By Rick Hynum

Frank and Austin Battaglia, the owners of Stunod’s Pizzeria in Chicago, take pizza seriously. But themselves? Not so much. After all, “stunod” in Sicilian essentially means “goofball,” as they’re quick to point out.

They’re brothers, born and raised, and just about as Chicago as you can get. In other words, what you see is what you get, including a wry sense of humor with a little Southside attitude, utmost confidence in their culinary skills, and a love of family and community.

All of the above shines through in their approach to social media marketing. Today’s customers want authenticity from restaurants, and there’s nothing phony about the Battaglia brothers. Between Instagram and Facebook, Stunod’s has more than 6,600 enthusiastic followers, plus a small but growing fan base on TikTok.

Related: What happens when two friends open pizzerias on the same NYC block?

In one video, Frank—the primary on-camera personality for Stunod’s—reads some negative Yelp reviews and gets tickled by the over-the-top critiques. (For the record, the pizzeria has a 4.6 overall rating on Yelp.) In another, he strides confidently into the pizza shop and proclaims, “I own Stunod’s. Of course I’m a short, hot-headed Italian named Frank.”

The Battaglia brothers grew up in the pizza industry and, during their college summers, sold Italian ices at events throughout the city. After a couple of years, they journeyed to Florence, Italy, to study the pizza-making craft. Upon returning to Chicago, they shadowed local operators to better learn the business before opening Stunod’s in October 2019. In this Q&A, Frank and Austin told us more about Stunod’s and what makes it so “unapologetically different.”

PMQ: Tell us a little bit about your pizza.

Frank Battaglia: Our pizza is original. Simple yet delicious. My brother and I were determined to create a pizza where each flavor is as enjoyable as the next. Each part of a pizza is equally important, starting with your crust. We hand-roll our dough, so that creates a texture of fresh bakery bread. Then our sauce—we’re using California tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil from Italy, and just a pinch of very basic seasoning, just enough that every ingredient complements each other. Case depending, but, here on the southside of Chicago, more often than not you will be ordering sausage. We proudly serve Battaglia Foods Chicago Style sausage. We believe their quality is second to none.

For the rest of our toppings, Austin and I did our diligence to make sure they match the pizza correctly. For example, choosing canned mushrooms over fresh and sautéing our green peppers instead of just raw green peppers. Lastly cheese: We use the highest-grade mozzarella straight from the dairy state of Wisconsin. Stunod’s has a great balance of many flavors that come together just right—well, at least in my biased opinion.

Austin Battaglia: Our style of pizza has a couple of different origins. From growing up in an Italian-American family, we have generations of traditional knowledge passed down. Our mom created a cookbook from spoken recipes and advice from her grandmother Lena. On the other side of the family, my dad has worked with a lot of great pizzerias in Chicago and learned quite a few tricks of the trade.

Italian pizza is, in its own right, delicious, and I especially appreciate their attention to the details of each ingredient. However, there is something different in Chicago’s pizza. In Chicago a pizza feeds a family; it’s the life of a party, and it’s just a wholesome experience that brings people together. Our pizza strives to maintain the traditions of classic Italian pizza while being true to our roots.

PMQ: Chicago is a big pizza city, and the competition must be stiff. Aside from your great pizza, what have you guys done to make Stunod’s stand out in such a crowded market?

Frank: Chicago is a pizza hub, and the area we reside in might just be the pizza Mecca of the Midwest. Something that makes us stand out, besides our delicious food, is that my brother and I are very hands-on. We are the definition of owner-occupied. On a daily basis since we opened, we have been in the shop, doing any type of task, none too big or too small. 

Here on the Southside, we are very hard-working, blue-collar folks, so I believe we gained our customers’ respect in that regard. Another thing that my brother and I take pride in is that we have treated everyone who has walked through our doors with respect. These people have gone out of their way to make our dreams become reality, so that is the very least we could do. We have now befriended many customers to the point that they join us on poker night, buy us a drink at the bar, and even invited us to their weddings!

Also, we’ve taken a different approach to marketing. We’ve won over a lot of folks by having a goofy way of getting our name out there, often posting light-hearted, short videos on social media as well as [offering] a deeper look into the ins and outs of the pizza industry.

Related: Who invented pepperoni pizza? The answer is complicated.

Austin: Chicago is one of the few places in the world where you can go to a different pizzeria for each day of the week, and they will all be good. We decided that, instead of making our food exactly like those restaurants that came before us, we would make our recipes stand out by being unapologetically different. There is a beauty in cooking, with how many different variations each dish can have. Honestly, to this day, I’m not sure if I have seen any two families’ marinara made exactly the same. At Stunod’s Pizzeria, we do not have many secrets, and I think people appreciate our authenticity. We take a laid-back approach to our marketing and have a down-to-earth atmosphere. Our customers come to refuel from a long day’s work at the rail yards, police force and other places, or to take a break from the edge of everyday life.

PMQ: For Valentine’s Day this year, you guys set up an all-male kissing booth. That’s such an original idea—I got a big chuckle out of it! I’ve never seen anything like that in any restaurant. How did that idea come about?

Frank: Hence the name Stunod’s, because “stunod” loosely translates to goofball in Sicilian. It was just another one of our goofy social media ideas. We and our staff are always coming up with ridiculous concepts that will attract new customers. The handsome fellas manning the booth were my brother and I, Joe our manager, and Drew, one of our new kitchen guys. Sadly, we had no takers, but a lot of folks got a good laugh and ordered a heart-shaped pizza. 

Austin: If you think that one was funny, you should see our ideas that haven’t made it off the drawing board.  Honestly, it is easy to love our jobs when we have so much fun with it.

PMQ: When it comes to running your business on a daily basis, what do you do that you’re proudest of, aside from the food quality? Think of this as more of a management/operations question!

Frank: We run a well-oiled machine. We have built something where people are proud to come into work and happy to take part in the work that needs to be done. We pride ourselves in the fact that Stunod’s Pizzeria is as clean as they come, has a safe environment, and that no corners are cut.  

We have spent many hours cleaning every last inch of our shop. It has become second-hand nature for us as well as the Stunod’s staff to thoroughly clean every single night. Austin and I have spent all night at times to make sure every last speck was gone and will do it again and again. We prioritize cleanliness. 

A safe and welcoming experience is not just for our customers but the staff as well. We have always tried our best to make sure they know we appreciate them. The restaurant industry is no joke. Folks try to look down at it, and yet some of those same people would not last a month in the shoes of our staff. That is just one more reason we want to reiterate to our staff how much we respect what they’re doing. Austin and I try immensely to make sure the Stunod’s staff knows that we have their back, just like they have ours.

Lastly but equally importantly, we do not cut corners. We have, since the beginning, made sure to buy the highest quality of each and every product available—from the machines, equipment, knives, tables, pots and pans all the way down to the scrubbers we use for dishes. If there is an option for American-made products, small business-owned or locally operated, that is the route we go.

The obvious one is our food, but I mean more in the fact that we change out our frying oil every single week, constantly check our refrigeration temperatures and routinely maintain all of our equipment. We follow the golden rule: “When in doubt, throw it out.” In other words, we never hold on to a product too long just to save a buck. If we even question the product, we get rid of it. 

Austin: I am very proud of our team. It’s one thing for a founder to love his business, but I truly feel that our staff takes great pride in what they do. There is a real sense of soul at Stunod’s, like it was their own grandmother’s recipes that they were trying to do justice to. There is a point when a profession transcends a job and becomes an art or something like a sport. Our staff culture is energetic and efficient but also a lot of fun. Past employees will often stop by and recount the old days. Days at the shop go easy because we get along and joke around often. I doubt everyone feels exactly as I do, but, for me, it’s easy to be passionate about my shop because it feels like a second home.

PMQ: So what keeps you guys up at night? What are some of the big challenges that you’re facing?

Frank: The pizza industry has taken a serious toll as of recently. The market has changed drastically, the cost of operations has skyrocketed, employees have been difficult to find, and customers have become more difficult to attain considering a lot of people are trying to save a buck these days. All of this is on top of having to still work the physical hours at the shop. 

These modern problems have deterred many newcomers in the industry and convinced the sons and daughters of pizza shop owners to look elsewhere for work. The pizza industry is the backbone of Chicago. Everyone has their favorite spot. After a long day’s work, you’d call the ol’ reliable. When you only had 20 bucks for dinner for you and the family, you ordered pizza. When it just snowed two feet, you still know that knock on the door when the driver has a pipin’-hot pizza for you. And it would be an absolute damn shame if that comes to an end because of all this BS that the world has thrown at the restaurant industry.

My brother and I feel as if the torch is being handed off to us. This keeps us inspired. We love this industry, and it means so much to our family. We cannot stand the thought of this industry disappearing. We will happily face these challenges head-on if that means it keeps this ball moving. We opened up three months before COVID, so throw whatever you want at us—we will keep fighting. We live and breathe this industry and will do our best to move mountains in this industry. Stunod’s Pizzeria to the moon.

Austin: Everyone has their ups and downs; it comes with the territory. The gods determine good luck, but, for my own part, I am concerned with providing really good food. Chicago has some of the best food in the world, and that’s because of the people providing great food products in our city. At one point, we had legendary food exchanges in the South Water Market and the Stockyards. There were hundreds of distributors back then. More and more these days, consolidation and large corporations are making food products more into the lowest common denominator. I hope that Chicago’s food industry will remain a vanguard for protecting great ingredients so that we can continue to make the world’s best dishes.

Featured, Marketing