It's basically impossible to have a conversation about the Dallas pizza scene without mentioning Cane Rosso. Former "corporate drone" Jay Jerrier opened the Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified joint in Deep Ellum back in February 2011 after gaining legions of loyal DFW fans with a mobile oven operation, and now less than two years later, he's poised for expansion with a second location near White Rock Lake.
Eater sat down with Jerrier to grill him for details on the new Lakewood outpost, which guest chefs will toss pizzas at Cane Rosso in 2013, and more; read on to find out the answers to such pressing questions as, "Will Cane Rosso ever have ranch dressing for my pizza?"
Obviously we want to talk about the new White Rock location, so how's it going over there?
We're making a ton of progress, my contractor says it's going a lot faster than he's used to. It's still a construction site but they have all the frames up for all the walls, and half the drywall in some of the spots because they're running electrical. I think we have electrical inspections this week, and then we'll start to seal up the walls. The oven is in place, which was... I couldn't even be there. Meghan, my general manager and head of ops, was there for a little bit, then she had to leave because it was too stressful. I told her just call me when it's done, and of course my contractor texted me and said 'look, we dropped the oven, it broke into about five pieces, we'll buy you a new one', then he sent me a photo of the oven sitting in place. I knew he was joking, but just for a split second I was like oh my god. It was impossible to get the oven in the space—we had to take out a window.
I know a lot of this probably centers around permits, but do you have a projected opening date?
We'll open BYOB if we don't have the TABC permits in place. We're guessing end of March. I'll be out of town at the Pizza Expo in Vegas the 12th through the 17th, and Dino [Santonicola, executive chef/master pizziaolo] and I are actually going to be making pizza there at a couple different places so itl'l be fun. So we won't open wihle I'm not there, and then my kids have spring break, so I doubt we'll be open before March 31st or maybe the first week of April. Besides construction, we have a lot to do—we have to get the POS system in and get all the logistics worked out, we haven't found chairs we want yet, we're still working on tables. Then we're going to really build out the patio over there. The patio's going to be awesome. That's part of the reason we wanted the space, it's big—maybe 40 feet deep by 80 feet long, it has grass and three huge live oak trees that are all mature, so it's gonna be really nice when we get it done. One of my managers owns a landscaping design company called Casa Chic Designs and he did the whole plan for it. If you've ever been to Hotel San Jose in Austin that's kind of the feel we're looking for on the patio. At least that's the idea. So, it's just money. (chuckles) I'm always writing checks now.
As Cane Rosso expands, how do you make sure that every pizza you put out is as good as the last one?
We do 600 pies a day here, and we already deal with the consistency issue here to make sure that pizza one is as good as pizza 600. Part of that is, when we first started out on day one I was doing everything. You slowly realize that okay, I'm pretty good at this, but there's people that are not only a lot better at it but a lot faster, so we started to build a team. Back when I worked as a corporate drone in cubicles, it was the same thing--you always surround yourself with people that are better than you. We built this place with an eye for expansion; now we're going to prove if it's a repeatable business concept.
We constantly tweak the way we make pizzas depending on the weather, the humidity; when we first opened we'd make dough and refrigerate it for 2 days to proof it. Now we proof it all at room temperature, put it in the fridge at night, and then take it out and bring it back up to room temp so we're always using warm dough, which makes a much lighter crust. All stuff that Dino brought to the table. He changed the way we make the tomato sauce, changed the way we manage the oven, changed the position of the fire in the oven. All these little tweaks make big differences. So he brought all that, now he's training the staff to do that as well. When we open White Rock Dino and I will both spend a lot of time over there and a lot of time over here, but we also have another pizza maker coming from Naples, Italy that is going to kind of take control over there. So there's always going to be one guy at each location who's responsible for the quality of the pizza.
So it sounds like you guys are slowly but surely robbing Naples of some of their finest pizza makers.
Every now and then we get a few. I guess guys in Naples, they'll contact VPN [Vera Pizza Napoletana] and say hey, where are there Neapolitan pizzas made in the U.S.? They'll start to send out a few resumes, and it's good to have Dino on board; this one guy we're bringing is really funny, he's all excited to come but he's texting Dino all the time, he made Dino talk to his mother to make sure we're legit. It helps that we have a pretty broad web presence, if you Google Cane Rosso there's no shortage of stuff to read about us so I think that helps to reassure these guys we're not some fly-by-night organization. They'll come here, they'll get paid, they'll have a good job, we're not going to murder them and put them in the pizza oven or anything like that.
Last year in an interview with Entree Dallas you said 2012 would be the year you signed another lease, but at that time you thought it would be in Fort Worth. Are you still planning for Fort Worth expansion?
Fort Worth is on our list. As are a couple other cities. The challenge I've had with Fort Worth is just finding a space. When you look at Fort Worth you start to realize very quickly, it's much smaller than Dallas. So it's like do I really want a 5,000 square foot pizza place? No, because the population is really a lot smaller. Then the other thing is, in Fort Worth there's just a couple of pockets of space where people go out, so you can't really afford to have a little neighborhood restaurant because you're not going to get the volume to be able to make it sustainable. We like Magnolia, West 7th; I like the idea of it, but it's just prohibitively expensive. The rents in Fort Worth are, conservatively, double to triple what we pay here. So I just can't sleep at night. We're cheap, really cheap on our deals.
We were constantly looking around at spaces in East Dallas, in Fort Worth, but not Oak Cliff really. I've been offered tons of different spaces but I never want to open up across from another independent pizzeria. I wouldn't wanna do that to somebody, I wouldn't want somebody to do that to us. And somebody may do it to us eventually, but I'm not gonna go and open across from some other guy that's just like me that has poured his heart and soul into his business and say, 'hey dude, Cane Rosso's here, what's up?'. Eno's has Bishop Arts, that's their 'hood, people love them over there and they do a lot for the community. I would just muddy the waters over there, so it wouldn't make sense for us to do something like that. I wouldn't open up across from Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, I wouldn't open across from Olivella's. California Pizza Kitchen or Domino's? I'll open right next door to them. But you know, we haven't found a space.
Anyone who follows you guys on Twitter can see that you've been experimenting with all different kinds of pizza styles in the test kitchen like Sicilian, New York-style, etc. Is that something we're going to see at the White Rock location?
Cane Rosso will always be strictly Neapolitan. We don't want to muddy the waters. I have a buddy that has been making pizza in NY for 20-something years, I said why don't you come down to Dallas with the idea being that maybe we want to eventually have another restaurant that's not Cane Rosso. We always joke that if you hate Cane Rosso, you'll love this place, because a lot of people complain that oh, it's not crispy, there's not enough toppings, or you don't have chicken, where's my ranch? That sort of stuff. I like all kinds of pizza—I prefer Neapolitan because it's really light and you don't feel weighed down—but when you eat really great New York-style stuff, it's awesome too. Sometimes you just want like a gigantic slice of cheese pizza or you want a chicken parm roll or you want an eggplant parm sub. So my friend came down about a year ago and we actually bought a New York-style deck oven that we have in our back kitchen and it's just for experimenting. I think the idea is if we can find a space, we may be interested in doing a New York-style location. It's a much smaller deal than Cane Rosso, like 2,000 square feet. Here it's like, 'Can I get a slice of pizza?' No. There you could get a slice. 'Can I get a side of ranch?' No. If we could make really good jalapeno ranch like Taco Joint, we might do it, at a New York-style place. So it's not that we have anything against it, it's just not appropriate for the Cane Rosso style.
We're gonna expand our menu here soon—actually I wouldn't so much call it expansion as just putting some of the stuff on the menu that we do anyway. Our off-menu here at Cane Rosso is probably just as big as our actual menu. Every time I get a new dog, I name a pizza after them. I got a new dog, a bird dog, so the pizza's going to have quail eggs on it. We're gonna add some vegetarian stuff like a caprese sandwich. We've been experimenting with making different cheeses like a straciatella cheese which is these long strings of fresh mozz soaked in heavy cream. We'll never have a Cheesecake Factory menu, but we just want to add out a few things. We're going to add a bunch of salads. All kinds of stuff. We don't have enough to do.
I hear the White Rock location is going to have a salumi bar. Any details on that?
We're working on that; that's one thing we may phase in after we open. We're experimenting with making some of our own salumi. Matt McCallister makes great salumi, Brian Luscher makes great salumi. We'd love to have that, but we would cripple them—like okay, I need 500 pounds of sopressata. Nobody could ever keep up with how much we use. But we may do some things like pancetta and some artisan-type things that we can cure and slice here. So that's something we'll probably phase in after we open, but we do have the space for it. Another thing we're looking at is moving our cheesemaking process out to the front so you can watch the guys make the cheese. We make 800 pounds of mozzarella a week here. We may make burrata to order; we make it in the back now, but I really love the fresh cheese when it's still hot. Dino will kill me but I'd like to say if somebody orders a caprese salad, we make the mozzarella right then so it's really warm and creamy.
Your guest chef series has been a huge hit, bringing in everyone from Dean Fearing to Aaron Franklin to make their own pies. Is that something that will continue in 2013 and/or at the new location?
We may do it again, I think as long as the chefs are willing. We may shift it over to White Rock because there's a bunch of people over there. I know Colleen O'Hare wants to come in, and Meghan [Denison, head of operations] is buddies with Marc Cassel. Brian Luscher and Danyele [McPherson] from The Grape are always up for something. There's a lot of people from East Dallas I'm trying to drag through. I've been trying to get James from Hypnotic Donuts to come in and do a pizza. But we'll probably kick it off in the fall, October or something like that.
One of the really fun nights was when Alice Laussade came in kind of as a prelude to Meat Fight. Omar Flores too. Everyone was a really good sport. John Tesar was a good guy, everyone thought he would be the devil but he was the nicest guy. He was in the back goofing around with the guys doing prep. He's pretty big-time, but he was breading and frying his own eggplant. [Jack] Perkins was obviously a lot of fun too. His chili cheese pizza with tater tots was really good. Matt McCallister was great too, he did like a spring onion pesto with black trumpet mushrooms and it was awesome. Really good. Luscher's was good because he had all this cured meat he did himself. It was crazy. Kent Rathbun was also really excited to come in, and now Tracy and Lynae from Shinsei want to do a night. We try to find people who are not only just chefs, but just people who are in the industry and would like to get creative. So it's definitely been fun.