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Building a Pizzeria: First, a Dream and a Lease

Editor's note: Some of you Slice'rs probably remember Caleb Schiff, AKA Flagstaff Forno. But did you know that he's going pro? In this series, we'll follow Caleb as he builds his pizzeria in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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The future home of Pizzicletta. [Photographs: Caleb Schiff]

On Sunday night, the new NBC reality show America's Next Great Restaurant launched. Coincidentally, this week Slice will be launching a miniseries that tracks my own work toward turning my dream of opening a wood-fired pizzeria into a reality. Thankfully I won't have a quartet of investors from the NBC show breathing down my neck, but with this miniseries, I hope I will receive the sage advice of Slice'rs.

Let me be clear: I am not looking to build a pizza empire, or even expand to multiple locations. Nope, this pizzeria will be all about keeping it simple and focusing on one thing, great Neapolitan pizza. The pizzeria's opening will be the outcome of sharing my love and passion for baking Neapolitan pizza with my community here in Flagstaff, Arizona. Its community driven and funded. Yes, I've done my research and consultation, made visits to countless pizzerias around the country and in Italy, and run all the cash-flow numbers over and over. But at its heart, and what will make it a success is my desire to bring traditional pizza and bread baking to my community.

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A visit to Da Michele was a must.

My pizza obsessiveness all got started during my first cycling trip to Italy. There I discovered Neapolitan pizza and baking in wood-fired ovens. I was blown away. I grew up on Noble Romans and Tombstone. All of sudden, pizza was reborn for me.

Soon after that first trip to the boot I built a wood-fired oven in my backyard. It was a bit of a off-the-cuff concept. I called the project Little Italy and the construction was a big learning lesson in patience and masonry. The entrance dome collapsed more than once. I learned that mixing mortar by hand embeds glass into your skin. I woke up that night in fits of pain. My girlfriend thought I was half crazy but also driven. That was about three years ago, and ever since, I've been working to perfect my pizza. Which means, I've been making quite a few pies, and feeding them to my friends and lots of random guests whenever possible.

Well, those backyard pizza parties became kind of legendary. I can't walk around town without someone asking me, "Aren't you the pizza guy?" The wheels got turning in my head, I made another inspiring trip to Italy this past Fall, and started conceptualizing Pizzicletta, a cycling-themed wood-fired pizzeria.

Today I placed my John Hancock on the lease and in return received my key. Now with this financial commitment in place and the planning and fundraising nearly complete, I'm thrilled to really get started.

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The home oven.

I have some great photos of the Italian countryside hanging in my kitchen, but my walls are not adorned with a degree from a prestigious business school or Le Cordon Bleu. I've always been a baker, but I am completely self-taught. I've actually never even taken an accounting or cooking class, unless you count a 1-credit wine tasting course I took in college with my two roommates. Our motivation to take the course was, well, dubious at best.

I studied rocks and minerals in college and grad school and got a job at the local university soon after. When I hung up my lab coat last year during the depths of the recession and set out to open my own restaurant, I left a lot of people scratching their head. It would be silly for me to assume that everything is going to go as smoothly as I would hope, but I am certain the next few months will be an interesting learning process. And as a wise pizzaiolo might have once said, "a good oven does not beget good pizza," nor continued success for that matter, so getting to my initial opening is just the beginning of the story for me.

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The storefront is at the tip of the pizza-shaped space.

To get started, it was critical to find the right location. I looked at countless buildings, but nothing felt right. It was frustrating. But this past month a unique, pizza slice-shaped space in an up-and-coming end of town became available. The building was a former textile plant, and the back 6,300 square feet of the building is home to a bike shop and a brewery. Pizzicletta will be located in the front corner space that housed the office of the textile plant. It's a cozy 700 square feet. Perfect for the small, intimate neighborhood pizzeria I want to create. The extremely low overhead, industrial character, and location were perfect; it was love at first sight.

And for the next few months, I hope you'll cheer me on and offer your advice as I turn this space into Pizzicletta. I'll be posting every couple of weeks here on Slice about the emotional highs and lows that come with building a pizzeria. I'll do my best to keep it informative and comical, and of course, pizza-focused.

In addition to my posts here, you can also find Pizzicletta on Facebook and Twitter or read more about my home oven at www.pizzicletta.com. And of course, by June, I hope some of you will crossing the threshold of Pizzicletta and enjoying the best pizza I can offer.

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