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Michael Fiorelli to Launch Fiorelli Pizza in Los Angeles in March

The Los Angeles chef has traded in buzzy big-budget restaurants for a simple yet effective concept, putting a mobile pizza rig in a Venice urban farm space.

Michael Fiorelli and Liz Gutierrez

Michael Fiorelli and Liz Gutierrez

Update: Fiorelli Pizza is now open! Details below...

Fiorelli Pizza could have been a big new dining destination, or an intimate place serving creative pies with natural wine. That’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a big-name chef in a big-time market such as Los Angeles, as he rolls out his next project following executive chef stints at high-profile restaurants around Tinseltown.  

But Fiorelli Pizza will be neither of those things. It will not even have walls. That’s because the chef, Michael Fiorelli, and his business partner Liz Gutierrez, are trying a new approach to restaurant service entrepreneurship. When it opens in March, Fiorelli Pizza will consist of a custom-built pizza oven and rig parked amid the plants in an urban farm and garden shop in Venice, The Cook’s Garden

Michael Fiorelli pizza
Michael Fiorelli serving a pie from his new pizza oven.

Speaking by phone from LA, Fiorelli recounts the inspiration for the bootstrapped approach, spinning a tale that seems almost too Hollywood to be true. He and Gutierrez were on a Zoom with potential investors who had seemed intent on funding a major new Italian restaurant with Fiorelli at the helm. The investors, including a major Hollywood producer, interrupted their meeting to take a call about a new TV project he’d been working on. When he returned to the Zoom, he inadvertently inspired Fiorelli. “He gets off the call and he explains to me how they haven't sold the show yet because they're like, ‘F- the big studios. We're gonna do this on our own. We want to do it our way, we don't want people telling us what to do.’”

Laughing, Fiorelli then recalls that Gutierrez began kicking him under the table. When the Zoom ended, they both marveled at how much the story applied to them, and decided that rather than borrow one or two million dollars from investors, they could invest a much smaller amount themselves — “about $50,000,” he says — so they could run the business their own way. 

Fiorelli, a New York-raised Italian-American who cooked his way around the East before settling in California — including stints at renowned restaurants at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and the 3-Michelin-Star Inn at Little Washington — chose pizza as his new métier. He “found a guy,” as he puts it, his New York lingo still somewhat intact, who builds portable wood and gas pizza ovens that can be mounted on a trailer. (The “guy” is a family-run pizza oven company called Forno Stanzia.) Fiorelli then set about customizing the pizza rig, adding a hand sink and refrigeration, in essence creating a cheffed-up rolling kitchen. 

Italian sandwich
Fiorelli Pizza will also feature Italian sandwiches such as the veggie parm hero, with fried eggplant, marinated artichokes, crushed tomatoes, provolone, and ricotta.

He and Gutierrez started building the oven without much of a plan. Then he was talking with Geri Miller, the owner of The Cook’s Garden, an unusual oasis of plants and vegetables amid the bustle of Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Fiorelli says that The Cook’s Garden grows produce for area restaurants; it also offers education and other services. Their conversation gave Fiorelli an idea. “I’m already thinking that if all goes well, maybe it can be more of a permanent thing where people come through the garden and order pizza, then take produce to go,” he says.

Now that he and Gutierrez have announced Fiorelli Pizza, that plan has come to fruition, and diners will soon be able to order his wood-fired pies among the greenery. The pizzas will include topping choices such as roasted mushrooms, Ezzo pepperoni (the kind that turns into cups when cooked), and seasonal vegetables. There will also be Italian sandwiches, salads, and a sardine plate. Dessert will include chocolate chip cookies, a neat connection to a former colleague’s pizza truck that also was an inspiration for Fiorelli.

sardines and bread
Fiorelli Pizza will also offer a selection of salads, sandwiches, and a sardine plate with bread and fixins'.

He explains that as the pandemic hit, he had been working in a hotel kitchen with a young Guatemalan man who unfortunately lost his job as business dried up. The young man had told Fiorelli that he’d worked in a bakery back home, and he’d thought about starting to sell tacos, but in taco-saturated SoCal, he put his baking knowledge to use to make pizzas instead.

“He was fearless,” Fiorelli recalls. “He’s like, I used to work in a bakery. I can make dough. I’m gonna do pizza.” He mounted a wood-fired oven in the back of his pickup truck and set up outside of a liquor store, and his business began to grow.

One day, Fiorelli recalls, he came to him in the hotel kitchen and asked if he could use some space in the walk-in cooler and in the kitchen for prep.

“The kid comes in with like 20 cases of fresh mozzarella, an entire shelf of pepperoni, like 10 cases of mushrooms. I thought he was over-ordering! I’m like, how many pizzas you guys sell today? And he was like, maybe 250?” Fiorelli laughs and says that he then counseled the man to raise prices and add soft drinks to the menu.

Fiorelli and his team started making chocolate chip cookies to sell along with the pizzas. “We made him 50 packages with two cookies in each,” Fiorelli says. “He came back and said that he sold them in an hour.” 

The young man is Eleodoro Lopez, whose Elio’s Wood-Fired Pizza is now a permanent fixture in Silverlake. 

Lopez's story seems to have informed Fiorelli’s decision to go back to basics, eschewing the formal dining room and the expense that comes with it in favor of a laid-back setting in an urban garden. Fiorelli Pizza could also be looked at as something of a bellwether for the restaurant industry, as chefs and diners come to realize that great food and memorable meals can be found in unexpected and even very casual places. 

Best of all for Fiorelli, he doesn’t have investors to answer to or massive loan payments. He may not get the big payday of the corporate chef gig, but, as he notes reflectively, “The income might drop off a little but so does the stress and the frustration and all of it.”

Fiorelli Pizza opens in March at The Cook's Garden, 1033 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291. Hours will be noon-9 pm Thursday-Sunday. Follow @fiorellipizza on Instagram for updates.

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