Justin Piazza of La Pizza Al Forno and La Piazza PHX on Being a Pizza Purist
Justin Piazza of La Piazza Locale and La Piazza PHX
Justin Piazza is a self-declared "pizza purist."
He's also fast-talking, to the point, and a reluctant restaurateur. If he had it his way, he wouldn't have to worry about managing a staff of employees or scheduling dishwashers. He'd just stand in the kitchen next to one of two wood-fried ovens he imported to the state from an artisan in Naples, and make pizzas. Hundreds a day.
The chef and owner of La Piazza Al Forno in Glendale and La Pizza PHX in Phoenix specializes in wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas and has even had both his restaurants certified Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Napoletana Pizza), a nonprofit organization that protects the art of the traditional Neapolitan pizza.
Piazza's first restaurant opened in historic Glendale in the late 2000s, before artisan pizza broke into the mainstream. That didn't stop the restaurant from receiving rave reviews, and even a visit from the Food Network's Guy Fieri; La Piazza al Forno was featured on Fieri's show Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives in 2008.
In 2013 Piazza opened a second restaurant called La Piazza Locale in downtown Phoenix — though he was forced to change the name to La Piazza PHX after being sued for copyright infringement not long after opening. Piazza says the downtown Phoenix location has yet to become as successful as the original restaurant, but he's not willing to give up on the new location or his dedication to upholding the tradition of Neapolitan pizza.
How did you get into this industry?
Well, my dad was always a chef and I worked in the restaurant with him when I was a kid making pizzas. I would make New York style pizzas, and that's all I ever knew. I thought Italian food was spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmesan. My dad had his own place and I worked there through college and high school. He closed his other restaurant and I got out of it — totally got out of it. I worked at Honeywell and did the corporate thing, but I hated because that's not me.
So we saw the place in Glendale because we lived right there — I grew up in that area right there. And we thought, "Man, wouldn't it be great if we had a place down here?" So I told my dad, "Look if we're going to do this it has to be wood-fired pizza." At that time I didn't know anything about it. I think Cibo had just opened and Bianco was all I knew. So I went down to talk to Chris, and I researched. I went to New York; I went to San Francisco, and I taught myself. There wasn't the media and the information that's out there for people now.
But that was the thing with my dad. I told him it had to be this way, and he thought I was nuts. "Oh certified pizza...who cares?" We don't see eye to eye on that part of the business. You know, my mom and dad don't really...if it was my mom and dad we'd have the red-checkered table cloths and the wine bottle on the table. That's them.
La Pizza PHX's pizza oven.
Which can be charming in its own right.
But those types of places are on every corner. Those are the types of places that are on every corner. These are the types of places that aren't on every corner — down here, that's the funny thing, is down here this is the hotbed of pizza. But, see for me, just to be included with those guys — Cibo, Bianco, even Pomo — just to be mentioned, even if you don't think I'm better is the greatest compliment. That's what's important to me.
See, that's the thing. You can call a lot of things pizza. I can make you something, but that doesn't mean it's pizza — and people will argue with that, but wood-fired pizza, made with the best ingredients is how pizza was invented and how it was supposed to be. That's why this is so important, Neapolitan pizza and keeping the art alive. When you re-create that there isn't anything better than that.
You're a pizza purist!
Yes, but I'm not the only one. That's why when people complain I don't pay it any mind because you can go to other places and pay for garbage and they do it every day. People still eat at Pizza Hut, Dominoes, Papa Johns. I mean, those pizzas — it isn't even pizza, it's nothing. Sometime you have to stick with what you believe in. We did it in Glendale and it worked. There's more competition down here, but we never thought we were gonna come down here and everybody would close up.
Do you find that people complain about the price point of your pizzas?
Well, they complain about everybody so you know, yeah, sometimes. But our pizzas are cheaper than Bianco's; our pizzas are cheaper than Cibo; our pizzas are cheaper than Pomo. It's not expensive, and I mean, those are just people that do not understand. We do happy hour $8 margarita [pizzas] from 5 to 7 p.m. I mean, we do different things.
But with our pizzas, there's time that goes into the ingredients. We make our own cheese, and the curd that we use to make the cheese is $3.50 a pound — and we still have to make it. That's the quality you get.
Justin Piazza at La Piazza PHX
But do you feel that since you've been open, people have started to appreciate that more?
It has to be. This kind of pizza is growing all over the world. I was just in Vegas for the pizza convention in March and I meet people from Japan that are making Neapolitan pizza. So it's growing big time. Your top pizzas are all artisan pizza. You don't see many New York style pizzas on lists of top 10 pizzas anymore. Or Chicago style. They may throw in one, but even the best pizzas in New York, they're all artisan Neapolitan style pizzas.
So quality always wins out. Quality will always win out and that's the thing. Sometimes you have to be stubborn. Just because things aren't as good here as they are in Glendale — I'm not going to change. I'll never change. When you serve something you can't dummy it down just because that's what people want. Because once you cross that line you're basically saying you do whatever it takes to make a buck and I'd rather make a living, pay my bills, take care of my family, and have integrity. I just don't want to do it.
Would you ever consider leaving Glendale?
You know, for me, I would never want to be in a strip mall. And where else in Glendale would you go that has the kind of place we have? But you know, honestly I have one more vision, one more thing I want to do. Not saying we're not going to stay here or Glendale. But our next one, I would just love to be able to make pizzas and not have to worry about anything else.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.