By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic might seem risky. For Larry and Christine Ponzi, owners of Piece Out, a new casual Italian restaurant in Del Ray, it was simply an opportunity to do something new.
For the Ponzis, who also own St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub and Café Pizzaiolo, Piece Out has been a chance to experiment with a small, flexible menu that features the New York-style, Sicilian pizza; square-cut, Detroit-style pizza and homemade pasta dishes they grew up eating.
“A lot of people may think we’re crazy for doing this right now, but this is what we do,” Larry Ponzi said. “We looked at it as, ‘This will pass in time. We don’t know when, but we know that when it does, we’ll be sitting on a great space, doing what we like to do.’”
The site, 2419 Mt. Vernon Ave., has been home to several restaurants in recent years. When longtime tenant Caboose Café closed after 13 years in business in 2017, local restaurateur Scott Mitchell opened Snackbar. Less than a year later, Snackbar closed to make way for Catch on the Avenue, an Asian infused seafood restaurant by Common Plate Hospitality.
After Catch on the Avenue closed in December, the owners of the site approached the Ponzis in January about opening a new restaurant there.
“We loved the location. We loved the neighborhood,” Larry Ponzi said. “Our goal has been to get back with a casual restaurant in Del Ray. That’s been a goal we’ve had for a while.”
Piece Out opened in July. Outside of the kitchen, which Larry and Christine Ponzi completely rebuilt, the site needed very little work, since it has undergone various renovations in recent years.
Some aspects of the restaurant, such as the fully furnished outdoor patio and two sliding garage-style windows that open to the outside, have become even more valuable during the pandemic.
When thinking about the vision for Piece Out, Christine Ponzi was adamant that she didn’t want it to be another Café Pizzaiolo, which has an extensive menu of pizzas, pasta, salads, calzones, sandwiches and more, she said.
To differentiate the two concepts, the Ponzis planned to focus on a smaller menu at Piece Out, with chef-driven specials and made-from-scratch pasta and pizza alongside items that would work well for carryout and fit in with Piece Out’s casual Italian brand: baked wings, eggplant parmesan and salads with homemade dressings.
“The idea is making everything from scratch and not having too big of a menu … which gives us the opportunity to do different things and change things up,” Larry Ponzi said.
That plan has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some menu items are not feasible at a time when most people are ordering takeout.
“Right now, with COVID, some of these things that we’ve wanted to experiment with, we can’t do it right now,” Christine Ponzi said. “It just doesn’t make sense to take a steak to go.”
The couple still has plans to roll out a slightly different menu when the pandemic has eased up and people are more willing to dine in.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pizza that’s at the core of Piece Out’s menu. The Ponzis’ decision to serve a mix of thin crust New York pizza and thick, cheesy Detroit-style pizza comes from the Ponzis’ upbringing in upstate New York, where it’s common to find both styles.
The Ponzis started experimenting with Detroit-style pizza after a local artist and friend had them cater an art show of his at St. Elmo’s. After researching and eating Detroit-style pizza in the months leading up to the art show, the Ponzis knew they wanted to add it to their next restaurant.
“The idea is to load the outer crust with more cheese so that when it bakes it folds over and gets really crispy and caramelized on the pan,” Larry Ponzi said. “That actually gives it a really nice, kicking flavor.”
The Detroit-style pizza has been the best-selling item on Piece Out’s menu so far, Christine Ponzi said, although the restaurant’s homemade ravioli, cannellini and baked wings aren’t too far behind.
“We’ve gotten a lot of people in who are like, ‘Oh, I’m from Detroit and you’re pretty darn close to it,’” Christine Ponzi said.
However, the process of making the pizza has led to some difficulties behind the scenes.
The dough is proofed a few hours longer than the New York-style pizza, making the end product more airy and bread-like. But since the dough takes longer to prepare and the pizzas take longer to bake, the Detroit pies have to be premade.
At first, Piece Out was only serving them in slices, but even that proved difficult on opening night in July when the restaurant sold out of Detroit-style pizza in an hour, Christine Ponzi said.
Opening night for Piece Out was a challenge on seemingly every level, the couple said. There was a staffing shortage due to the pandemic, they had no idea how many customers would come out, the AC died and the power went out.
“Everything just kind of exploded that first night,” Christine Ponzi said.
“I was planning on being in the kitchen a lot, but I wasn’t planning on being, at times, the only pizza cook,” Larry Ponzi added.
The couple was able to retain some management staff, but with opening a new business during the pandemic, staffing proved a huge hurdle.
In its early days, Piece Out resembled a small family business, with Larry and Christine Ponzi doing almost everything themselves, including delivery. They even recruited their daughters, both of whom were stuck at home after spring break when their colleges shut down in-person learning due to COVID-19.
“It was like one minute they were in college, and the next they were back home slinging pizzas,” Larry Ponzi said.
“We wouldn’t have survived without them,” Christine Ponzi added.
Fortunately, things have eased up since then. The Ponzis have been able to hire new employees and, for the first time in 10 years, have no open positions at any of their restaurants.
They have also been able to adapt pretty swiftly to the restaurant industry’s new normal. They instituted contactless delivery and payment, which has made their process more efficient.
“There’s a little bit of a silver lining in some of the changes that are going on,” Larry Ponzi said.
They have also used their massive windows as pickup counters for customers who order online, a feature they are building into the plans for their St. Elmo’s location in Old Town.
Although opening Piece Out has been far from what Larry and Christine Ponzi imagined, customers have supported the restaurant at a time when many local businesses are finding it difficult to survive.
“It all worked out,” Christine Ponzi said. “We were able to open a restaurant, [and] we kept our other restaurants running. I’m not going to say [it was] super profitable, but we were able to pay the rent and utilities, keep the lights on [and] keep our people paid.”