By Dave Conti


Not that long ago, the barrier to entry for a pizza restaurateur was steep: the lease of a viable space in a high-traffic location, a pricey oven, industrial mixers, refrigeration—and that’s just for starters. Now, thanks to the new generation of portable ovens, pizza makers are popping up, so to speak, in unexpected places, reinvigorating a mature industry while building a fan base that, over time, could lead to a brick-and-mortar store if they’re so inclined. Although many of these next-gen pizza impresarios began their careers in restaurant kitchens, pop-up and catering operations have made them free agents who can work when and where they want to. And their major up-front costs? Well, let’s just say a Roccbox starts at $500, while Ooni’s Karu 16 multifuel oven will run you $800.

For this article, U.S. Pizza Team (USPT) member Dave Conti, co-owner of Red Planet Pizza in Ansonia, Connecticut, shared his own experiences and, on PMQ’s behalf, also chatted about the business and the craft with two other freewheeling pizzaioli: fellow USPT member George Taylor of Taylors’ Pizza House in Endwell, New York, and Willie DePascale of Big Willie’s Pizza in Chula Vista, California.


“I keep the menu simple. We are very good at what we do, and simple is better for service, prep, transportation, setup and breakdown.”
—Willie DePascale, Big Willie’s Pizza


PMQ: How did you get your start as a pop-up operator?

Dave Conti: I started off my food career doing barbecue competitions. I have been Connecticut state champion in ribs and chicken. I’ve won and placed in other categories like desserts, hamburgers, grilling and pasta. I’ve been to the World Food Championships four times. After many years of using charcoal and smokers, you’d think I would gravitate to a wood-fired oven—which I do have and use. But when I bought my first Blackstone propane oven, I was sold on this concept! I currently have three Blackstones and a wood-fired Il Fornino oven.

George Taylor: Along with my wife, Patti, I run Taylors’ Pizza House. For our mobile setup, I use two Members Mark ovens—Sam’s Club Ooni knockoffs—and one Blackstone. A big advantage of using a propane setup versus a food truck is, first and foremost, cost. It’s a lot cheaper to set up with propane ovens, tables and coolers than to buy a food truck. Another advantage is flexibility. I can set up in places that a food truck can’t or shouldn’t get to.

Related: Feng Chen and Richard Payne: On the road to pizza pop-up fame

Willie DePascale: I’m retired from being in the restaurant business for 50 years. During COVID-19, I started making cast-iron bread like everyone else in the world. After eating way too much bread, I tried to utilize the same dough to make pizza. Wow, it really turned out great! I cooked it on a Blackstone oven that I’d had for several years….I started giving pizza away to friends, and everyone agreed it was very good. So I decided to buy a wood-fired oven. Big Red arrived, and I got the hang of making pizzas with the wood oven. After making about 100 pies, I was content with my skills. When the state closed down all restaurants for a second time because of COVID-19, I said to myself, “I’ve got to do something.” I decided to start Big Willie’s Pizza: Pies for a Cause. I made and delivered pizza and asked for a specific donation, and all the proceeds went to unemployed hospitality workers. Some of these workers do not have the paperwork to collect unemployment or get state-issued relief checks like most of us got. We have touched many families and have donated more than $24,000 to local and Maui hospitality workers, the ALS Association of San Diego, and Big Table, which helps hospitality workers in need nationwide.


PMQ: Using these ovens, how many people can you cook for at an event?

Taylor: I guess about 200 with the current setup—if pizza is the food focus for the event. We have done an event where there were 1,000 people, but there were several other food options there.

Conti: I like doing parties of 100 guests or fewer. We become part of the party, because we are right there in their yard. I remember one party over the summer. The little kids stood there watching, and a little girl said, “I like that we can watch you—if you had a truck we wouldn’t be able to see you making the pizzas.”

DePascale: I cater for parties from 25 guests to a maximum of 200. If the occasion came up, I would push myself to 300. First, I would need to find another pizzaiolo and set up another workstation. I have six Blackstone ovens and two Halos. I strictly use the Blackstones for cooking and the Halos for reheating.


“We try to do about five or six different pizzas at an event. We meet with the [hosts of the event] to discuss options and try to focus on their tastes.”
—George Taylor, Taylors’ Pizza House


PMQ: How many pizza options do you offer?

Taylor: We try to do about five or six different pizzas at an event. We meet with the people having the event to discuss options and try to focus on their tastes. So that boils down to maybe six toppings that we take with us. We’ll do special requests on the fly using those toppings.

Conti: On average, I will offer up to seven topping options. One of my first questions to the client is, “What other food will you be having, if any?” Of course, you always have to ask about food allergies and questions like, “Do you like seafood? Do you have a favorite topping?” We also offer a salad and gelato option. They don’t cost a lot to provide, and they’re pretty easy to put together and serve.

DePascale: I keep the menu simple. We are very good at what we do, and simple is better for service, prep, transportation, setup and breakdown. My basic catering package is a choice of Caesar or Greek salad and six gourmet pizzas, three of which would be considered vegetarian. I do offer gluten-free crust and vegan and try to accommodate any request, but I refuse to do the pineapple thing. It’s just not right.


PMQ: What’s the toughest part of the gig?

DePascale: There really are no challenges besides trying to make the best pizza possible and making sure every guest leaves with a smile on their face. I really don’t think there are any drawbacks to using portable propane ovens besides [the lack of] the “wow factor” of a big, beautiful dome oven. But when people see the Blackstone oven running and how easily it makes a pizza, they love it. I’ve done it all: backyards, catering halls, parks, schools, hotels, etc. Using portable propane gives you that opportunity.

Conti: I think it’s a pretty simple, straightforward approach to do on-site pop-up parties/events. You don’t need a lot of equipment or help to do parties of 100 or less. With social media, you can get the word out without spending a lot on advertising. We arrived at one party, and they said, “Can you set up at the bottom of the hill?” So I always have material to level out the ovens and tables in this kind of situation. Sometimes, setup locations are so easy, and others can be a challenge. I like the challenge of, “OK, how can we make this work?”


PMQ: Are there certain types of events you’d rather work than others?

DePascale: Pizza is a natural for kids’ birthday parties, but you get tired of all the yelling and screaming. I prefer corporate events or celebrations of life, which is a great market.

Taylor: I like outdoor grad parties. I don’t really want to do drunk parties.

Conti: I like doing events in people’s backyards. Being right there, we get people who will watch and ask questions, and they like getting the pizza as soon as it’s sliced and ready to eat. I did learn this past summer that not every party is a happy celebration. We did an event where someone was facing stage 4 cancer and another where a little girl had a rare disease. It was nice to see people come together to celebrate life even with its drawbacks.


“It’s a pretty simple, straightforward approach to do on-site pop-up parties/events. You don’t need a lot of equipment or help to do parties of 100 or less.”
—Dave Conti, Red Planet Pizza


PMQ: There’s a lot of competition in this space now. How do you stand out from the others?

DePascale: In San Diego, there are a lot of guys doing pizza trailers—they’re great for festivals, fairs or parking lot parties. I decided I want to make pizza right in front of the guests. I call myself the “pizza-tender.” We’re working very close to our guests, whereas most trailer-oven guys can’t get personal with their guests because they are in a driveway or on the street.

Conti: For me, being a member of the U.S. Pizza Team and having won some contests is a great selling point. Also, being part of the Galbani Cheese family is a big plus!

Taylor: What makes us unique is that we bake the pizzas on the spot, while competitors just drop off premade pies.


PMQ: For someone who’s thinking about getting into the pop-up biz, what would you tell them?

Conti: Do your homework. Start small by having your own party with friends, family or neighbors. There are a lot of pizza groups out there that can answer your questions as you go along.

Taylor: Make time to promote. Get your food into people’s mouths. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—I haven’t had the time to get out and do this because we have gotten busier at our restaurant.

DePascale: Give it all you’ve got. You must love the craft of pizza. It has to come from your heart, not your pocket. The money will come, but making people happy through food is the best feeling you can experience. Knowing that you made the best pizza possible is a great feeling. Always put quality first, and use the best products. You also should make it simple and make it fun for yourself and employees.   

Dave Conti is co-owner of Red Planet Pizza in Ansonia, Connecticut, and a U.S. Pizza Team member.