads, to-die-for garlic knots and 16 local and regional draft beers. The Tiemans hired Chris Mallon as culinary director, a veteran of the high-end Nashville restaurant scene, who yearned for a more collaborative cooking climate. “My goal was to turn out great-tasting, high-quality food in a nurturing environment and that’s exactly what we have here at Five Points,” Chris says.

The Tiemans surrounded Mallon, a Groupon U.S. Pizza Team competitor in 2015, with an all-star employee lineup of talented pizza makers who often moonlight in Music City bands. The synthesis of music and pizza works. Five Points rocks with a free-spirited crew producing a funky vibe of effective camaraderie that takes its cue from the flexible owners.
“In a city like Nashville, you have to be innovative with your personnel strategies,” Tara explains. When Five Points’ award-winning pizza led to backup takeout barrages at the bar, innovation and bold marketing came to the rescue.

The Tiemans purchased the beauty parlor next door and transformed the space into a by-the-slice addition while adding several pizza ovens. Next, they converted their graveyard shift into the only late-night walk-up pie slice window guys in Nashville. In an eclectic neighborhood that’s home base for colorful drinking holes with alluring names like The Lipstick Lounge, 3 Crow Bar, Red Door East and Mad Donna’s, delectable slices of hot pizza heaven is the ultimate sexy, cheesy dream for post-midnight partiers and pizzeria pros. “We couldn’t be happier with the success of our slice bar expansion and walk-up window,” says David. “Both sides of the business are thriving—we meet the demand for late-night bar traffic without overburdening our dining room. For now, we have no plans for expansion because we’re pretty stoked about where we’re at.”

And you should be…Dude. Five Points has earned back-to-back-to-back-to-back Best-of-Nashville pizza titles and describes the pizzeria as “More than (Nashville’s) Hipster Headquarters—it’s the heart of the East Nashville community.”

“We live in this community and we wanted to make a difference in its quality of life,” says David Tieman, a modern-day Renaissance man who operates a fly-making shop just down the street from the pizzeria. That’s right, flies—as in the painstakingly hand-made bait that Trout jump at when gracefully cast into the wild rivers that David and his fellow fly fisherman seek out for relaxation. The guy doesn’t relax much.  For a birthday gift, Tara got her dynamic hubby welding lessons so David can do some of his own handy work around the pizzeria. I know what you’re thinking precious readers. My idea of a hobby is screaming at college football players on Saturdays. But David’s not only an entrepreneurial fly-fishing pizza chef, and welding craft beer connoisseur litigating tax attorney—he’s a humanitarian. “We’re happy to be a welcoming place for artists and the young urban professional crowd—but we also opened Five Points partly to offer a safe, friendly atmosphere for the many families and children who join us here every day,” he adds. Now that’s the kind of community organizer we can all get behind.
The Tiemans don’t have children of their own, but Tara adds, “We kind of look at our crew here as our kids. We’re one big family and that accounts for a large part of our success.”

Like I said, Five Points Pizza is a love story all around. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Passione e Fantasia in the Windy City

Passione e fantasia! Sounds like a Felini movie. But when pizza entrepreneur and dough magician Gino Rago, owner of Panino’s and Via Pizzeria 1-2-3 in Chicago, pronounces the words in his native tongue, it’s clear he’s melodically accenting a committed way of life.  I met Gino and his lovely wife, Tina, for the first time last week and I’m not exaggerating or blowing smoke up my new paisan’s posterior when I say I was inspired by the interaction.

I’ve got an in-depth cover story for PMQ Pizza Magazine in the works on Gino, so I’ll paint the macro view of this quintessential pizza quality advocate. What’s the source of his inspiration—that he passes on so generously to everyone he meets? Maybe you guessed—he’s Italian. Gino was born in Chicago, but moved to Italy with his parents at 6-months-old. As a kindergartner, he donned the oversized blue bowtie-blaring suit that surely mortified the always snappy-dressing Mr. Rago even then.

Now being Italian, in itself, doesn’t make you a great guy—or even a great pizza chef. Al Capone couldn’t spin dough worth beans, I’m told. Gino Rago, on the other hand, learned to love Italian cuisine and respect hard, honest labor as a wide-eyed little boy in the Old Country. Although he and his family returned to Chicago after Gino finished Kindergarten, they returned to the Old Country every summer until Gino was 12. The high-energy youngster fell in love with passionately prepared Italian cooking made with fresh, homegrown ingredients. Wonderful stuff—including classic Neapolitan pizza at its most rustic, healthy and delicious.

Back in the states, Gino’s dad, who was friendly with many local restaurant owners, routinely dropped the eager teen off at restaurants and pizzerias to learn the business. In innumerable hectic kitchens winding around the Windy City, Gino soaked in pizza knowledge from the tomato sauce-stained ground up.

“I love pizza, I dream about pizza,” Gino says without a trace of irony. He tried electronics trade school—but admits it didn’t connect. Then, on a trip to Naples as a young restaurant owner, a crusty Italian pizzaiolo granted Gino the gift of Italian dough magic. Called Lieveto Madre, Mother Yeast, it’s a gift that had kept on giving for about 200 years before Gino took possession. It remains today fungus gold—the starter yeast for some of the most deliciously airy, slightly tart dough that ever crossed the Atlantic. Gino uses this ancient, little piece of Italy in the rising array of pizzas, breads and appetizers that he and his restaurant partners—brother Lenny and cousin Bruno—serve up at their three locations. Panino’s and Via Pizzeria 1-2-3 daily accomplish the unheard-of feat of treating devoted patrons to Chicago Deep Dish, East Coast Thin Crust, award-winning Neapolitan and Grandma-style pizza favorites.

Passione and fantasia, Gino understands, are values not exclusively found in a Naples brick pizza oven. The aspiring pizza craftsman discovered his passion for dough making in the pages of PMQ Pizza Magazine. Today, Gino routinely wins pizza-making competitions. A decade ago, he devoured the world’s leading pizzeria trade pub regularly while paying his pizza chef dues. If PMQ’s resident dough doctor Tom Lehmann is the master instructor of the fine art and exacting science of doughology, Gino is his proud protégé. “Great dough is the foundation of great pizza and reading Tom’s articles in PMQ were a Godsend to me when I was trying to perfect my own recipes,” Gino says. “Now I’m privileged to call him a friend and I’m still learning from him today.”

Internalizing fresh insights about his craft is the lifeblood of this culinary athlete. To observe him is to enjoy commitment in motion. Gino witnesses to his passion while he’s launching new products, like his lines of pizza and barbecue sauces, when he returns to Italy to compete for the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team, while he makes his latest restaurant menu add-on in his own pizza oven-rigged garage, or just because he makes time for his close-knit family. Gino keeps growing—just like his Mother Yeast. “For Italians, food IS life and family,” he says with a winning smile. It’s the life he was born to live.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

If Lovin' You (Pizza) is Wrong -- I Don't Want to be Right

So a new University of Michigan study finds that some people can get addicted to pizza.  Knock me over with a pepperoni! I don’t have to go to Ann Arbor to find that out. A quick trip to my local Pizza Hut for the lunchtime buffet proves that little data point beyond empirical challenge. With apologies to Wolverines everywhere and Michigan native Mitt Romney (and yes, I know you’re still hurting over that ridiculous botched punt loss to Michigan State), “No Mitt, Sherlock!”

Cripes, you can become addicted to anything. I make high-pitched purring noises when I put socks on that are hot and fresh out of the dryer. I tell guests that I can’t think without the ambient sound of the machine tumbling endlessly in the background. I will only drink Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, served over one of those perfectly spherical ice balls, and it ain’t cheap! The bourbon, I mean. Those frozen ball molds are pretty inexpensive, thank goodness. You may remember a spit-up-funny comedy riff from a certain Mike Myers movie when he invokes that lyrical Scottish brogue of his to proclaim a worldwide plot to addict the planet to the Colonel’s chicken. Well substitute Popeyes, and he’s onto something.

Here’s the thing. Food that tastes really good makes you want to eat a lot of it. Can I get a drolly delivered “Duh.” Anything that tastes good, or feels good, or looks good, or smells good motivates you to want to experience it over and over again.  But most of us don’t because we’d get beat up by that beautiful girl’s boyfriend for staring like a Doberman at a drumstick.  We don’t because then we’d have to reciprocate and dislocate our thumbs giving our spouse an ACTUAL 30-minute back rub. We summon the willpower and resist because otherwise the police come and unlock our frozen lips from the ice cream fountain at the Golden Corral. Most of us don’t eat a whole, large Meat Lover’s with hot dog-stuffed crust pizza in one sitting because we don’t want to be charged for two seats on our next flight to Columbus.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned in one year on the PMQ pizza beat.  As this audience already knows, but I hope enjoys hearing restated in the face of constant academic watchdog butt bites, pizza can be healthy food! It can be made with high-quality grain, non sugar-spiked dough, fresh, low-fat proteins and vegetables, and tomato sauce, which we all know is healthier than penicillin. There is some scientific evidence to suggest a human adult once verbally declined a second slice of the popular substance.

In fact, a 2015 study that predated the silly Michigan nutritionally correct screed identified the typical pizza lover as a “woman in her 30s who exercises twice a week.” Now that’s some research worth its weight in PhDs. Fit ladies in their sexual prime love nothing better than to munch on a steamy slice of hot pizza while they pump the Elliptical. Well, maybe that’s a bit of a fantasy—but not as big a one as the pipe dream that pizzeria owners are the equivalent of street pushers hawking cheesy, heroin-injected dough.

Can we all agree—just say “no” to the nutrition police puritans … and “yes” to our fetching, hard-body soul mates when they ask for that last slice of thin-crust veggie. Just don’t promise any back rubs.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Whole Lotta Pizza Love for Millennials, Your Pie Top Guy

That’s right. Those 18-34-year-old iPhone-jabbing control freaks are the demanding demographic  driving the restaurant business to change from its traditional come-to-us strategy to a new go-to-them reality. Look, I’m 58 and I remember when I thought anyone over 40 was ancient and spent. They didn’t even get that Led Zeppelin invented hard rock and are empirically incomprehensible at less than 11 on your Kenwood volume knob—right on Spinal Tap! Now I find the kids—anyone under 40—interminably annoying with their Tweeting and Snapchatting and that no-talent Kardashian chick. Except, sometimes you meet really young, talented entrepreneurs who are not only cool, but are spearheading consumer transformation in this country. Some of them even appreciate old-school quality. 

Meet Drew French, Your Pie founder and owner of five pizzerias in the 24-store pioneer fast-casual chain that most recently opened a franchise in Chicago. French stole the show, winning the 2015 Pizzaiolo Ultisimo (Ultimate Pizza Makers Challenge) at The Sofo Foods Expo in Atlanta Oct. 4. The experience was just peachy for the Athens, Georgia-based pizza innovator who crafted a Georgia Peach and Prosciutto Pie that judges voted No.1 after shaking off their doubts. “Peaches,” y'all. Really?"

French’s fruit brainstorm earned him a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team.  “I had to leave the event early, but when I got the call that I had won I was very excited and proud to represent Your Pie, where ‘Food First’ is our mentality,” French says. “My wife is originally from the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples, Italy, so the peach-topped pizza was my attempt to blend two cultures in a taste profile that really comes together.”

A respect for Italian pizza tradition while embracing regionally sourced ingredients, tossed with a deep commitment to customer autonomy. That’s the formula that has fueled Your Pie’s ride to six-state success.  “We invented the fast-casual concept in 2008, which predated our competitors by about four years,” French says without a hint of arrogance. “We make our 10-inch personal pizzas in front of our customers in a brick oven using their choice of 8 sauces, 40 toppings and 8 cheeses. We pair our pizzas with craft beer and wine and also serve great salads and paninis.  We take pride in working hard to make the best pizza in the world—Italian in inspiration, blended with fresh, home-grown American ingredients.”

French shared his story during a phone conversation while he drove down the Georgia interstate with the giggles of his little daughter intermittently interrupting our pizza chat. It was cool to know that this young, trend-setting pizza impresario was leading dynamic industry evolution while taking care of family business. OK, Millennials can be really awesome, I guess. Heck, I’m the father of five of them myself. Takes a Whole Lotta Love. I wonder if the Your Pie guy has a favorite Zeppelin tune.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Giant Inflatable Pizza Meets the Wired Up Crew

One of the great perks of my job as associate editor with PMQ is going to food shows. From Oct. 3-4 our crew was in Atlanta for the Sofo Foods event at Cobb Galleria Center. As everyone in the pizza business knows, The Toledo, Ohio-based Sofo family runs an Italian food distribution business that is tops in quality and employee morale. Speaking of upbeat sales energy, a major highlight of the show was the PMQ-sponsored Wired Up, Fired Up Online Ordering Fair that featured presentations by five of the top companies in the online ordering universe.

Proud-to-be-called tech geeks from Chow Now, EZ Dine, PDQ Signature Systems, ArrowPOS and Microworks showed up. They informed and persuaded restaurateurs—including some curious pizzeria operators attracted, no doubt, to their corner of the Cobb Center by PMQ’s 20-foot-high giant inflatable pizza—that implementing online ordering is a no-brainer. Oh, the brains who came up with the technology that is revolutionizing pizzeria marketing are as big as they come. The guys and gals I talked to representing PMQ’s wired-up partners in Hotlanta throw around terms like cross-platform, bandwidth and cybersecurity with the same confident precision that U.S. Pizza Team members spin dough behind their backs and between their legs.

But the systems they showed off at the Sofo show were elegant in their simplicity. Most importantly, they work. The software effectively captures sales and highlights menu options to food consumers on the go. If millennials—those iPhone-wielding 18-34-year-olds—hold the keys to pizza delivery success,online ordering integrated with POS, website and social media buttons, is the only ride in the lot that remotely turns them on. The fact is, says restaurant demographic experts who I met at the NRA’s Chicago food fest in May, millennial control junkies increasingly demand you bring your specials and gluten-free options to them if you want their business. And they’re carrying around a chunk of change, by the way.

My new tech buds in Atlanta told me that even pizzerias that don’t specialize in delivery can benefit from online ordering synched up with a thoughtfully designed web site and engaging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. And no, you don’t have to be a big chain to afford the latest technology, they say. Of course they say that. “They want to sell us their products,” I hear some of you shouting back. Look, as I’ve conceded in this blog, I’m a pizza industry novice, just trying to tell some amusing stories. So don’t take my word for it when it comes to how you market your pizzeria, or spend your hard-earned cash.

But in my research for November’s PMQ Pizza Magazine cover story, I did come across independent, one-location pizzerias, like Slice of the 80s in Detroit, who are thriving with customized online ordering systems that target their market and business model sweet spots. And I found objective sources, like the Wall Street Journal, who say there’s no sugar-coating the truth. Independent pizzerias are being stomped in many markets by Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut stores who benefit from the pizza giants’ online footprint. The big toe on that foot? Digital ordering.

So none of that may be very amusing, but I think it’s convincing. Might as well end this by beating a metaphor to death. Hope you find these photographs of the 30-foot (I know I said 20-foot before, but it was HUGE) gigantic, monster PMQ pizza amusing. No one was crushed but it took four of us to keep it from rolling away while we blew it up.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Eating America's Pizza Map--With a St. Louis Layover

As I’ve admitted in this blog previously, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to pizza. What I’ve learned in 10 months working at PMQ has just reinforced how much I have to learn about the craft and business of creating America’s favorite food. Heck, before I started writing about pizza and interviewing passionate pizzaioli around the country, I had no clue how many regional species of pies had evolved on these shores. Gothamites--and their minions everywhere—will testify, of course, that real pizza begins and ends with—whooda-thunk-it?—New York-style.

In my recent column on square-cut pizza, I referenced just a few rectangular standouts, including the Philly Tomato Pie, New Haven-style Pizza, Pennsylvania’s Old Forge Pizza, two types of Chicago-style pies, Detroit’s increasingly popular flagship pie and, finally, that enigmatic square share of Provel cheesiness called the St. Louis-style pizza.

As a pizza journalist, I’m professionally sworn to objectivity and candor. Well, I didn’t take an oath or anything. Just my way of admitting I’m not a big fan of this cracker-crusted Gateway City icon. Locals WILL argue—until the Cardinals come home—that the 65-year-old cheese experiment their beloved Imo’s pizzeria made famous rules over sliced bread. I lived and worked in the St. Louis area for more than 25 years. I can honestly tell you that, besides the revered Red Birds, no St. Louis institution engenders the devotion and yes, passion, that’s heaped on this square pizza platform supporting everything St. Louisans hold dear—and some grease. Your kid ever ask you: “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” St. Louis comic and TV host Eric Christenson, recently agreed to wed a St. Louis-style pizza in front of the Gateway Arch. Son of a gun wasn’t even born there! Hope they change the sheets after the honeymoon. (

For me, a military brat who grew up near assorted Naval ports along the Eastern Seaboard, St. Louis’ pizza finest is never more than a one-night stand. Listen, when you’ve got the munchies; and that steaming Gateway to My Tummy mama is loaded with pepperoni, sausage and bacon; and you wash those funky, edgeless squares down with a cold Budweiser; she’ll get it done. But that Provel just ain’t right! Don’t stretch like mozzarella. Too much like a grilled cheese sandwich.

The point is, though, my pizza taste buds are still minor league. I’m a dough-and-cheese apprentice, a novice, a pizza rube in need of schoolin’. So I’m not down with St. Louis-style pizza. That’s just me. Millions disagree, and millions more are ready to debate like Lincoln and Douglas for their favorite slice. So please, and PMQ Pizza Magazine citizens, lay it on me! Check out page 80 of the October PMQ Pizza Magazine and go to so you can get all “interactive” with our cool Pizza Map. You’ll also find an online form to let you stump for the style of pizza individuality that put your region on the map.

We’re a hungry land built on pizza freedom, and this is your chance, Pizza Nation, to be heard!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pizza Cones Are Walk-Around Wonderful

I had my doubts about pizza cones. Doesn’t sound right. Cones are for ice cream, right? Double dip chocolate for me, or maybe, if I’m feeling really adventurous, pistachio. But cheese, tomato sauce and pepperoni? That’s not an adventure, it’s a perilous food quest to uncharted territory. It’s culinary chaos. It’s whacked.

Until you try one. Then it’s bliss in your hand. It’s walk-around wonderful! It’s vertical pizza deliciousness. I sampled some of these pizza hybrids a couple of months ago in the PMQ Pizza Test Kitchen and I was overcome with sensory input resembling the first time I tried a Cuban cigar: “This is gooood sh… I mean stuff,” I thought.

Ray Clapp opened Coneizza ( three months ago in Laguna Hills, California, about halfway between LA and San Diego. He says the response from anyone who tries one of his pizza cones is immediate and definitive: Sir, may I have another? “Their reaction has been ‘this is absolutely fabulous,’” says the transplanted Wisconsin native, who moved to the sunny Left Coast from the Badger State in the 1980s. Despite maintaining his allegiance to the Packers, Clapp has cheerfully adopted Southern Callie and its quirky idiosyncrasies, but pizza cones, he insists, are no fad. “They’re perfect food for any location where people are looking for something tasty and convenient,” he explains. “This is just an easy, fun way to eat pizza. It’s pizza shaped differently, with real pizza crust, the same sauce, cheese and fresh, nutritious toppings.”

With the help of his wife and kids, Clapp, a former executive with Hyatt’s food division, launched Coneizza in a mall without the greatest foot traffic. He sees the current site as a test kitchen for the pizza cone experiment. So far, his customers have unanimously endorsed his results in the first West Coast restaurant where you can experience pizza cones. His top seller is the “Americana,” meat nirvana stuffed with Pepperoni, sausage and meatballs. The “Garden Gnome” features olives, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and Mediterranean spices. The “Hawaiian” and “Downsouth” cones geographically balance Clapp’s conical collection. He also invites customers to erect their own cones and offers traditional horizontal pizza and salads at Coneizza. The key ingredient that sets Coneizza apart, adds Klapp, is health consciousness. “What makes us unique is that we use healthier-choice meats like turkey bacon and our rich pizza sauce is made with organic tomato paste.”

Recently posted a story ( on some New Jersey entrepreneurs running a Kono (the Italian company that pioneered pizza cones) franchise. The family is trucking pizza cones to big-attendance events around South Jersey and Philadelphia. There seems to be a worldwide craving for pizza that’s not only carry-out—but carry-with-you. Clapp precisely points out the packing power of munchable pizza projectiles in language any potential purveyor, or consumer, would appreciate: “People enjoy pizza cones because they taste great just like pizza, they’re easy and fun to eat, they’re not messy and they’re perfect for any grab-and-go environment like a mall.”

I’m sold, Ray. Who needs funnel cakes dusting your clothes and kisser when you can stuff your face with pizza cones at the fair? Unlike the unholy hot-dog-stuffed pizza crust, pizza cones are an evolutionary step on the pizza progress timeline that deserves to spiral upward and onward. They taste great and you can bite off the end to suck out the oozing goodness, just like that double dip of chocolate. They don’t melt, they just get cold, and we all know extensive clinical trials have proven cold pizza is an even better hangover remedy than cold fries. Heck, the Leaning Tower of Smooshed Cheese and Tomato Sauce is way more handy than an olive-spraying flat pizza slice to wave tauntingly in the face of your rivals when watching football on TV. Which is great, as long as you’re prepared for the equally likely scenario that your toddler will use one of them like a large paint brush to smear said TV or laptop screen.

I say: Small price to pay for one of mankind’s greatest, most portable and aesthetically awesome culinary inventions. The era of the pizza cone has begun.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Counting Calories Isn't a Square Deal in Pizza Universe

It’s cool to be square. I’m talking deep-dish pizza squares, like the renowned Chicago-style variety perfected by our friends at Rosati’s. They craft their square-cut gems at 48 sites in seven states around the country. Rosati’s president, Marla Topliff, is worried about whacked wording in the FDA’s menu labeling mandate, re-scheduled to take effect December 1, 2016, that, she says, penalizes square-cut pizza operators (with more than 20 locations) for daring to divide pies into non-uniform slices. That’s what you get when you try to cut round pies into square pieces. Yep, you get that delicious little odd-shaped rectangular nubbin salvaged from the pizza perimeter. No, I mean you get a competition-busting edict from the Feds requiring the square-cut rebels to post in-store calorie information for the whole pie instead of each slice. That spells a potential 800% calorie over-count and market meltdown vs. the big chains just to comply with the regulation.

The only course I flunked in high school was geometry so maybe I’m not the guy to expound on the case for square food over triangles, but here goes. You see, traditional triangular slices, like they carve out of their perfectly symmetrical round pies at Empire franchises in the Pizza Giant star systems, are considered “uniform sectors” by the pizzeria planet’s FDA overlords. Has something to do with a dude named Euclid and pi without the “e.” Now geometry disgrace that I sadly personify, still seems to me that pizza triangles are curved at the base and so—ipso facto—not really triangles at all. Pizza was invented to fuel the Roman Legions, you know? These tomato-and-cheese-pointers have a streamlined advantage when it comes to modern data tabulation—and that’s unfair, un-American and uncool. Bogus because it’s big-time disrespectful to some of the tastiest pizza types ever munched.

The short list of non-circular pizza magnificence starts with pan-made, Sicilian-style squareish varieties, including the Philly Tomato Pie, Pizza Al Taglio and Grandma Pie. Consider the oblong (more geometry) New Haven-style Pizza, Pennsylvania’s Old Forge Pizza, shaped a little like the Quaker State itself, and Grilled Pizza, which shares a similar outline to a random milk spill. Back in the beautiful, non-uniform Midwest, we find the thin-crust Chicago-style (think White Sox, Cubs), the amorphous self-described Midwestern Pizza, the cracker-crusted St. Louis-style pizza hybrid and, finally, the ever-more-popular Detroit-style dough barge of goodness that could haul the Motor City to recovery all by itself.

A plethora of non-triangular pizza slabs: Perfect in their rectangular non-uniformity; deliciously defiant in their non-compliance. The insurgency against the FDA’s imperial pizza bias is led by Jedis like Topliff and Betsy Craig, CEO and founder of the nutritional data consulting firm MenuTrinfo, who consult with Rosati’s. “This unfortunate, rigid stance by the FDA puts all Chicago-style pizzerias at a massive disadvantage,” she says. “Big chains, like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, won’t face the same calorie sticker shock per slice.” As a compromise, Craig suggests the FDA adopt the same “calories per average slice of uniform weight” standard that they’ve mandated for grocery store pizzas.

Topliff, who serves on the National Restaurant Association’s Pizza Council, adds the FDA’s apparent ignorance about America’s rich and diverse pizza portfolio isn’t shared by pizza-loving shape-shifters nationwide. “Great pizza is created in different shapes and unique styles around the country,” she says. “When you go into a pizzeria like Rosati’s, you’ll find loyal customers who are willing to stand up and fight for their favorite kind of pizza. They’ll argue endlessly about what’s better—Chicago-style or New York-style. Bottom line: Pizza fans are the most loyal consumers of any food item. They’re not looking for cookie-cutter uniformity. They want pizza that meets their needs and that’s exactly what we intend to continue to offer them.”

May the Force be with you, Marla! Indeed, victory may be on the horizon. As we’ve reported in, new bipartisan legislation called the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 may exempt all pizzerias (yes, even those non-squares at Pizza Hut and Domino’s can feel the pizza love) from in-store menu board hell. Unfortunately, the geometry tsars in Washington haven’t resolved the calorie count dilemma for a square slice in a round whole pizza.     

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Find Pizza Inspiration in Sardis, Mississippi

Who knew that a Neapolitan-style pizzeria with an old-school brick wood-fired oven was baking up some of the best pizza in America—and doing it in small-town Mississippi? Well, a growing number of local folks and energized fall newcomers visiting the football-crazy Oxford, Mississippi, area, home of Ole Miss, know. They're savoring some of the best pies west of Naples on sale about 45 minutes away from Oxford in charming Sardis, Mississippi.

Dutch and Rebecca Van Oostendorp, originally from New York, opened the TriBecca Allie Café eight years ago. Dutch came to Mississippi to pursue his passion for golf and Rebecca, the brightly smiling woman that would become his wife. Rebecca, inspiration for the name TriBeccca, was already in the Magnolia State coaching swimming and working at Ole Miss. Before long, the athletic soulmates, now living in the pastoral lake community of Sardis, had found a unique way to channel their shared drive for excellence and East Coast food favorites. They found it in the comforting, fragrant warmth of homemade bread loaves.

When Dutch realized instructing aspiring golfers in the laid-back south was not his cup of sweet tea, he and Rebecca went back to their Northeastern roots—without leaving Mississippi.  The Van Oostendorps built a brick oven in their Sardis home and started a small business selling their lovingly baked artisan breads to local farmers markets. But when the ideally situated TriBecca Allie location at 216 South Main became available in 2007, right next to the Sardis Playhouse theater, the couple jumped at the opportunity. They erected the only wood-fired brick pizza oven in Mississippi at the restaurant. Then they piled on grueling working hours building an award-winning reputation for delicious old-world, thin-crust, authentically Neapolitan pizza. “At first it was a bit of a challenge educating our customers that a little char on the bottom of their pizza didn’t mean it was burned,” Dutch explains. “We like to think we’ve helped out regular customers become pizza connoisseurs.”

It doesn’t take a pizza expert, however, to fall in love with menu selections like the Magnola Rosa Insalata, 12 inches of pizza preeminence topped with mixed greens, pine nuts, house-made balsamic vinegar and Pecorino Romano cheese. You don’t even have to love pizza to dig TriBecca, since they offer daily home-cooked specials and wonderful desserts.

But the pizza here is remarkable, and more than worth a few words of description. The original Magnolia Rosa pays tribute to the Van Oostendorp’s adopted home state featuring Mississippi pecans, and TriBecca’s Margherita owes its tangy “Viva Italia” signature flavor to homemade marinara sauce and fresh, whole-milk mozzarella. Don’t worry, meat lovers are never short-changed at TriBecca. They stake claim to their own protein plenty with sausage, ham, bacon, pepperoni, chicken and meatball options. Again, while you might not have to be a pizza perfectionist to appreciate these hand-crafted pies, the pizza pantheon has already spoken. The Magnolia Rosa Insalata brought home culinary glory to Mississippi and the Van Oostendorps when TriBecca Allie's masterpiece earned second-place in the World Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.

So what did I think when I visited the picturesque pizzeria with attached gelato shop last week? I was deeply moved by the quality of the pizza and the quality of the professionals who run this family dream-come-true. To watch Dutch and Rebecca in action, tandem pizza chefs maneuvering their peel-poised pies into the fiery dark promise of TriBecca’s red brick oven, is to witness the definition of teamwork. Watching them chat with customers and staff, and especially, to see these committed partners smile at each other, is to share a vision of service, respect and pride that is as meaningful as it is simple. They create this touching taste and dining experience with time-tested tools and ingredients—at their own pace with standards that are never compromised. And they carry out their life’s passion in a place where enduring values mean everything. I think a trip to Sardis, Mississippi, and TriBecca Allie Café is simply extraordinary.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

PMQ Band Offers Slice of Hope, Beats Memphis Blues

At PMQ, we usually cover pizza news, not make it. But on August 20 at Barron Heights Transition Center in Memphis, two of my colleagues became the face of a Slice of Hope celebration that brought smiles and pizza to some guys who just needed a break. Slice of Hope is the national pizza party outreach program founded by Indian-American actor and host of Bollywood-focused TV shows Obeid Kadwani. The organization sponsors events each summer in shelters in 25 states. Its mission, in Kadwani’s words, is to “Create one real moment of joy for folks who are facing tremendous hardships and challenges.”

The concept is to use pizza, music and friendship to kindle some hope in people who are down on their luck or just haven’t enjoyed a decent meal in a while. At Barron Hills, the audience for this particular “Party of Hope” was veterans. Many are being treated for drug addiction. PMQ staff members Brian Hernandez and Daniel Perea joined me for the 45-minute drive from PMQ’s Oxford, Mississippi, headquarters to the shelter site in downtown Memphis. I took the photos you see here and talked to residents like Ivory, former Navy member, Tommy, who served as a Marine from 1973-1976 and David who saw combat as an Army truck driver in the Persian Gulf.

While I wielded a camera, Daniel and Brian picked up their instruments and rocked Ivory, Tommy and David along with about 30 of their military brothers as the musical entertainment and MCs for the event. The concert took place just after a van delivered dozens of Little Caesars pizzas. The hungry men lined up for a slice and then took their seats in the Barron Heights meeting room.

It was time to boogy! Playing a variety of blues, rock and country favorites, Brian on acoustic guitar and harmonica and Daniel on electric guitar solicited requests from the appreciative vets. They picked up the musical pace inspiring their mostly 50-60 year-old fans to clap, whistle and dance to standards like Elvis’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and The Stray Cats’ “Stray Cat Strut.”

One of those veteran most moved by the infectious PMQ-supplied rhythms was Ivory, aged 60, who said he had returned to his Memphis home that very day from Dallas. The soft-spoken former Harrier jet mechanic said he came home to fight his drug addiction and depression.  “I’ve got things I need to do with my family and this is the starting point for me to get things under control,” Ivory says.

Another former Barron Heights client is now a drug abuse councilor. Derix served in the Army from 1977-1982 and fought his own alcohol and drug addiction for 40 years. He got his own life in order after going through the program at Barron Heights. “Now I return here every so often to encourage the guys,” says the big man who couldn’t resist shaking his money maker to the PMQ Band’s grooves.

After Brian and Daniel were finished playing, the vets who hadn’t left for their next treatment session thanked us for bringing some variety into their journey of recovery and transition.  As an Air Force veteran myself, it was a privilege to serve these American patriots in even a small way. But as I watched Brian and Daniel pack up their guitars and amps, I knew it was their musical talent that made the biggest difference in the hearts of warriors still battling for their futures and families. It was a team win we’ll all remember--and so will the guys at Barron Heights.



Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Name to Forget

I’ve only been writing about pizza since last December, but this much is clear to me. America’s favorite food should be a rallying point for people all over the world—not an object of dissension. When the folks at the New York pizzeria Pizza by Certé decided it was a smashing idea to add a pie to their menu called "Pic-a-Nika," I take their word that they were thinking “summer picnic fun with an Italian accent.”

But there had to be a moment when the pie makers shared the topping list with the clever marketers at Pizza by Certé. “Yep, guarantee ya the peeps are crushing for an awesome tasty summer pie smothered in fried chicken, watermelon and sunflower seeds,” said the overenthusiastic white millennial who may or may not have been distracted by his or her ear phones busting out Miley Cyrus or even Nicki Minaj. Nobody saw the big picture? Nobody noticed their internal stereotype meter was pegging off the charts, blowing up their judgment data banks with huge RED flashing digital letters screaming, WARNING, WARNING, WARNING—Detonation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

The thing went off last week like a Twitter thermonuclear bomb and escalated rapidly into physical protests outside the store by a group associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The cross section of pizza and politics has been full-on penetrated like a drunk, clueless college kid in a careening, beat-up Subaru at 2 a.m. on Sunday.

Point is I’m willing to accept Certé manager Vincent Guzman’s claim: "When we made it we never thought that it would offend anyone. We create to feed, not to offend." But by the time he made this plea for understanding, it was far too late. Independent pizzerias around the country live and die by their social media marketing. Getting out front of menu changes, special events, customer loyalty and employee recognition can set your operation apart and forge a unique bond with your community. I’ve seen the power of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach out and touch pizza fans and drive them to their neighborhood pie palace for food, friendship and fun times.

But the same tools, in the hands of even well-meaning operators with a limited or unchallenged world view, can lay waste to dreams and years of hard work. After the protests and the media megaton fallout, Pizza by Certé management finally got something right, saying this on their Facebook page: "When we named the pizza 'Pic-a-nika' we disrespected an entire community, perpetuated a hurtful ideology and brought embarrassment to ourselves. In a time and climate when words carry so much charge, we chose beyond poorly and cannot erase or ignore the damaging effects it has caused."

Along with the outraged cries of those offended by Pizza by Certé and their gaffe of all gaffes, you’re sure to hear others decrying the state of political correctness that punishes innocent, struggling business owners. The truth is, whatever their real motivation, the brains behind the Pic-A-Nika debacle screwed the pooch in every way imaginable. The competitive restaurant playing field is unforgiving and relentless. Sound marketing combined with quality food will lead to survival. Monumentally brain-dead choices will lead inevitably to equipment auctions and grand openings for the new owners. (See PMQ’s Pizza Insider, for a primer on why opening a pizzeria might not be in your best interest).

So the charitable approach might be to give Pizza by Certé the benefit of the doubt and hope they’ve learned their lesson. One definition in the Italian dictionary of certé is “It goes without saying.” If only the rocket scientists/ pizza pitchers in New York could really read Italian instead of amusing themselves by bastardizing a perfectly good word like picnic. It goes without saying, what they did say in promoting their racially charged pie was a recipe for divisiveness and professional disaster.

Then again, social and racial justice is a long-term, sometimes hard-edged battle. A fair advocate might argue these folks have earned their Darwin Award and bid them good riddance. I will simply hope that this case study in restaurant marketing gone terribly wrong will not detract from a lesson the pizza community knows instinctively—pizza is the best food in the world to bring all kinds of people together and pizza operators have a passion for serving, not tearing down, their community.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Love Letter to A Meatball Sandwich

In my blog last week I talked about my Colorado road trip with PMQ Thinktankers Richard “Daddio” Ames and Steve “Bodega Highway” Hitchcock.  But if I’m being perfectly honest, one of the Rocky Mountain highlights of my July journey was the meatball sandwich I inhaled at Wholly Stromboli in Fort Lupton, site of the Great Western Pizza Summit on July 15.

This iconic, self-styled “East Coast Eatery” is located in a 103-year-old historic building where locals imbibed illegal prohibition hooch. Now it houses a cat’s meow basement Speakeasy where former—long-dead—gangsters and flappers are said to materialize. The beautiful and, dare-I-say, sizzling flappers-waitresses who worked the July 15 pizza celebration and talkfest in the newly renovated Speakeasy at Wholly Stromboli were some scary-sweet tomatoes, see! These ladies were, decidedly, not dead.

Talk about scary-sweet tomatoes—let’s return to the meatball sandwich of my dreams. Co-owner and U.S. Pizza Team competitor Melissa Rickman (above) is a beautiful New Jersey girl. She moved to a lovely small town in Colorado with her sharp husband and entrepreneurial partner, Eric, to offer the game–accustomed westerners of Fort Lupton something unfamiliar. She and her staff cook up classic urban Italian dishes like New York-style pizza, mouth-watering stromboli and, yes, the best meatball sandwich on the planet.

The recipes are lovingly handed down from Melissa’s mom and grandmother. On the menu are improvised mashups like WS’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Stromboli—trust me folks, this sweet, chewy piece of Heaven ain’t just for kids. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to snatch one right out of one of my grandkid’s sticky hands. The inspiring food at WS, and great bar, have earned  Rick and Melissa’s joint mountain cred for the best place around to have a good time. And “around” in Colorado is awful BIG.

But I digress—back to the Wholly Stromboli Meatball Masterpiece. Hand-molded, tender dark globes of fresh ground beef covered in tangy, just-sweet-enough, marinara sauce and gooey mozzarella on toasted Italian bread. Since the day my mom took me to an Italian restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, at age 7, after she sprung me from the Navy hospital following a 3-day stretch for minor eye surgery, I have revered a well-executed meatball sandwich. The kind of ultimate comfort dish I committed to memory that Gulf Coast day is never cheapened with the blunt trailer, “sub,” despite its Naval roots. It is a perfectly balanced mound of red-sauce-immersed steaming meatballs on both planks of a halfed, browned, oven-crusted bread vessel blanketed in bubbling cheese. Sprinkle on some green sprigs of fresh Oregano to sign off the portrait.

That’s exactly what I got at Wholly Stromboli, as you can see for yourself.

So, in the end, I returned from Colorado with great memories of wonderful, passionate pizza makers, an incredible East Coast food Oasis operated with friendly western charm … and those mountains. Yeh, the high, snow-capped ones that John Denver sang about, sure—but also the 3-inch-round red ones covered in golden melted cheese. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Colorado Pizza Journey--the Stuff of Dreams

So what’s the connection between the breathtakingly beautiful Colorado Rockies and two passionate pizza makers? Ask Richard “Daddio” Ames or Steve “Bodega Highway” Hitchcock and they might say it has something to do with freedom.

I soaked in stories and observations from these two entrepreneurs, naturalists and renaissance pizzaioli as we drove through majestic mountain passes and skirted the mighty, untamed Colorado River. I joined them on a 240-mile road trip—with a few pizzeria pit stops—from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado. Ames, owner of Daddio’s Pizzeria in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, was hosted by pizza comrade Hitchcock, who founded Soda Creek Pizza in the picture postcard Colorado mountain resort port of Steamboat Springs in 1999.
Ames was returning to his native state after more than three decades in Canada for a reunion with former classmates and get-togethers with new pizzeria friends. He kindled those new online relationships through the idea-fanning discussion oven of’s Think Tank. Think Tank power plugs Daddio and Bodega Highway served as half the panel for The Western Pizza Summit held at the iconic, 100-year-old Wholly Stromboli restaurant in Fort Lupton, Colorado, on July 15. Wholly Stromboli co-founder Melissa Rickman and Master Pizza mastermind and U.S. Pizza Team superstar Mike LaMarca were the other pizza panel provocateurs. They informed and entertained a lively crowd in Wholly Stromboli’s flapper-evoking, wholly kick-butt Speakeasy with wide-ranging riffs wrapping up with the impact of Colorado’s legalized reefer rules on restaurants.

But back to Daddio and Bodega Highway—Think Tank nom de plumes for Ames and Hitchcock. Daddio runs a bustling pizzeria just 1,500 miles north of Denver in some rugged Canadian terrain where customers scale mini-mountain winter snowdrifts to earn their pizzas and wings at Daddio’s.  Daddio himself told me that his pizza delivery drivers routinely have to contend with moose and bears. The softspoken family man, hunter, fisherman and avid nature photographer is sharp as a tack when it comes to sharing innovative ideas about marketing and operating an independent pizzeria. “I’ve been successful in a lot of jobs,” he says without a hint of arrogance. “Even solved electric power generation challenges for the Canadian government as a consultant in remote locations, but my greatest love, besides my family, is being part of the pizza business.” The Colorado native routinely wears a t-shirt sporting the Daddio’s logo and the words “Think About Pizza.”
Ames wraps his delivery vehicles in low-light reflecting vinyl to combat the long northern nights and illuminate his "Think About Pizza” credo for quirky Canadian customers. “I actively employ high- and low-tech marketing solutions to drive my business, including a very active Facebook page, gift card program and even fun contests,” he says. “But in the end, it’s the quality of our ingredients and our pizzas that set us apart. As we say in all of our promotional materials, that’s ‘because taste matters.’”

Steve Bodega Highway Hitchcock took a winding professional road to arrive in his beloved Steamboat Springs, home of Soda Creek Pizza. Hitchcock founded the take-out-only pizzeria 15 years ago after he and his wife picked the 6,695-foot-elevation skier’s paradise to put down stakes. “My wife is from Colorado and I had lived in Illinois, Minnesota, Europe and California before stepping down from my national sales position with an outdoors product firm and moved to Colorado without a job,” he explains. “We planned to stay in a bunch of different towns when making our decision, but after spending a night in Steamboat, we both said, ‘This is it!’” Now, the community-minded businessman own a clothing boutique along with his sparkling pizza joint that offers familiar favorites along with specialty pizzas like fresh Sockeye Salmon and Elk-topped  pies.

Between his two businesses, Hitchcock works considerable hours. Still, he insists on making the time to support other Steamboat businesses. A skilled fly fisherman, he cherishes the natural wonders Colorado offers. “We raft, canoe, hike and mountain bike together as a family in one of the greatest spots on Earth to enjoy those activities,” Hitchcock says. “With Soda Creek Pizza, I have put together a team who I trust to create ‘Best in the Boat’ award-winning pizza with unique, fresh toppings and daily-made dough. We do this with solid point-of-service technology and automated budgeting software that allows me the freedom to take time off, recharge and appreciate my awe-inspiring surroundings. I truly believe people in the pizza industry have a duty to themselves and their families to get away from the store and reach out into their communities.”

Our PMQ crew parted ways with Daddio at the summit of the Grand Mesa in Western Colorado where jagged snow-lined peaks gave way to rolling flat-top vistas of green and blue. The separated Coloradoan spoke wistfully of his mountainous birthplace and the pizza community that sustained him on his journey home. “It’s remarkable that that you can travel all over this continent and share a passion and a way of life with the great, dedicated people who work in the pizza industry,” Daddio says as the slightest trace of a tear welled up in one eye. “I love Canada and Alberta because that is where my family and my livelihood reside. But the beauty of this Colorado wilderness is a memory you can never forget. It sets your spirit free.”

Yes, Daddio, our Colorado journey with you and the experiences we brought home with us to Mississippi are the images of dreams.