By Rick Hynum

Restaurateur and pizzaiola Janet Zapata keeps manifesting her business dreams into reality, sometimes without even really trying.

The latest example: Her community-centered restaurant, 550 Pizzeria in Laredo, Texas, has been named one of 50 Top Pizza’s Excellent Pizzerias for 2024.

The Italian organization released its first-ever Excellent Pizzerias list on June 25 along with its highly anticipated annual ranking of the United States’ top 50 pizza restaurants. The Excellent Pizzerias list highlights 40 outstanding pizza shops that didn’t make it into the top 50 but nonetheless wowed 50 Top Pizza’s expert judges.

“This artisanal pizzeria expresses the great passion of a woman, Janet Zapata, who, after working in other pizza shops since she was a child, decided to open her own space in 2020, facing the challenges of Covid with courage and determination,” the 50 Top Pizza website states. “Her love and passion for the world of leavened dough has led her to receive critical acclaim, many awards and, most importantly, the approval of the public. Her pizza is of [the] classic American style with a nod to the Neapolitan model. Italy enters the scene with a proposal of pasta and some appetizers. [550 Pizzeria offers] limited drink options [and] excellent service, always with a smile.”

PMQ profiled Zapata in an August 2022 cover story titled “Leap of Faith.” She spoke candidly about coping with anxiety issues through her spirituality and trust in God. As she explained at the time, “You have to manifest your dreams and think, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do it.’ And it’s not if I’m going to do it, it’s when.”

Nevertheless, the 50 Top Pizza honor caught her by surprise. To be sure, it was another goal for Zapata, but a faraway one. “I would see [50 Top Pizza], and I would be like, ‘I will make it my dream: Janet Zapata, Laredo, Texas,’” she told PMQ on Wednesday. “You think those things, and you’re like, ‘One day, one day.’”

When that day came on Tuesday, June 25, she learned about it when a customer tagged her in a social media post referring to the Excellent Pizzerias list. “I thought, ‘It can’t be me because there’s another 550 Pizzeria’—I think it’s in New Mexico,” she recalled. “But it said Laredo, so I’m, like, ‘Well, there’s another Laredo in the United States, too.’” She laughed. “I was, like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’”

Still not convinced, she blew the whole thing off and didn’t even mention it to her 550 Pizzeria staff that night. “I just thought, I’m not going to say anything because I have no idea. Then, I went to the gym the next morning, and someone sent me the article on the 50 Top Pizza website. I was, like, ‘There’s my name—Janet Zapata.’ I went back to work after that and showed it to my staff, and they said, ‘Yes, it is you. Believe it.’”

The 50 Top Pizza shout-out is just the latest in a recent stream of blessings for Zapata. At the Pizza Expo earlier this year, an unabashed fan of Zapata and her brand gave her a gift that will keep on giving for many years to come.

Zapata had been fretting for some time over a hugely important piece of equipment at her restaurant: her oven. It had been giving her fits, requiring repairs again and again, but she wasn’t ready to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace it. “In my head, I kept saying, ‘I’m gonna save the money to buy a new oven.’”

While in Las Vegas, Zapata sat down with Alex Koons, owner of Hot Tongue Pizza, to be interviewed for his Pie.2.Pie podcast. “He asked me, ‘So what are you manifesting now?’ And I was, like, a new oven—ha-ha-ha!” But when George Clark of Pizza Solutions later asked her, “What do you need right now for your business?” Zapata clammed up. “I was just, like, ‘Oh, nothing.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘A new oven.’ But I said, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing. Nothing right now.’”

Later, Clark asked her to join him for a walk. “I see this man once a year, but I know who he is, and we keep in touch,” she said. “He told me, ‘I see your social media, and I see everything you do for your community. I’m gonna get you an oven’. I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ I was, like, ‘Not right now. I have so much I need to pay off. Maybe later.’ But he looked at me and said, ‘No, we’re gonna give it to you.’”

“I didn’t know what to say,” she continued. “I was in shock. I was thinking, ‘What is going on right now?’”

The brand-new PizzaMaster oven arrived this spring, the ideal gift for 550 Pizzeria’s fourth anniversary on June 20. She still gets emotional talking about it. But, she notes, “I’ve slowly learned that you need to accept your blessings. I’m a person who says, ‘No, I’ll buy it myself. I’ll figure it out.’ But sometimes you need to accept them. Clearly God is giving it to you. So that was crazy, and right now my staff are using it [to make pizzas]. I come in every day, and I’m, like, wow, it’s beautiful.”

Zapata has been winning over Laredo pizza fans and industry vendors alike with her effusive charm, energy and approachability—not to mention her business and marketing savvy—since she first opened 550 Pizzeria. She’s the city’s No. 1 fan, and its residents love her in return. For the past two years, the Laredo Morning Times’ readers have showered 550 Pizzeria with awards, including the city’s best pizzeria, while naming Zapata herself the best pizza chef.

She’s currently in the midst of remodeling her pizza shop, taking over a vacant space next door to double her dining area from 30 to 64 seats and expand her kitchen. That project, too, has been fueled by Laredo’s love for Zapata. The first bank she approached turned her down for a loan, but she felt in her heart that the time was right to build out 550 Pizzeria. She went to Texas Community Bank and found it’s run by another unabashed fan. She recalled, “They were, like, ‘We all love your pizza. Our president goes to your pizzeria every week, and he wants to help you. We’re about helping the community just like you are.’”

With the remodeling well underway, Zapata expects to debut a new “2D” look and feel by sometime in August. Meanwhile, she plans to give some thought to how she will celebrate her 50 Top Pizza honor.  Whatever she ends up doing, she said, it will be a tribute to Laredo as well. “I’m thinking, how can I celebrate this with my community? I just celebrated my fourth anniversary. I always tell God, ‘I’m so grateful that you let me celebrate so many accomplishments.’ It’s a big thing because my community is a part of it. I always tell them, yes, I opened 550 Pizzeria, and I’m the one that makes the pizza, but at the end of the day, if it wasn’t for my city and the people that come in every day to support me, I would not be here.”

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