Third-generation pizzeria owner Damien Polizzi ran shops with his family while climbing the corporate ladder in sales and sales management.
“I like to tell people, ‘I double-majored in life,’” Polizzi said.
Stress and health issues, exacerbated by sour business deals, got to him. In 2006, he jettisoned pizza to settle down and focus on his sales career, a lifestyle more manageable for a suburban husband and father of three.
But this year, on the cusp of 45, Polizzi did a 180.
He quit sales and opened a pizzeria — and in Washington Township, Gloucester County, a town flush with pizza shops. “I grew up not appreciating it for all those years, and I walked away from it for a while,” he said. “I was comfortable, [and I thought] ‘Let me just spend every penny I have left and invest in a pizzeria in a town with 30 of them.’”
What brought him back?
He had nothing against pizza. The popular neo-Neapolitan pizzas, with their recipes’ attention to detail and big-belly, high-temperature ovens, fascinated him. “Dude, I grew up in this business for 40-something years and I never heard of hydration,” he said.
“What is hydration? Well, obviously, it’s the water, but when we grew up, it was a whole bag of flour, it was three-quarters of a bucket of water, this much salt, and a souffle cup of sugar.” He looked toward pizza entrepreneurs David Lee (Pizza Jawn) and Mike Fitzick (Pizza Jew) as inspiration.
Polizzi built a full kitchen in his backyard: “Brick oven, griddle, grill, granite countertops, refrigerator, and sinks — the whole thing,” he said. Then he and his wife, Jessica, a schoolteacher, began hosting small pizza parties that became bigger dinner parties.
“Everybody seemed to really like this style of pizza,” he said of the neo-Neapolitans. They were different from the New York-style pies that he and his family had sold all over New Jersey and at his first pizzeria, in the small Central Pennsylvania town of Tyrone.
In January while changing sales companies, Polizzi said, he learned that the new job would require more travel than had been specified during the initial interview.
“I got cold feet,” he said. “Then my son Nicholas said as a joke, ‘Mom, why don’t you just let him open up a pizzeria? You know, that’s all he wants to do anyway,’ and we looked at each other and laughed. And we talked about it for three days and we decided to start searching for places.”
Polizzi had two criteria: The location had to be close to home, and “we were going to open from scratch because I wanted to do my own thing, my own menu. I didn’t want to take over somebody else’s problems or ideas. I wanted to either succeed on my own or fail on my own,” he said.
Polizzi could not find a spot for an original fit out. But his daughter, Sophia, spotted a GoFundMe for a struggling pizzeria in the Sewell section of town, and Polizzi offered to take it over. He signed the lease for Polizzi’s Brick Oven on June 25 and took his time on renovations, allowing him “to bleed out the old customer base,” he said. “The worst thing you could do is take over an existing shop and change everything immediately. You’ve paid for all the clientele and then they all leave because they’re upset you’re not doing chicken parm dinners anymore.”
Polizzi instituted counter service and drafted his kids to help him. He starts the day making everything from scratch — the doughs and toppings — and a crew of teenagers comes in after school to help out, led by son Nicholas, 18, a freshman studying business at Rowan University, daughter Sophia, 15, a high school sophomore, and son Gianni, 14, an eighth grader.
They were slammed at the outset in September, but Polizzi said, “It’s kind of leveled off.” He said he and the kids “worked an algorithm on a napkin” to manage pickup times for pizza. He sells Detroits, Sicilians, and brick-oven Neapolitans — a rare product line for South Jersey.
To save on labor, he also decided to be open five days a week (Tuesday to Saturday), not the daily schedule that he grew up with. The 4 p.m. opening further helps compress a day’s sales into a few hours before they run out of food.
“Sunday and Monday are for me and my family,” he said. “I know I’m missing the football crowd. I know I’m missing the lunch crowd. But if I put that added stress on me, then I feel like my product’s going to suffer.”