Chef Chat, Part 1: Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck
Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza makes dough tossing look like magic.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Anthony Calleo is as colorful as the Pi Pizza monster logo on the side of his truck, from his heavily tattooed arms to the words he chooses. He has a reputation for being frank and passionate about his food.
We met Calleo for his interview at the Houston Food Park in EaDo, where Pi Pizza and a few other food trucks corralled the parking lot. There's a steady flow of customers. "Now this is like making pizzas for a living," he said. He grabs a ball of dough and tosses it in the air with his fists until it makes a perfect circle. He makes it look effortless and easy, but it took months of practice to master.
Calleo's customers are so passionate about Pi Pizza that some are willing to get a Pi Pizza tattoo in exchange for one free slice of pizza a day for life. The tattoo day is held once a year, and this year they actually had to turn people away. There was simply no way that artist Gabriel Massey from Scorpion Studios would have had enough time tattoo everyone who wanted it.
In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll get to know how Calleo developed his affinity for making pizza and the other career he nearly ended up doing for a living. EOW: How did you decide you wanted to cook for a living?
AC: I wanted to cook since I was a kid. I started cooking for myself and then me and my mom. As a teenager, I had the kind of house where everyone stayed over. I used to cook breakfast for everybody. It's always been something I really enjoyed and had a knack for.
I got my first job in pizza and it's been what I always go back to for extra cash or if we were short on money I'd go back to delivering pizza or cooking pizza.
The world convinced me that cooking pizza for a living wasn't worth my time or my education. When I turned 30, I realized that was bullshit. I promised myself by the time I was 35 I'd have my own pizza place.
EOW: Where was the first place you made pizza?
AC: Oh man. Papa John's in The Village... Kirby and Tangley in 1998.
EOW: What did you learn there?
AC: A lot, actually. I learned how to slap dough. I learned how to work really fast.
EOW: After that, you decided it might be a good idea to change your profession, right?
AC: Kind of. I was in school the whole time and got bachelor's degrees in philosophy and theology. I was going to be a professor. Along the way, I started a non-profit organization for abused kids and their families with a guy I went to college with. That really took off so we started a community center after that. One day he asked "What are you going to get a philosophy or theology degree for if this is what you're going to do?" So, I got a master's degree in social work.
I couldn't really do it anymore. It was too hard and took too much out of me. We'd been doing a lot of needs assistance programming and fair housing stuff. I would end up going into real estate because of that. If I fucked up, I wouldn't feel bad about it. When you have a bad day at the office, it's not the same as wondering if someone's going to grow up to be a pattern rapist or junkie or kill themselves. It was way easier.
It just so happened I ended up doing real estate for restaurants. Funny the way the world works.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
EOW: Now, does that community center still exist in some form?
AC: No, it's long since deceased. The [Houston] Chronicle had a pretty cool article about it with a cute picture of me being about 22. The article ended up being about me instead of the center. I was so pissed at that reporter. This was before I learned how to talk to reporters. EOW: What was the name of the center?
AC: The Safe Center. EOW: I assume you're proud of the work you did there.
AC: I don't know. Ask me in another 10 years. It feels like a very different life, so, I don't know... I miss it sometimes.
I miss my gay kids. If I ever did social work again, I think that's what I'd do... outreach to gay teens. They really need someone there for them that doesn't care [about their sexual orientation]. I'm not like, "Oh, you're gay! High five, let's be awesome!" and I'm not like "Fuck you, you're a fag!" I'm just like, "Awesome, you have problems." I miss those kids.
EOW: So, you went into real estate for a while.
AC: Yeah, I did it for almost seven years.
Rapid fire pizza-cutting at Pi Pizza Truck
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
EOW: Did you learn a lot?
AC: Yeah man, I learned a lot about leasing restaurants. I learned about what makes restaurants work and what makes restaurant fail. There are different ways you can structure a lease and different things you can do. We can talk about that endlessly, but there are some handy-dandy tricks to the trade.
I did tenant rep brokerage for the most part, so I represented a lot of guys who are like me now. It taught me how to negotiate and basic restaurant economics--what your rent needs to be if this is what you're projecting that your sales are, different things you need to make sure are in your lease so you're protected from certain things that can happen as a result of being in business. EOW: Why did you open Pi Pizza as a truck instead of in a storefront?
AC: I tried. I had two runs at other things. I got my clock cleaned in the market and I don't have a lot of pride if I have a lot of bills, I'm working. It doesn't matter if I'm negotiating real estate or digging ditches.
So, I went back to delivering pizza in the middle of the night. I saw what I was doing where I was working at the time and saw how much better it could be if someone really cared about it.
I tried to buy in as a partner and have a structured buying agreement. I'm 34 now and I don't exactly look old. At 28, without two-and-a-half years of food-trucking on my body, I looked really young and had all these tattoos. They just wouldn't take me seriously. I was just like, "Fuck you, man. What I have, you'll never get, and what you have, I can find. So, I'm out. I'll do it myself."
I took a run at another deal in the Bellaire area and it fell out, so I put it aside for a couple of months to think about a truck. So, to make a long story short: shazam! Here we are. EOW: Do you have any weird stories from working the truck?
AC: I chased a bunch of drunk Irishmen off the back of my truck because they wouldn't stop climbing on the propane tanks. I pulled my pistol out at a crackhead who pulled a boxcutter on me at the window. I started laughing and he said "What are you laughing at, white boy?" "Because you brought a knife to a gun fight."
Here's another: I was driving home one night when the truck first opened. The interior lights started going on and off, the radio started cutting in and out. I felt it dying and didn't know what it was. I was like "Come on, baby! Come on baby!"
It was 4:15 in the morning. It died in front of a house in the middle of the road. I had a kid, Andy, working for me and had him following me in my car. We get out and Andy's behind me. By the time he gets out of the car, I'm opening the hood. I open the hood and freak out.
The battery had fallen out of the truck on the freeway. I was running on alternator only.
We tried to find another battery for it. We went to Walmart. They didn't have it. I have a six-and-a-half ton vehicle in the middle of the street in front of a house where there are $700,000 to $900,000 homes. This is BAD. How are we going to move it?
While I'm at Walmart, I get a call from Andy that the Bellaire cops are there. I get back and there are 12 cops around the truck. They turned out to be really cool, though. They helped me push the truck out of the way. I slept in my car until the morning came, went to Auto Zone, bought a new battery and got to lunch on time.
Come back for Part 2 tomorrow, where will talk about more of Calleo's experiences as a food truck owner.
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