Pizza makers find true calling in the dough

Having spent nearly his entire adult life hammering the drums nightly on stage, Josh Sickels had more than his share of seminal moments as an aspiring rock star and all the ancillary (and printable) hell-raising that goes with that pursuit, which include but are not limited to: crisscrossing the country and the globe, sleeping in vans and on floors, parties, fights, hanging in the Hollywood Hills, and rubbing elbows with minor celebrities and music legends.

Rockaway Pizzeria
1955 Lincoln Way, White Oak.

The Irwin native managed to scratch out a modest living with it, too, as his power-pop bands The Takeover U.K. and later 1,2,3, which he’d formed with lifelong friends, were regulars on the club circuit and had songs picked up for network television shows and commercials.

“We got to a point where we had some Spinal Tap moments,” he said, and they went their separate directions in 2014.

“For the last 2½ years I’d been sort of floating in the wind, delivering Chinese food, waiting tables, doing online clickbait marketing,” he said, in search of his second calling. “I had always said for years that if I don’t play music for a living, I wanted to own my own pizzeria.”

He became one of several prominent Pittsburgh pizza shop owners who did not originally set out to sling pies.

There was one catch for him: He’d never worked in a pizzeria, let alone made a single pizza or kneaded a batch of dough.

So he taught himself, in part by drawing on a lifetime of “research,” which mostly consisted of eating pizza in every city he toured or lived in.

“I spent so much of my time in New York for so many years, I ate my way through every slice joint in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn,” he said, citing Di Fara Pizzeria in the Midwood section of Brooklyn as the best he’s ever had and Dominic DeMarco, who’s run the shop since 1964, as his pizza equivalent of John Lennon.

“He does everything so fresh. He’ll shave down the block of Parmesan and mozzarella right in front of you,” Mr. Sickels said.

Last spring, he said, “I made a five-year plan for myself: Within five years, I will own a pizza shop. And I’ll do whatever it takes to save up and buy the equipment.”

He’d scoured online forums, cold-called and emailed pizza-makers around the country, looking to glean as much knowledge and insight as he could about the business from both a food and economics standpoint.

“At the time I was working diligently on my recipes, constantly going to Penn Mac, trying out every tomato from Italy, the Napa Valley, Jersey tomatoes — whatever cheeses and meats I could get my hands on. And I gained 20 pounds last year … from research and development,” he laughed.

“I had this hole in my soul, and I filled it back up with sauce, cheese and dough,” he said.

About four months into that plan, he learned about a turnkey pizza shop in White Oak that, while looking like little more than a concrete bunker from the outside, had all the equipment ready to roll on the inside.

“I thought, no way. I’m not ready. I had only made pizza for my buddies at my apartment,” he said.

But a pizza-making friend he’d met online urged him to seize the opportunity.

So Rockaway Pizzeria, with a logo and name inspired by the Ramones, was born. Serving New York-style thin crust pizza, it opened at the beginning of this year to a favorable reception for his execution of the style and quality of ingredients.

“I don’t know [anything] about doing it under capitalism,” he laughed. “It’s brutal.”

If he needs pointers he can certainly draw from more than a few talented accidental pizzaiolos who found their unintended true calling after years of toiling — such as Anthony Giaramita, a former attorney for whom it took hitting the snooze button 14 straight times for him to get his life’s wake-up call.

Pizza Taglio
126 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty.

Mr. Giaramita grew up in the restaurant business — his family owns La Tavola on Mount Washington — but he wanted no part of it.

“I basically did everything I could to avoid working at my parents’ restaurant,” he laughed, recalling his first job at the Greentree Road Einstein’s Bagels. “Because we’re Sicilian and we’re complicated — my dad is always right, and my mom is always right, and my sisters are always right. So I had no choice but to go to law school so someone would listen to me.”

He studied at Thiel College and did Semester at Sea and summer programs at Harvard. He interned at a small firm. University of Pittsburgh School of Law was next. Right out of law school he clerked under a judge, then worked at a major Downtown firm.

“This was the kind of job people drool over, but I was miserable,” he said. “When it’s exciting, it’s really exciting, but that’s such a tiny portion as a litigator.”

He went back to work at a small firm and “on the day I hit the snooze button 14 times, I decided I better start thinking about something else.”

Mr. Giaramita reached back to his roots and developed Pizza Taglio, a Roman-style pizzeria in East Liberty inspired by an episode of “The Layover,” in which host Anthony Bourdain visited the famed pizzeria of Gabriele Bonci in Rome. Mr. Giaramita went to New York to attend seminars led by Mr. Bonci on the dough-making and baking processes.

“I thought it would be easy — I figured, I’m a lawyer,” he said. It took months for him to get it right.

He’s coming up on his two-year anniversary in business in April, and his pizza has earned praise in both local and national publications.

“When I was a lawyer, I was happy maybe 3 percent of the time,” Mr. Giaramita said. “I’d work on a single case for months and months before I knew the outcome. But when I’m here, I make the dough two nights before. Then the oven is roaring and I make a pizza for a table and seven minutes later I know if we’ve won or lost. It doesn’t get more immediate. Our goal is that every pizza we make is the best one we’ve ever made.”

Rick Werner’s journey from corporate America to peeling pizzas had less to do with leaving a career he disliked than to seeing if he could meet the challenge of running his own business.

Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria
300 Liberty Ave., #100, Downtown.

After earning a business degree at Penn State University, he went to work for Merck pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia and then Price Waterhouse in northern Virginia, before returning to Pittsburgh to work in real estate. But he had an itch that needed scratching.

At the time, it could’ve been anything, but the South Park native had become fascinated with the concept of traditional Neapolitan-style pizza made in a 900-degree oven and done, start to finish, in just a few minutes. He studied theory and training to earn certification at the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and opened Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria Downtown in 2012.

“I hate using the word artisan, but I love the hands-on nature of this and the attention to product,” he said. Although he’d had a brief stint at the Penn State Sub Shop during college, his younger sister Nicole is a lifelong service industry employee, and she showed him the ropes on how the front of the house works.

Family is also the driving force behind Yoli’s Pizza in Jefferson Hills, where Ben Bartilson opened a shop dedicated to his grandmother in an unlikely spot on the side of a storage unit in a suburban hollow.

Yoli’s Pizza
1216 Cochrans Mill Road, Jefferson Hills.

He’d had some professional restaurant experience and had considered opening a place of his own, but after getting married and having a baby, the McKeesport native opted for more security and took a job selling industrial equipment.

“I liked working there, but I hated it because I was terrible at it,” he said.

“There’s no good time to do this,” he said, so he took a leap and opened Yoli’s in early 2015. Yoli is the nickname of his deceased grandmother Yolanda. He uses one of her sauces and meatball recipes in his product.

“The only regret is that I didn’t do this earlier. I didn’t do this because I’m a shrewd businessman. I genuinely get great satisfaction out of having happy customers,” he said, before adding, “but you have to be a little bit crazy to do this.”

Dan Gigler:; Twitter @gigs412.


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