Pizzeria Piccola

Pizzeria Piccola (pizzeriapiccola.com) inWauwatosa, Wisconsin, isn’t very big.In fact, this restaurant’s name translatesfrom Italian as “small pizzeria.” A modestyet prized brand in the 11-unit BartolottaRestaurant Group, founded by brothersJoe and Paul Bartolotta in 1993, PizzeriaPiccola measures less than 2,000 squarefeet but manages to bring in nearly $1 millionin average annual sales. What’s key inthis hole-in-the-wall success story: Sinceopening its doors in 2003, the pint-sizepizzeria has built a reputation for craftinghigh-end, wood-fired pies; offering hospitablealternatives for customers with celiacdisease; and, more recently, embracingneighborhood causes. Every Sunday night,the rustic-style restaurant lets area charityvolunteers man the front of the housefor a percentage of the night’s profits andtips. Over time, these “Society Sundays”have raised thousands of dollars for areacharities and built customer loyalty, andthe program shows no signs of slowing.

To dive further into Piccola’s businessphilosophy, PMQ tracked downBartolotta RestaurantGroup president JoeBartolotta to discusshow Pizzeria Piccolahas kept business inthe black while pioneeringwood-fired pizzain the traditionallychain-driven Midwest.

What was your inspiration forPizzeria Piccola?

When my brother and I opened ourfirst restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta,17 years ago in Milwaukee, there was aheavy concentration of Sicilian cuisine,but it was typically cooked in deck ovens.We were the first restaurant in Milwaukeewith a wood-fired oven—it blewpeople away! So when a very small spaceopened next door, we jumped on it. I hadalways wanted to do a rustic Italian pizzeria.We wanted to do something reallyhigh-end and hoped people would getit. So we opened shop, and seven yearslater here we are.

Were there any challenges with havingthe only wood-fired oven in town?

The hardest thing was finding a goodsource of wood. Most cuts of firewoodwere much larger than we needed. Butwe eventually found a good provider. Weburn hard woods, mostly oak and hickory.

How many people can yourpizzeria seat?

We have a nice outside patio; that helpsin the summer. There’s a small diningroom on the second floor that seatsabout 40. Basically, the whole first flooris an open kitchen. It’s gotten to thepoint where the restaurant is about asbig as we want it. We want a neighborhoodatmosphere. We’re defi nitely alocal brand; everything is very localized.I would say our customers come fromabout five to six miles in any direction.

Tell us about your menu.

We never wanted it to be too big. Wehave eight pizzas on the menu that arestandard, plus a couple of special pizzasnightly. We have a few salads and appetizers;we even have a few pasta dishes. Ourmenu changes in response to what ourcustomers are asking for, but our biggeststrength is cooking in the wood-fired oven.

How did “Society Sundays” come about?

I wish I could take credit, but our generalmanager Irene Lannoye came up withthe idea. Sundays are typically a little bitquieter, so we wanted to find a way toembrace the community, drive businessand keep costs down. The basic conceptis to loan the pizzeria out to a charity andlet them handle the marketing internally,and create a day in their honor.If a church is doing a Society Sunday,they tell everyone in the congregation,“If you want to eat out on Sunday, goto Pizzeria Piccola, because 10% of thenight’s profits and 100% of the tips goto the church.” We use our own cooks,but all of the front-of-the-house peoplecome from whatever organization we’resupporting that night.

So this happens every Sunday?

Every Sunday. Some nights are biggerthan others. With a big church, we’llhave a line out the door. If we’re helpingan organization like a Cub Scout group,it’s noticeably smaller. But those guysare just as important; they’re raisingmoney for a good cause, too. People havea blast and because they’re waiting onfriends and family, nobody gets upset ifservice is slow. It’s really just a fun environment.It’s not a huge moneymaker,but it brings the community together.

Tell us about your gluten-free offerings.

That was us being responsive to themarketplace. It’s important to listen forwhat customers are asking for. Celiacdisease, for some reason, has come outthe past few years. Our gluten-free recipeis something my chef created over a longtime, and it’s just as good as a lot of otherdough out there. The challenge is thatwe have to make it in advance and freezeit, because you can’t make it per orderand you never know when you’re goingto get a call for it. A lot of people buy sixdough balls at once and take them homeand freeze them. They just bring it withthem whenever they want to eat out. Welet people bring their own gluten-freepastas, too. We just think that’s goodhospitality, and we’re selling more andmore gluten-free products all the time.

Do you offer discounts or specials?

We don’t want to get into a war with thebig guys, because we can’t compete withthem. But we do have a birthday cluband loyalty plans where if you buy ninepizzas you get the next one free. We alsohave developed a line of frozen pizzas,and we’ll ship half-baked pizzas aroundthe country if a customer wants. Butfrom a marketing standpoint, we stick tocharities and good causes. I think SocietySundays have been a really good way forus to connect with the surrounding communityand market our brand.

What’s your best marketing tool?

The best marketing tool is your flavorprofile and the quality of your food. Thatmay sound cheesy, but I’ve found that it’strue. The best way to spread your brandis qualitatively. We use quality ingredients,and we cook them well. Every daywe serve the freshest, tastiest pizza wecan. Is there a magic bullet for marketingpizza? I don’t think so. If there were, thebig guys would have already found it.

Have you embraced any social media?

We’re just starting, actually. We hireda social media coordinator on our corporatestaff who is doing Foursquare,Yelp, Twitter and Facebook. We’re goingto start blogging for all of the BartolottaRestaurants, too. So, yes, moreand more it’s becoming a priority. Themarket is changing so rapidly—andwith young people, you’ve got to keepup. When we tweet that we’re giving afree soda with the purchase of a pizza,we’ll have eight or 10 people come in.This shows that the customers are outthere and listening; it just takes time tobuild up a voice.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.