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 Nashvillelifestyles.com 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.