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.