The Chef's Corner: Q&A with rockin' chef Mick Mahan
In this exclusive Q&A, Pat Benatar’s bassist, owner of Parma Pizzeria Napoletana, talks about his love for all pizza styles and serving pies to rockers from REO Speedwagon, Toto and more.
Pizza and Rock and Roll. Time and again it’s been proven they go hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly, or the internet and cat videos. It’s even better when you can get it all in one place. Well, there’s a little place I want to tell you about. Parma Pizzeria Napoletana in Thousand Oaks, Calif. I was turned on to this place by a good friend on the U.S. Pizza Team, Jason Samosky of Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria, who was tapped by Mick Mahan, owner and operator of Parma Pizzeria Napoletana, for some pointers on opening a pizzeria. Mick also received help from some of the best in the industry, including Tony Gemignani and The Hunt Brothers of Austin, Tx. I was able to corner Mick and get a little peek inside the world of this rock musician turned pizzaiolo. Now, being a musician myself, I had to work extra hard to make sure I stayed on the topic of pizza, and not geek out too much about someone I’ve listened to for over 20 years without even knowing it.
Hailing from Sicilian roots in the Ohio area, Mick was exposed to pizza from a very early age through family recipes and dinners. He also developed a great skill for music early on at the age of 11, and from then on, it was all about the rock. Mick joined numerous bands over the years, and went to school for music. He even passed up on bands, at the time, that would later become big stars. After over 20 years of rocking out as the bass player for Pat Benatar’s band, Mick felt the irresistible urge to come back to pizza. After all, you can take the man away from the pizza, but the pizza never really leaves the man. With his new found fervor for this project, Mick got started right away, and Parma Pizzeria Napoletana opened its doors in January of 2017 and has not looked back since.
Brian: Mick, thanks for sitting down with me today. Why don’t you just tell everyone who you are and what you do.
Mick: Well what am I? I’m a pizzaiolo and a bass player. I’ve been a musician all my life. I’ve also been a pizza lover all my life, which started when I was young. We had a lot of good pizza in our Sicilian family, and I grew up in Youngstown, OH., which had so many great pizzerias available. When I grew up and got out in the world, I discovered not all pizza is created equal, and it’s all very subjective. We all love the pizza we grew up on, so you could argue all day long about who has the best pizza, but it really doesn’t make a difference. In fact, that’s how I met Tony Gemgignani. I jokingly walked up to him and said, “Hey man, you stole my idea about multiple styles of pizza”. Of course, he laughed at me, being polite, but also because he was light years ahead of me in the business. We hit it off and became really good friends. We’ve been able to incorporate other great pizza people into our circle now since then. The Hunt Brothers, who I think make the best Detroit style pizza in the country. It’s my favorite at least. Being a bass player, touring the country has afforded me the opportunity to go to small towns, big towns, and places around the world to experience pizza that’s indigenous to each one of those regions.
Brian: Who do you play bass for?
Mick: Pat Benatar right now. Well, I have played for her the last 24 years. They’re still looking for a real guy. Just filling in until they find a permanent bass player. But seriously, I’ve been fortunate in that experience. I’ve played with a lot of different people. I came out here (Calif.) to become a journeyman musician, back in the day when there were in studio sessions to be had. I pursued a lot of different avenues in the music business.
Learn how to make Mick's Detroit-style recipe sponsored by Allied Metal Spinning at pmq.com/mickmahan
Brian: Very nice! What’s your first pizza memory?
Mick: It was very early. I remember eating pizza as a baby. I know a lot of people can’t remember things from their very early childhood, but I can remember this. I was probably 3 years old. It started there and since then I’ve always this romantic involvement with pizza. I love the aroma of it, I love the vibe of it. It’s a fun place to be, the pizza business. Secondly, my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio had so many pizzerias that were outstanding.
Brian: What’s your favorite ingredient to play with in your pizzeria?
Mick: I must say, it’s sausage. There’s so many different kinds of it. You can get heavy fennel, spicy or sweet. Everybody makes it slightly different. Pepperoni only has a couple types for the most part, but it seems like sausage is such a personal event.
Brian: What do you think attracts people to Parma Pizzeria Napoletana versus other shops in the Thousand Oaks area.?
Mick: Well, nobody else out here is doing Detroit style. When we opened we were giving away slices. Everybody who came in would say, “I only eat New York style. I don’t eat thick stuff”. Eventually they try it and they flipped out over it. So, now our number one seller is the Detroit style. The initial response to Detroit style was less than stellar. This region just didn’t understand it. But once they tried it, all those people who would only order New York style, are now only ordering Detroit style.
Brian: What’s one ingredient you will never use? If you see an employee with it, they’re fired, they’re out the door.
Mick: Ranch Dressing. I’m never going to do it. I don’t think there’s a place in Italy that talks about ranch dressing. I’d never even heard of it until I moved out to California. I’m just vehemently opposed to it. Just doesn’t seem like it has a place. We don’t even offer it with our house salad. We put a nice vinaigrette on that. But in my pizzeria, ranch does not exist.
Brian: Is there any ingredient you’re thinking of using in the future? Something you’d like to build a recipe around?
Mick: When I studied up at Tony’s school, we had to do a final project. I made this really nice combination of Brussel sprouts and candied pecans. It had sausage on it of course, and burrata as well as the mozzarella. It turned out really well. I would like to do more with that combination here in the pizzeria. It really paired up well with the tomatoes, and the sweetness of the pecans evened out the potential bitterness of the Brussel sprouts.
Brian: How often are you coming up with new recipes for your menu?
Mick: I’m always trying new things. Not every attempt makes it though. If it’s a little slow, I’ll make something different and try it out. I’ll experiment when I can, but as I said, not all of them make the cut. I usually test it out on the staff first. If they give it a thumbs up I’ll move on to testing it with customers. If they like, then it goes on the menu. No real schedule. When it happens it happens.
Brian: How do you guys market currently?
Mick: We do social media. But I’m a big believer in giving the pies away. Having people taste it. That’s the real test. I mean, you can send out coupons and mailers, but I know what I usually do with coupons. It really takes them trying it. If the pizza’s good, they’ll be coming back.
Brian: How did you get into the music business?
Mick: I started playing when I was 11, but I’ve always loved music. I came out of the womb loving music. I had an uncle that was a great guitar player and singer. That really inspired me to do something like that. Then he gave me his guitar to use for a while because I didn’t have enough money to buy one. All of a sudden, a couple months later, I was in a band and that was the end of it. I haven’t stopped since.
Brian: What made you decide to go into the restaurant business?
Mick: I always loved pizza, I always thought it was such a romantic thing and had a good feeling about it. I wouldn’t necessarily say I wanted to go into the restaurant business, but I always thought pizza was a great thing. I even talked about it with my friends while I was still in high school. It was always something cool to me, so I decided to do it. The music business is a little bit different now. The focus has shifted, and sessions are not quite as plentiful as they used to be, plus there is a lot of free music. In fact, one of the only ways an artist can make money today is by going on the road. And there are only so many gigs available in that arena, so I started thinking of something else to do that excites me, and pizza was it. But I still maintain a balance between both areas. In fact, I just recently got back from an 11 week tour Pat did with Toto. But when I’m gone, my son Michael and my business partner Jimmy Centofante hold down the fort. Jimmy mainly focuses on the mobile business we have, but helps in store when I’m out. They are both great people to have running your place.
Brian: Were you always intending the restaurant to be pizza, or were there any other concepts you looked at?
Mick: It was always pizza. I just think it’s such a great food. I always say, “Who doesn’t like pizza?”. Whether you’re a child or don’t even have teeth left in your mouth, you’re still going to love pizza.
Brian: Would you say you play music and own a pizzeria on the side, or is it more vice versa for you at this point?
Mick: It’s both really. I’m all about balance. I guess it’s true what they say about Libras. So, I can go for 11 weeks without worrying the employees are going to underperform, or that something will happen, and that frees me up to be the musician. Then when I’m in town here, I make pizzas and wash dishes. I have a really nice balance of both right now.
Brian: How much do you incorporate the Rock and Roll theme into your restaurant, on a scale from 0 to Hard Rock Café?
Mick: It all comes back to balance again. I want you to feel like you’re sitting in a kitchen in Tuscany somewhere. I want to keep that homely kind of warm vibe about it, and oh, by the way, there’s some rock star stuff on the walls. You never know who you’re going to run into over here. We have a lot of musicians that live in the thousand Oaks area, especially drummers. There are like a million drummers here. A lot of rock stars live around here, in Malibu. So, you never know who’s going to walk through the doors on any given day. I think we have a nice balance of down to earth, Italian ambience, and rock and roll nostalgia.
Brian: Can you name drop some of the rockers that come in and get your pies? Maybe your regulars from the rock industry.
Mick: Dave Amato (lead guitar) from REO Speedwagon. In fact we’re working on a pie named after him. The Amato Tomato (toe*mah*toe). Kevin Cronin (guitar) also from REO. Lenny Castro (percussion) from Toto, Steve Lukather (guitars, vocals) also from Toto. Of course Neil Giraldo, who’s had his hand in the industry for years. He’s influenced numerous artists and helped a lot of them with their Top Ten hits. We get a plethora of heavy hitters here. The list goes on.
Brian: Did you market the quality of your pizzas or your status as a rock star to get the first people to come in?
Mick: Well, I always say I’m rock star adjacent. If the pizza’s no good, it doesn’t matter who you play with. Bad is bad. As I said, I’m a student of Tony Gemignani. I always call him the Mick Jagger of Pizza. When he walks in the room, the seas part. I never thought of myself in that position. So, I relied more on making a quality product, and making it really strong, because if it’s no good, the place is not going to last. Unless you have endless amounts of money that is. You know, I’ve haven’t had Gene Simmons’ pizza yet, but he could support that endeavor until the day he dies. I’m not in that position. So, it better be good.
Brian: What was the thinking behind doing multiple styles of pizza in your pizzeria?
Mick: I got tired of the argument of who makes the best pizza. In my mind, Ohio made the best pizza, because that’s where I grew up. Then someone from New York would say, “no, we have the best pie”, and all of a sudden you meet the Hunt Brothers (Via 313), Jason Samosky (Samosky’s Homestyle Pizzeria), Jeff Smokevitch (Brown Dog Pizza & Blue Pan Pizza). All these different people and styles with a great product. I just figured that all these different people that are transplants to California, they’re going to want the pizza that they grew up on. That’s what’s going to bring them in. That’s how Parma Pizzeria Napoletana was born. Basically a one-stop shop for all your pizza cravings.
Brian: Do you have a recipe for each different style of pizza you are doing? I assume Neapolitan gets its own, but do you use the same recipe for the New York, Ohio and Detroit styles?
Mick: Every pizza style is a different dough and a different sauce. There’s no cross-breeding, for lack of a better term. It has to be accurate. That’s my thing. So, if you order an Ohio pie, if you’re from Ohio, you’re going to know what it is. I want it to be the real deal. And all the dough is made in house and fresh.
Brian: When you train someone. Do you train them on all styles at once, or do they work their way up the ladder?
Mick: It’s easier to start someone with a New York style or the Ohio’s. Those doughs are a little more forgiving. If you get a hole in it, it’s easier to fix. But they all work their way up to the Neapolitan, which is far more delicate. We start them off easy, then branch them off into the other styles. They learn the basic thought process of toppings and portions as they go and work their way up to Neapolitan. Eventually they’re able to do it by themselves and we don’t have to watch-dog them anymore. We all want to be on the same page. Consistency is key.
Brian: Back to geeking out about music for a minute, what’s your favorite song to play with the Pat and the band?
Mick: I like “All Fired Up”. I just think it’s a great rock song, it’s got a great vibe. But I will say “Invincible” has a special meaning. Because when 9/11 happened we were probably the only band in the country playing that day. We were at Livermore, Calif. at Wente Vinyards, and everyone else canceled. But so many people called and asked the promoter to please ask Pat to play, and when we played “Invincible”, she spoke about the tragedy. That was the very night it happened, and playing that song for 3000 very emotional people that night, it was very emotional for all of us. It kind became an anthem for this tragedy. I’d say that’s high on my list of favorites.
Brian: Well Mick, thanks for all the info on Parma Pizzeria Napoletana. This was a great interview from the pizza side and the Rock and Roll side. I’m hoping to get out to your place soon. Maybe jam with you on a few songs then make a pie and sip some bourbon.
Mick: sounds great Brian. Anytime, come on down.
For more information about Parma Pizzeria Napoletana visit http://parmapizzerianapoletana.com/.