By Tracy Morin

If there’s one source of controversy in pizza, it’s the complications around tracing back the roots of some of America’s most popular pie styles. One prime example is, fittingly, a new movie premiering on Amazon Prime: Stolen Dough focuses on the self-proclaimed inventor of stuffed crust pizza and the legal quagmire in which it landed him.

The documentary, directed by AFI Award-winner Stefano Da Frè (also the movie’s screenwriter), examines the journey of Anthony “The Big Cheese” Mongiello, CEO of Formaggio Cheese in Hurleyville, New York. Mongiello claims that, as a young Italian-American at the age of 18, he invented stuffed crust pizza, only to have his patent stolen by Pizza Hut. Billed as “a true story of resilience….a gripping tale of the pursuit of justice,” the movie delves into his $1 billion lawsuit against the pizza chain giant. (Watch the trailer for a taste of the action.)

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Despite the challenges depicted in the film, Mongiello is thrilled to bring his story to the screen. “I am finally able to share my lifelong journey, explaining the facts about who really invented stuffed crust pizza,” he says. PMQ recently sat down with Mongiello and Da Frè for an exclusive interview about bringing this tale to life.*

PMQ: Please tell us about the background of the movie and how you got it made.
Anthony “The Big Cheese” Mongiello: All I’ve ever wanted to do since all of this happened with Pizza Hut was to tell my side of the story. I did not have the opportunity to be judged by a jury of my peers in court when this all happened back in 1998, but I wanted to be able to have the people weigh in by watching the movie and witnessing exactly what transpired. This finally allows me to have a certain sense of vindication, of substantiation and validation. Now, having the people on my side and being able to explain my version of the story helps with the credibility I’m looking for as the true inventor of stuffed crust pizza. Because all Pizza Hut did was try to take that away from me—and with the movie, I was trying to gain whatever recognition I could possibly have.

Stefano Da Frè: The film getting made was challenging, from the perspective of establishing enough time between Anthony and I to trust one another in a creative environment. And rightfully so—Anthony wanted to ensure that the filmmaker telling his story had a rich and nuanced understanding of his patent. Understanding the legal arguments that Pizza Hut made to dismiss the patent were crucial to Anthony giving his blessing to me and my creative team in carrying out this process. My head producer, Laura Pellegrini, and I spent many, many hours at night reading the patent. I would have Laura purposefully ask me questions where she needed clarity about the patent, and I would answer these questions as a form of preparation for understanding the material of what we were going to shoot.

The other challenge was finding former Pizza Hut employees, on a national level, who worked at the restaurant during the mid-’90s. This was a very real, practical challenge that was enormously time-consuming for my production team and my producer. However, the film was blessed from the start. Anthony believed in the creative team, and over months and months of working together, he trusted the process. The final blessing came from Marvel’s The Russo Brothers/AGBO film forum, who invested in the project, and that name recognition did a lot to advance the film forward, letting everyone know that this project had a vast audience interest.

This photo shows Anthony Mongiello, wearing a light blue shirt, behind the scenes of the filming of "Stolen Dough," with a camera nearby.

Anthony Mongiello on the set of “Stolen Dough” (Photo courtesy of “Stolen Dough”)

 

PMQ: Why was it important for you to get your story told at this time?
Mongiello: I just turned 59 years old, and I don’t want to leave this earth without having the legacy of me being the creator of stuffed crust pizza to be common knowledge. When I talk to people, it’s hard for them to believe when I tell them I’m the creator of stuffed crust pizza. Imagine how difficult it would be for my children and my grandchildren when they tell people, my dad (or my grandfather) was the creator of stuffed crust pizza! I think people would laugh at them, and I do not want that to happen. That’s why the timing was so important to me.

Da Frè: I heard about this remarkable story from my publicists, Mark Goldman and Ryan McCormick of Goldman McCormick PR, who brought it to me in December 2021. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Mark, who was explaining a lot of the details to me personally. I remember dropping the phone at one point during a conversation to take a breather, because the story was so unbelievable, so monumental, I immediately knew that I wanted to help tell this story.

In regards to the film getting made, it wasn’t until about late January 2022 when I met Anthony in person. I drove about two and half hours north of New York City to meet Anthony at his office, and within about 15 minutes of meeting him, I knew his charisma would help craft the arc of the film. Anthony was likable, believable, charming and, most of all, could translate his dramatic accounts into interviews being retold. To be honest, I was already thinking about how to shoot the film within the first 15 minutes of my meeting with Anthony. Those moments are rare, because you know in your bones that there is a quality film there.

Click here to visit the official website for Stolen Dough.

PMQ: In your own words, Anthony, what is the movie about?
Mongiello: The movie is about what I went through. When you take on an industry giant like Pizza Hut, as I did, you realize that a David and Goliath situation really exists in this world, and it’s not just made up. It shows the trials and tribulations that I went through just to try and get through it, to try and prove that I am the inventor of stuffed crust pizza. It shows the ups and the tremendous downs and the strain it puts on someone’s life when they’re forced into such a situation.

PMQ: On the legal side, where does the issue of you claiming ownership over stuffed crust pizza stand in the current day?
Mongiello: The statute of limitation has run out. You can clearly see in the movie that when Judge Nickerson made his ruling and my attorney, Paul Sutton, contacted me, his firm would have needed $250,000 back then to take it up on appeal. I didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t as important to me, because I had lost my brother through the trial. We realize things when situations like that happen—a case like this with Pizza Hut really wasn’t as important any longer. But at this point there really is no case in the current day. There’s nothing I can do, except try and fight for my recognition.

I would love for Pizza Hut to stand up and give me that recognition for being the true creator and inventor of stuffed crust pizza. I’m not sure it would ever happen, but, unfortunately, that’s as much as I could hope for today.

PMQ: What did you learn in going up against one of the biggest pizza brands in the world?
Mongiello: The first lesson I learned is that patents do not protect us the way we would believe they do. The strength comes from having something that’s patent-pending in a closed file, versus a patent that becomes public domain. So, when you want to bring an item to market to one of the largest chains in the world, you should do it from a point where they cannot read all of the details surrounding your creation, your invention and what’s written in your patent.

That is the No. 1 biggest thing. No. 2 is to be prepared, because they’re going to have the best attorneys and legal team money can provide. They can also look to bury you in ways in which you never, ever thought possible. Between the judge, the attorneys and Pizza Hut, they sort of squashed me like I was a little bug on the floor. But we all have to know that, regardless, we have to forge forward in life, even in the face of adversity. And going after one of the biggest names in the world like Pizza Hut never scared me in the least because of one very special reason: I am right in everything I’ve said and everything I’ve done. So, if you are confident that you are right and you have done nothing wrong, it doesn’t matter how big your enemy is; you have to face them and stand tall. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I’ve learned by taking on Pizza Hut.

Related: Pizza Hut celebrates 25 years of stuffed crust pizza

This photo shows a person's hand removing a slice from a stuffed crust pizza.

After it was introduced in 1995, Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust pizza became an iconic style.

PMQ: What was the inspiration behind creating stuffed crust pizza?
Mongiello: Well, as it’s often said, great inventions happen by accident, and so did this one. I was asked to make a pizza by a friend’s mom, a very nice Italian person. She said she’d make the tomato sauce. Since I was working for a cheese company, I said I’d get the cheese and that I’d pick up the dough balls at the local bakery.

As I said, I’m a cheese man, not a pizza man. When I picked up the balls of dough from the local bakery, I realized they were much smaller than the dough balls I would watch a man stretch behind the counter in the local pizzeria. So I put two dough balls together, in hopes of having an adequate-size dough. I realized from watching that man stretch the dough how thin the bottom layer of the crust needed to be. But what I did not realize was that in doing so, I pushed all the extra dough into the crust area—and it was way too much.

So I had an uncooked raw dough crust as big as a finished cooked crust would normally be. I applied my sauce, I placed my cheese, I put the pizza in the oven and watched it bake. My face started to turn as red as the pizza sauce on the pie—because, all of a sudden, that crust started to rise and grow in a way that I never expected. It looked like a zeppole or a calzone forming on the end of the pizza, all the way around, and I was embarrassed.

It finished cooking, I took it out, and it looked funny. Like I said, if you could envision a zeppole or a round calzone going around the edge of your pizza with a little sauce and cheese in the middle, that’s what I had. But there was nothing wrong with it, other than it looked very odd.

So I cut it and we proceeded to eat it. I bit into the side of this crust, this massive zeppole-looking crust, this huge amount of cooked dough now on the edge of my slice of pizza, and as I bit into it, I looked at where I bit, and saw all of these voids, nooks and crannies. And I said, “You know, if there was something inside this crust, that would be incredible.” And that is how stuffed crust pizza was truly born.

PMQ: Now that we can find stuffed crust pizza everywhere from large pizza chains to supermarkets, what do you want your legacy in pizza to be?
Mongiello: I want to be able to introduce to the world stuffed crust pizza the way it was meant to be. Not to just take the cheese that’s already on the top of the pie and fill the crust, but to put some incredible fillings in that crust so that everyone can truly understand that stuffed crust pizza was meant to be a very special item, where you would eat your slice of pizza and then possibly have your dessert. Or possibly have anything else that you would like to see stuffed in dough to be stuffed in that crust—stuffed crust pizza the way it was meant to be.

This photo shows a movie poster for "Stolen Dough." It depicts a man driving a vintage car with the top down on the left, while the right shows the Stolen Dough logo, including a pistol firing a bullet through the word "Stolen," as well as the iconic figure of a woman holding scales and a sword as the embodiment of justice.

PMQ: What’s your favorite pizzeria and/or style of pizza?
Mongiello: Well, growing up in the streets of Brooklyn, my favorite pizzeria was a place on 18th Avenue, off 65th Street, called Da Vinci Pizza. Da Vinci had a square pie that was just incredible. I believe they’re still in business. I’m not sure of the quality of the pizza any longer, but growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, that was the best pizza that I’ve ever had for a square. The dough was delicious. It was light and airy and yet still crispy on the bottom. I always like to get a crunch when I bite into a square pie—it’s different, though, from a round pie.

There was Lenny’s Pizzeria, which was featured in Saturday Night Fever, on 86th Street, just two blocks from where I grew up in Bensonhurst. That was a place we would frequent. They had an incredible Neapolitan round-style pizza. If you pick up a round pizza slice, which is a triangle, you have to be able to hold it in your hand and fold it and not have it droop. Theirs did every time. It stood up to that test. They used great cheese and, again, I’m in the cheese business, so I have my favorite. When it comes to pizza cheese, to me, the Grandé brand is the best cheese that any pizzeria owner could possibly buy. And San Marzano tomato sauce, which comes directly from Italy.

Da Frè: My favorite type of pizza is stuffed crust pizza, obviously! And when Anthony made me stuffed crust pizza himself, that was better than any pizzeria.

PMQ: Would you like to add anything else about the movie or your creation of stuffed crust pizza?
Mongiello: I think the most important thing to realize, which is not emphasized enough in the movie, is regarding when Pizza Hut offered me $50,000 over a phone call to go away. People will see that in the movie, but viewers don’t realize that, at that time, when Pizza Hut made me that $50,000 offer, my invention had already increased Pizza Hut’s sales from $4.6 billion to $5.2 billion in less than a year.

Pizza Hut is a conglomerate so huge that nobody can really even understand. But the numbers are staggering. If you watch the movie and see that I asked for $24 million as a settlement, we must realize Pizza Hut spent almost twice that amount, $45 million, just on the advertising campaign alone to launch stuffed crust pizza in 1995. They hired celebrities to endorse my invention, like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Ringo Starr, and the list goes on and on. It’s important that everybody understands that all I did was the right thing. I tried to do business with a pizza giant, because I had an idea that would change the face of the pizza industry—as it did. The pizza industry hadn’t changed in over 200 years until a product known as stuffed crust pizza came along.

*Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Food & Ingredients