By Joe Scrima

The year was 2008. I had worked in the home-building industry for more than 40 years and never expected my life and my career to be changed at age 63. Instead, the economy changed—and changed my life forever.

I basically lost everything. I had a lot of real estate investments that went belly-up. I was in a bad way. I’d always had the desire to open a restaurant, but during the good years in real estate, I didn’t have the time. Suddenly, at 63, I found I had the time, but no money. Just two years earlier, I’d gotten a loan for $10 million for a condo project. But I could not even borrow a dime after the recession hit.

Over the years, as our kids were growing up, I would make homemade pizzas, first starting with a box mix, and then, over the years with trial and error, developed a great pie. I would make my pizzas every Friday night for my kids, their friends, neighbors and anyone who would stop by, and they kept encouraging me to open a pizza shop.

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Again, though, now I had the time, but no money to start my own place.

Not wanting to ask family or friends to loan me the money, I had to think out of the box. A friend of mine owned a service station and had a small sandwich shop that he was not running anymore. I asked him if I could open my pizza shop in that space. We came up with an agreement—I would lease the space rent-free for six months and then start paying him after that. Still, without any cash or the ability to borrow money, opening a restaurant seemed impossible.

Taking a chance, I used my credit card to purchase a used Blodgett conveyor pizza oven and other used equipment to get started. Sales were good, but after a dispute with the service station owner, I decided to relocate into a local Woodman’s food store. At this new location, I had a lot more traffic and could pay the rent with a percentage of my sales. We had a great customer base and started selling other items like rotisserie chickens, taco dips, and hot ham and hard rolls on Sunday mornings (a Wisconsin thing).

Joe Scrima, wearing a red and black plaid shirt, displays one of his pizzas.

Courtesy of Joe Scrima

The pizza sales were good, but it was difficult to compete against the frozen pizzas at the other end of the store. Worse, my customers still had to go through the checkout lines at the front of the store, which was not convenient!

That’s when I decided to think out of the box and go mobile.

I purchased an authentic wood-fired oven kit from a California distributor by the name of Mugnaini, importers of the Valoriani ovens. I had a friend who owned a fabrication shop, and he built the trailer to accommodate the oven. When all the parts came in, I was so excited to see that thinking out of the box might finally be the answer.

After I had the oven assembled, I started to look for any place to sell my pizzas: farmers markets, parties, art shows and the like. In the beginning, I used a dough recipe from the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), which I still use today for smaller events. As my event schedule grew busier each year, I added two more ovens.

For larger events, I needed a new crust for faster turnaround. Then, at one of our local Italian festivals, I met Carlo Pedone. He was working on a new formula for a dough called Pinsa Romana. I was one of his first customers; that dough worked very well in my wood-fired ovens with the fire brick floors.

I now use three different doughs, depending on the job. I use Pinsa Romana for larger events when I need to get out hundreds of pizzas a day. I use the traditional VPN recipe with imported 00 flour for private parties. And I use a standard American dough for the gas-fired oven at my take-and-bake shop.

What makes a great pizza is using the best ingredients available, like our own Wisconsin premium cheeses, my homemade Italian sausage, blended rich tomato sauce, fresh vegetables, and, most importantly, the right amount of each, so the pizza is not overpowered by any one flavor. I am not so much for a wide variety of toppings like pineapple and the like; I say keep it simple, especially when you are serving an authentic Neapolitan-style pizza at an event. People are amazed at the amount of pizza we can put through our oven. We keep it simple and fast, with no long lines at our stand.

This photo shows Joe's seven-person crew, including one man, several young girls and a woman, all dressed in red shirts.

Courtesy of Joe Scrima

In recent years, my pizza catering business, Scrima’s Pizza, has grown to include three pizza ovens and a custom-built Vardo (gypsy) concession wagon for selling panzerotti (deep-fried pizzas). We cater events throughout Wisconsin from May to December. We moved out of the food market and have our own kitchen to work out of, supporting and catering local events.

Things come up in the business world, like recessions, pandemics and bad decisions—and I made my share of the latter. But even though life knocks you down sometimes, you have to think out of the box and go in a different direction. I’m still going strong at my advanced age, and I am never going to retire; I love being active and making the best wood-fired pizza I can.

So think out of the (pizza) box.

Joe Scrima is the owner of Scrima’s Pizza in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Marketing, Pizzerias