One bite of the pizza at Fat Lorenzo's and you know you've found something remarkable. The single slices ($3-$3.73) sprawl across the plate like deflated cheese zeppelins (they easily equal a "personal pizza" at other restaurants), and they come with billowy, milky, full-flavored cheese and a crust that is neither cracker crunchy nor soft and spineless. It's a slice of real American pizza, as classic as they come.
"We use whole milk [mozzarella]," says owner Scott Siegel. "It costs a little more, and we don't blend it. It's a good brand, and it's got a high fat content. I won't switch. Keeping a customer is worth far more than saving 10 cents on a pound of cheese."
Fat Lorenzo's is a Nokomis mainstay, and the place exudes an easy-going vibe that suits its status as a neighborhood hub. From the early 20th-century hand-set tile in the front room ("It's indestructible—you take a drill to it and it'll burn the bit up," says Siegel) to the quirky but gorgeous food- and Renaissance-themed murals that cover the walls of the main dining room, the restaurant is the embodiment of old-school Italian-American comfort.
The recipe that Fat Lorenzo's uses for its pizza is unchanged from when the original owner, Larry "Lorenzo" Neck, founded the place in 1987. "When he was a kid, he grew up in the Bronx," Siegel says. "He remembered the pizza you'd get from the small shops."
"When we make our sauce, it's like your grandmother made it, just 20 quarts at a time. Nowadays, it means we have to make 8 to 10 batches a day. When Doug [Rix]"—the original employee whose girth contributed the "Fat" to the "Fat Lorenzo's" name—was doing it, he probably had to do one."
Talk to Siegel for more than a few minutes and you discover that he's all about connections. The pizza's connected to Lorenzo's childhood; the restaurant's customers are Siegel's friends; and the house-made gelato that Fat Lorenzo's offers is connected to the building's original 1921 incarnation as an ice cream parlor.
"It was a soda fountain at the end of a wooden bridge on a dirt road," Siegel says. So when Siegel, visiting a Las Vegas trade show, stumbled on a machine capable of churning out delicious gelato, he jumped at the chance.
"I told my wife [co-owner Laura Siegel], 'I'm buying it.' She said: 'How much does it cost?' I said: 'I don't care.' So I bought it. Unfortunately I bought and didn't think about the system. I thought it would be 'Plug it in and off you go.'"
The machine cost about "45 grand," Siegel says. The construction to get it running? Another 150. Grand.
"My plumbing needed to be updated, my electrical," he says, laughing ruefully. "I have more power than a school."
From a customer perspective, the effort was worth it. The restaurant offers an ever-changing array of gelato flavors, each with a richness of flavor and silken mouthfeel that makes it akin to frozen custard.
It's touches like the gelato and a killer garlic chicken hoagie ($7.89—the heaviness of the melted cheese and bread is perfectly balanced by an array of peppers) that help Lorenzo's retain a core of loyal customers. And it's the neighborhood feel of the place that helps it retain loyal employees. Some keep coming back for work even after they've found more gainful employment.
"Kristie is a doctor," says Siegel, speaking of one doggedly persistent employee. "She'll call up here and take a shift from somebody every third or fourth month. And I'll say: 'Kristie, you're not on the payroll! I can't just put you on the payroll for one night!' And she says: 'Oh, you don't have to pay me.' If everybody would do this, it'd be a really good model."
For a full interview with Fat Lorenzo's owner Scott Siegel, visit blogs.citypages.com/food
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