Food Fighter

Time and again, Valley restaurant legend Nick Ligidakis has cooked his own goose. Will Cafe Niko be another overtrimmed turkey?

To some foodies, this idiosyncratic chef is the populist Wolfgang Puck--a charming kitchen magician who, whether stuffing fans or providing annual Thanksgiving dinners to the needy, is a candidate for culinary sainthood.

To others, however, he's the surly Pizza Nazi--a single-minded megalomaniac whose bullheaded brand of "my way or the highway" perfectionism has turned him into the local restaurant scene's loosest cannon and his own worst enemy.

And while the former group rhapsodizes about his gift for cooking, skeptics counter that his real genius lies in his ability to find investors willing to back one restaurant fiasco after another.

But no matter how you slice it (and if this cook has had a hand in it, you can bet it'll be an obscenely huge portion, dripping with at least three kinds of cheese), one thing's for certain. During the past 13 years, Valley restaurant mavens have gotten a very large bellyful of the larger-than-life force of nature known as Nick Ligidakis.

Now, saddled with one of the most battle-scarred records in local dining history (depending on your math, four or five failed eateries since '84), the controversial restaurateur is back again with his latest assault on the Valley's digestive tract.

Located in OfficeMax Plaza at Hayden and Osborn roads, Cafe Niko is a far cry from the havoc-ridden scenes of Ligidakis' earlier notoriety. Instead of flying crockery, soothing music fills the air on a recent morning. Ligidakis' menu--once a 300-item behemoth that included more than 85 pizza toppings alone--has been pared down to several dozen entrees and appetizers. And when the chef/proprietor stops at a table to have a word with customers these days, it's more likely to be an exchange of pleasantries, not an indignant sermon on why he cannot possibly impugn the integrity of his cooking by omitting an ingredient or serving half portions. (Okay, so substitutions still aren't allowed; only today, at least, Ligidakis isn't quite as vocal about it.)

Over a cup of coffee, the Greek soccer player turned restaurateur ponders the new, gentler Nick Ligidakis.

"We get the idea that we are Superman, and we are not," intones Ligidakis, still darkly handsome at 52. "I'm no longer a young man. It's taken me a while to learn that."

Something resembling a smile momentarily crosses his brooding countenance. "I have mellowed."

Industry observers are already laying odds.

Asked where this indefatigable dynamo fits into the local culinary universe, one Valley food writer doesn't hesitate a moment. "Nick is simply part of the local landscape," comes the answer. "You've got your mountains, your plateaus, your saguaros--and then you've got Nick."

Unlike those first three landmarks, however, Ligidakis rarely stands still for long.

The Valley first caught wind of Ligidakis' garlic-scented smell of excess in 1984, the year he arrived in Phoenix and took over a failing pizza 'n' wings joint at 50th Street and McDowell.

Rechristening it the Golden Pizza, the tireless pie-flipper and self-promoter gradually transformed an unremarkable hole in the wall into a cult feeding trough.

The big attraction? Ten-pound pizzas. Football-size calzones. Massive cakes that caved in on themselves under the weight of five pounds of chocolate. And virtually all of it cooked by Ligidakis himself, working out of a closet-size kitchen that frequently doubled as sleeping quarters following 18-hour shifts.

A pro soccer player in his native Greece, Ligidakis found himself stranded in the United States when a Chicago-based league fell apart in 1969. Using recipes he'd picked up at his father's taverna, he became a restaurateur by default, managing or operating a series of eateries in Chicago before relocating his family to the Valley. (That move, claims Ligidakis, was precipitated by his then-mother-in-law's health problems.)

Near penniless Greek soccer player comes to town, opens funky pizzeria in an unfashionable part of town and, against all odds, attracts a fervent clientele that cuts across all class lines. Ligidakis' story was a quirky Horatio Alger tale custom-made for the restaurant-crazed '80s.

Although many members of the food press ate it up, some observers didn't, and continue to be bewildered by the Ligidakis feeding frenzy.

"To me he always seemed to be this sort of amateurish guy who thought more was better and threw virtually everything he could think of into a single dish," says Phoenix Magazine's Nikki Buchanan, a food writer who's followed Ligidakis' career from his original pizzeria. "There'd be 10 or 15 ingredients in a concoction, everything but the kitchen sink, and everyone oohed and aahed. To me, this was really the sign of someone who didn't know when to quit.

"Except for those wonderful pizzas he used to do--which I absolutely loved--I just never got it," Buchanan continues. Still, "the very thing I hated [about his cooking] appears to be the very thing a lot of people loved. To them, these weird assemblages of stuff was very cool."

A fellow critic agrees. "This is not showcase cuisine," says New Times food writer Howard Seftel. "Nobody's going to take a visitor to one of his places to show off the town." Instead, he characterizes Ligidakis' past eateries as places to "eat tons of food at not-unreasonable prices."

Perhaps too many tons. "I'd bet that if he sold these dishes for two-thirds the price and gave half the portions, he'd do okay," says Seftel. "As it is, I suspect he's keeping out as many people as he's bringing in. Serving people portions that big is not customer-friendly. Dining out should be pleasurable, not a chore."

Veteran Ligidakis-watcher Elin Jeffords says she long ago gave up trying to fathom Ligidakis' messiahlike hold over a select group of Valley diners.

"The whole Nick thing continues to be an enigma to me," admits Jeffords, a longtime Valley restaurant critic who now operates her own consulting firm. Claiming that Ligidakis' fame always seemed way out of proportion to the number of people who'd actually eaten at any of his "Greek diners gone berserk," she adds, "His appeal was very cultish--it was almost like he was widely known by relatively few. I'm still mystified."

Ligidakis-watchers have good reason to scratch their heads. A complex bundle of contradictions, the man is a riddle within a conundrum within a grape leaf.

While boasting that recipes frequently come to him in his sleep, he adamantly refuses to make substitutions, claiming the dishes represent "years of work and knowledge." Well-known for programs to provide Thanksgiving dinners for the hungry (in 1995, his efforts fed 32,000), he routinely propagates waste at his restaurants by serving customers Brobdingnagian portions that would tax Chris Farley. And though he's a control freak of the first order, he repeatedly becomes involved in restaurant ventures far, far beyond the scope of any one person. (Watching Ligidakis in action, one food critic aptly characterized him as "a crazed team athlete playing every position at once.")

But don't waste your time trying to figure him out.
"There's no rhyme nor reason to the Nick Ligidakis philosophy," explains a former Ligidakis employee of several years. "He's not about business, he's about food and creativity. You either go along with him or you don't. Right or wrong, everything is his way."

But despite that legendary inflexibility (admittedly a trait not unknown in the temperamental food community), Ligidakis has "passion," insists one longtime pal.

"That's one thing nobody can take away from Nick," says Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer, owner of Razz's Restaurant in Scottsdale. "You're going to find very few people with the heart that guy's got. He's amazing."

Despite Ligidakis' spectacular string of failed restaurants, Kamnitzer remains optimistic about the future of his friend's latest venture. "This [new] one is going to work out, and you know why?" asks Kamnitzer. "Because it's small, it's intimate and his family's working with him."

Kamnitzer laughs. "He's on his fifth restaurant? I'm on my sixth; I've got him beat by one. Hey, some of us are born to be creative geniuses--but when it comes to business, we just suck."

Nick Ligidakis' beetling brow twists into a hirsute knot. At first, he tries to ignore the pots and pans clattering together in the kitchen. But when the noise continues, he's unable to concentrate on conversation and finally excuses himself from the table to investigate.

Peace restored to the scullery, Ligidakis returns and shrugs. "When I first came to this country, I used to see people work so hard in the restaurants that I thought there was something wrong with them," he says. "You either have to love it or be crazy, one or the other."

Where does Ligidakis fit in? With no prompting, he admits that his devotion to the business has taken its toll on his personal life--past restaurant failures have cost him his car, his home and his marriage.

It also caused friction with his three children, including two grown sons who now work alongside their father at Cafe Niko.

"I think the reason my children used to depise this business is not because they didn't like it, but because it took so much time away from them," he says. "They don't want to do the same thing to their children--and I don't blame them. I don't want to do that to my grandchildren, either."

Surveying his latest dining dominion--the 1,600-square-foot cafe is his smallest space since the first operation on East McDowell--Ligidakis nods his head.

The display cases are stocked with dozens of pastries and, despite no advertising, the reservation book is filling up for the weekend. Preparations for this year's Thanksgiving charity dinners (the goal is to serve 15,000) are on track. His self-published autobiography (titled 5024 E. McDowell, the address of his first pizzeria) is selling well, and orders are already coming in for Heroes of My Thoughts, his next tome. And, for public consumption, at least, Ligidakis doesn't even seem particularly concerned that because of a noncompete clause in his lease--there's an Italian restaurant several doors down--he won't be able to sell either pizza or calzones, the two dishes that put him on the map.

For the time being, at least, Ligidakis' life is good.
"When I opened this place, I had no idea I could make so many people happy," says Ligidakis. "For the past year, I could not go into the grocery store without people making me feel guilty because I didn't have a restaurant."

It'd be hard to think of a less likely candidate for franchising success than one-man band Nick Ligidakis. How do you possibly duplicate a personality-driven, portion-control-be-damned eatery without losing the unique qualities that made the operation successful to begin with?

You don't--something Ligidakis learned for the first time in 1989 when a team of investors convinced him to apply his "more is more" approach to cooking to restaurant marketing. In addition to franchising a chain of pita sandwich kiosks like the one Ligidakis briefly operated at Tri-City Mall, their ambitious plan involved closing the McDowell pizzeria, opening a greatly expanded new restaurant and marketing a line of bottled sauces and salad dressings aimed at turning Ligidakis into Phoenix's answer to Paul Newman.

"I still don't know how I got trapped into doing that," says Ligidakis, who claims that the McDowell shop was his only restaurant ever to turn a profit. "My goal in life is not to become rich and all that. But I'd been on McDowell for five years and was so tired, I listened to these people who wanted to make me a household name."

The man who never does anything small shakes his head. "It was a big mistake."

Exactly how big didn't become apparent until his first--and only--Pita Stop outlet floundered in the Tri-City Mall food court.

"Nick tried to position it as fast food--but it wasn't fast food at all," says Romeo Taus, a former employee who eventually left Ligidakis' camp to open his own restaurant, Mesa's Euro Cafe. "He had appetizers, pita sandwiches, half a dozen salads and great desserts--but in my opinion, he overextended himself. By its nature, franchising is geared toward the bottom line, and Nick is almost completely the opposite of that."

When one of the largest investors suddenly found his assets frozen in a divorce suit, Ligidakis found himself with the empty commissary from the doomed enterprise, a huge storefront in the Tower Plaza shopping mall on East Thomas Road.

"That Thomas Road place did me in," Ligidakis says of Nick's Golden Cuisine of Southern Europe, a 9,000-square-foot space more than 10 times larger than his earlier store. As if running a restaurant/bar 18 hours a day wasn't enough work, Ligidakis simultaneously used the building as headquarters for his cooking classes, a commissary for his bottled dressings, a muffin delivery service, a deli, a bakery catering operation, and even a small-scale dinner theater.

Ligidakis, who somehow still found time to apprise followers of his activities via a Nick in the News newsletter, sighs. "A restaurant that big, I simply could not handle."

But that didn't stop him from trying. And for some diners, at least, his Greco-Roman circus made for the best supper show in town, sort of an audience-participation performance piece that might have been titled "How Not to Run a Restaurant."

See Nick running around the kitchen as he tends 20 dinners at once! Watch Nick throwing a pot across the room in a fit of anger! Listen to Nick read the riot act to anyone who has the audacity to request a substitution! And in the wings? Checks bouncing left and right.

Ligidakis loyalist Debra Ross rather enjoyed the chaotic atmosphere. "Watching Nick work was like watching theater," says Ross, a graphic designer who now works on Ligidakis' menus and publishing projects. Nor was she bothered by his dictatorial policies about ordering. "If you couldn't find something you liked on that menu, you might as well go somewhere else," she says. "Just leave Nick alone and let him do what he's doing. He's definitely a character, one of a kind."

Another customer remembers the Tower Plaza store as a tourist attraction of sorts, the kind of place you took friends and out-of-towners just to watch the amazed looks on their faces as they pondered the concept of culinary curios like a salad of deep-fried ravioli with peas, bound together with a mustard vinaigrette.

"That place was wild and aggravating, but the food was great--just these massive, honking, totally inedible portions," says one repeat visitor. "But by the time you got out of there, you were just exhausted because you could see Nick running around in the kitchen, the staff was always in a frenzy and food was paced in such a way that there was no flexibility at all. Nick had to touch every single dish that came out, so the pacing was absolutely disastrous."

Overwhelmed by debt, Ligidakis eventually filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind pages of unpaid creditors to whom he owed nearly $1 million.

One of the largest--and most interesting--claims came from Security Pacific Bank. Because of a banking computer error, more than $200,000 in funds belonging to Pima Community College had mistakenly been credited to Ligidakis' account during the summer of 1990. By the time Security Pacific discovered the mistake, more than $58,000 had been withdrawn from Ligidakis' account. According to court records, that money was never repaid.

"I was vacationing in Greece at that time," explains Ligidakis, who claims someone else--he won't say who--wrote checks against the erroneous deposits. "I had someone else paying the bills. They didn't know what the balance was."

Considerably more successful at launching restaurants than operating them, Nick Ligidakis was up and running again on Mother's Day 1992, this time in a smaller location on 37th Street and Indian School Road.

Three years later, in 1995, history repeated itself when Ligidakis accepted an offer to open a second restaurant in downtown's San Carlos Hotel.

Initially resistant to the offer ("I had neither the time or money to open another restaurant"), Ligidakis caved in after visiting the historic downtown inn; the place, he says, reminded him of hotels he'd visited in Europe. Besides, who better to bring upscale dining to Phoenix's newly revitalized downtown district?

Confident that the Ligidakis touch could turn around the jinxed locale (through the years, one restaurant after another had failed in the San Carlos space), he optimistically signed a 10-year lease for a business to be known as Nick's on Central.

But the ink on the contract was hardly dry when it became apparent that Ligidakis had once more bitten off more than he could chew.

In his zeal to establish himself as a downtown force to be reckoned with, he'd failed to notice that the hotel's antiquated kitchen facilities would require a costly overhaul.

He also overlooked--or had forgotten--the importance of another element crucial to any success his past ventures had enjoyed. Namely, the on-premise persona of Ligidakis himself. When faithful fans flocked to Nick's, they expected to see Nick. And when they didn't, many customers began calling in advance to find out where he was going to be when.

His solution? "I finally got it down to 12 minutes a trip," says Ligidakis, referring to the length of time it took him to race from one restaurant to the other. Between keeping customers happy and stomping out proverbial fires at both cafes, he made 10 round trips a day, travel time that added three hours to the already grueling work schedules needed to run two eateries open from breakfast 'til midnight.

In early '96, those taxing commutes came to an abrupt end; court documents indicate Ligidakis was evicted from the Indian School site for nonpayment of rent.

Adding to Ligidakis' bubbling-over bouillabaisse of woes was the pressure of working in a situation where, for the first time in his Phoenix restaurant career, he wasn't the only one running the show.

"On an individual level, he's a nice man," reports Greg Melikian, then-owner of the San Carlos. "But if the question is, 'Would you ever do business with this man again?' the answer would be a polite, but firm, 'No.' You can't run an operation with this man. He won't listen."

Since Ligidakis' volatile reputation was hardly a big secret within the local restaurant community, one might well wonder why Melikian ever offered the temperamental chef a lease in the first place. Melikian's explanation? His family was so crazy about Nick's food that it simply never occurred to him to check out Ligidakis' track record.

An animated talker, Melikian reels off one horror story after another about working with a man who appeared to be his own worst enemy.

There was the time that Ligidakis turned away a party of eight hotel guests simply because they made the mistake of mentioning they hoped to finish dinner in time for the beginning of a Suns game. "This isn't that kind of restaurant," Ligidakis reportedly told them. "I'm not going to rush anything. If you want to rush things, go to McDonald's."

Melikian groans. "Can you believe this guy? Why didn't he just suggest five or six items that could have been prepared before tip-off? Instead, he literally throws these people--and hotel guests, at that--out of his restaurant. What kind of way is that to do business?"

As it turns out, Ligidakis' way.
While staying at the San Carlos during a lengthy Valley movie shoot, 24 members of a film crew wound up boycotting the restaurant for the duration of their stay after Ligidakis refused a simple request to heat several orders of apple pie with cheese.

"They were told, 'We don't heat pie,'" recalls Greg Melikian. "Hey, if some guys want their pie warmed, well, damn it, why the hell not just heat it for them?"

Probably for the same reason that Ligidakis ignored a request to pare down his menu to a few snack items to expedite room-service orders.

"He wouldn't hear of it and insisted that his entire menu be available," reports Melikian. "Who cared that it would take hours before he'd ever get the food up to the room?"

Fearful that guests might check out before they'd ever see food they ordered, Melikian did an end run around his mercurial tenant; he secretly devised a stripped-down room-service menu featuring only those items with quick turnaround times.

Melikian sold the hotel within the year. Ligidakis pulled out of the hotel shortly after, and later filed for protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy--a plan by which he hopes to reach a repayment agreement with creditors.

According to Ligidakis, his decision to close Nick's on Central was prompted by new hotel management's refusal to let him close the restaurant on Thanksgiving so he could attend to his charity dinners.

(San Carlos general manager Devon Connors tells a different story. She claims the hotel was willing to work with Ligidakis on the Thanksgiving dinners, but by that point his operation was in such a shambles the project was unfeasible.)

"Right up to the end, he was still talking about doing his turkey thing," says Melikian. "He can't afford to pay his own light bill and he's worried about feeding others? It just doesn't make sense. Like I said, nobody can tell this guy anything."

Nick Ligidakis, meanwhile, has plenty to tell. Which he does, at considerable length, in 5024 E. McDowell, the self-revelatory opus published earlier this year.

"Writing my book was a therapeutic experience," says Ligidakis of the self-published work he's marketing as a "story cookbook about the creativity of the mind, the survival of the spirit, and the compassion."

"I put so much of my heart into the writing that when I was done with the book, my mind is a blank," he confesses. "I was numb."

Stoic readers who manage to make it to the end of Ligidakis' nearly 350-page epic are likely to share that reaction.

Subtitled A Man's Journey Into Culinary Exploration, the book does not easily fit into any one literary genre. Part autobiography, part cookbook, part apologia, the hefty tome is probably best described as Deepak Chopra Meets a Saucepan--the sort of thing Somerset Maugham might have cooked up if he'd sprinkled The Razor's Edge with recipes, Biblical quotes, photos of coconut fried shrimp and food factoids ("Red wine vinegar is produced from red wine").

Leaping back and forth between revisionist history and personal philosophy to Food Science 101, Ligidakis reveals a metaphysical side to himself that will come as a revelation to those who know him only as a glowering Greek Adonis riding roughshod over a bevy of blazing skillets.

"Creating is a great accomplishment, but it is not easy to obtain without the motivation of love to please others as well as yourself," he writes in a chapter titled "Imagination, Respect and Sensitivity." "Only the love will inspire you with the passion which allows you to imagine and then create hundreds of glorious tastes."

But glorious tastes aren't the only thing Ligidakis is capable of creating.
In his book, Ligidakis spends an entire chapter pondering the meaning of Christmas--a date he claims holds special significance for him. "It was that same day many years ago that I, as a newborn, had seen the light of life for the first time and placed a smile on my parents' heart forever," he writes. "I thought, well, what a special day to be born on!"

Far more special, apparently, than December 24--the date of birth that actually appears on Ligidakis' driver's license.

Asked about the discrepancy, Ligidakis lays the blame on his parents' doorstep, claiming that even though he was born in the early hours of Christmas Day, his parents chose to say he was born the day before.

Explains Ligidakis, "The Greeks and their birthdays, we don't emphasize them as much."

These days, Nick Ligidakis' focus is on Cafe Niko, a bo”te aimed at what he calls "the purist of good food."

Quizzed about financial backing for the place, Ligidakis will only say that one of his more well-to-do customers thought it was "important" that his food be available to the public once again.

"I do not want another restaurant where I do not know everybody's name," says Ligidakis. "I had that on Thomas [Road], and it almost killed me. I'm a very down-to-earth person, and I know what my capacities are."

For now, that's his 40-seat cafe in OfficeMax Plaza.
"There will be no more big restaurants in my life again," Ligidakis insists. "This is my final place."

On second thought, make that his next-to-final place; a lot of customers are requesting pizza and calzones.

"I might open another little place--just pizza and calzones--down the street," says Ligidakis, thinking aloud. "My boys could run it; pizza and calzones are a no-brainer. What could happen?

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