Chef Chat, Part 2: Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck
NEWS UPDATE: at 9:15 am this morning, Anthony Calleo has announced that Sandy Witch, his second food endeavor located inside of Grand Prize Bar, has closed. This closely followed an announcement on their Facebook page of a collaborative brunch with Bernie's Burger Bus. The brunch was to be on August 31st, but it sounds like that's not going to happen now. In this Chef Chat, Calleo relates some of the difficulties associated with Sandy Witch and gives some insight on why it failed.
In Part 1, of our Chef Chat with Anthony Calleo, we learned about how he left social work and a career as a real estate broker to come back to the profession he started in: the pizza business. In Part 2, we talk about giant orders, the pizzas near and dear to Calleo's heart and fans that love Pi Pizza so much that they are willing to get permanent tattoos.
EOW: What's the largest pizza order you've ever gotten?
AC: That was definitely at Papa John's in the Medical Center--175 large pizzas. I delivered all of them in three trips.
EOW: Whaaat? Oh my gosh. That's stacks and stacks of pizzas!
AC: It was so hot in my car that my mirrors kept fogging up with the windows down in August. My trunk, backseat and floorboards were all full.
EOW: What's your favorite pizza here?
AC: Dammit, I don't know. You have kids. Which kid do you like the best?
EOW: Oooh. That's impossible.
AC: I don't know. Here's your answer: the pizza I'm proudest of is The Outdoorsman with venison and cherries. Some of the food I make can get kind of busy and it isn't. It's two ingredients on a cheese pizza that pair perfectly together. It's also the most popular fancy pizza I have.
The pizza closest to my heart is the Drunken Peach. It's the first pizza I ever came up with for my shop. It has fresh, diced habaneros, peaches and blueberries in whisky syrup and Texas goat cheese.
The pizza I like to eat the most is the Soppressata. We buy the soppressata from a really excellent source. It's a really good product. I spend a lot of time on the deli slicer cutting a ton of soppressata. Unlike most of the other stuff we do, I don't "make" that. But it's delicious.
I have a hard time eating my own food. It's like watching your own porn tape. Unless you are a rare breed of individual... It sounds like a good idea, right? Then you do it and then you watch it and you're like, "This isn't sexy. This isn't turning me on." It's fun to make and share with other people, but it's not so fun to watch. That's how I feel about the food I make. It's fun to make and share with people, but eating it is kind of weird. It's like watching myself have sex on camera.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography Calleo concentrates on creating perfect pizza slices
EOW: Annually, you have a tattoo day where if someone gets a Pi Pizza truck tattoo, he or she will get a free pizza slice every day for as long as you're in business. The last time you did this, you had lines for, what, two days?
AC: Last time was interesting. The first year, we had 22 people do it in a month. This year, we had 25 people do it in two days. We turned away about 20 people on Friday and about 46 people on Saturday.
EOW: Just because the tattoo artist couldn't get to them?
Chuck Cook Photography A close-up of the 420, topped with chili, cheese, Fritos and barbeque sauce
AC: Yeah, there's just one guy who does them (Gabriel Massey from Scorpion Studios). He's one of my best friends in the world and a real talented guy. He did all of the artwork for the pizza truck and Sandy Witch, and he does the tattoos.
EOW: How does it feel to have human beings walking around with your tattoos on bodies forever? Is that kind of cool?
AC: Yeah, it's pretty cool. All those tattoos are pretty wild-looking. People actually get them in really noticeable places. People are going to ask them, "What the fuck is that?" and then they're going to have to tell them about my pizza truck. That's worth eight dollars retail a day to me.
EOW: Moving on to Sandy Witch, the sandwich shop that you run inside of Grand Prize Bar... what made you want to start that?
AC: I love sandwiches. They're fun. When we first opened the truck, we made sandwiches from time to time and people loved them. But I only have so much cooking space in here and we are a pizza truck not a sandwich truck. I actually got it in my head to do a sandwich truck. I see all of these cute taco trucks for sale and had to talk myself out of opening a sandwich truck. I did two pop ups in the Grand Prize kitchen. When Martinez (Joshua Martinez of The Modular food truck and the forthcoming "The Chicken Ranch") started doing food there, I helped him out on the line cooking for a couple of weeks while he was trying to get the labor under control. I really love that bar. Before opening the sandwich shop, It was my preferred place to drink. Even after opening the sandwich shop, I still end up drinking there.
I remember standing on the line one night, checking everything out and thinking "Man, I would love this to be my kitchen one day." Fast-forward through everything we tried to do to keep a food program in there.
EOW: It wasn't very stable.
AC: Yeah, it's hard as shit. It's hard for me and I treat it like a business. It's not for fun or a hobby or every once in a while. It's a business and it still HARD. I thought about so many things for the sandwich shop before I did it, but the one question I failed to ask myself was "How are people going to react to a business inside of a business in Houston?" In New York, it happens all of the time. It's no big deal. It's a challenge for Sandy Witch.
EOW: What makes it a challenge?
AC: People are confused by it. Oh, now you're going to make me talk positively about myself, Phaedra. The food there is really good. It's not the French Laundry, but it still thoughtful. It's still good and we make almost everything from scratch.
In the year that I've been there, I've learned a lot. I'm a hardheaded person and I don't learn the easy way. I do much better learning the hard way. Sandy Witch has been like "restaurant lite." It's more of a restaurant than the food truck, but not as much of a restaurant if it was its own thing.
EOW: Is Pi Pizza getting a storefront?
AC: Yes ma'am.
EOW: Do we know what part of town?
AC: No, we do not. I thought we did until yesterday. Now we don't.
EOW: Is it reasonable to think that within a year it will have a storefront?
AC: It will be sooner than the next year. I've got a partner and we're out looking for deals. It will be inside the Loop.
Chuck Cook Photography Pi Pizza's soppressata pie lit by a Houston sunset
EOW: What do you want people to know about you?
AC: I come off rough sometimes. A lot of that is because people almost always run into me at work and I'm almost always working so I have my game face on. I'm actually a pretty nice guy. I try to not take myself too seriously at all but at the same time I try to take my life seriously and what I do seriously. I love what I do and I wanted to be more than a silly little truck with a giant oven in it. I want to make a better product and I know that I can make a better product than what I make now in a store.
I want to be able to share it with more people than the truck lets me. I want to be able to kick open the door to my pass covered in flour on a busy Friday night, cross my arms, look out, and see a bunch of people eating. That's what I want. Feeding people makes me happy.