In 1969, Joe Walker quit his job selling life insurance to open a pizzeria in Shawnee with his brother-in-law Dick Ryan.
Walker, who grew up on a farm in Moline, Kan., and served in the Navy as an airplane mechanic, had next to no experience in the restaurant industry, so he had to work hard to make his business thrive. The entrepreneur often slept in the basement of the pizzeria, which was then called Pizza Shoppe.
“He had a cot in the basement,” said his son, William Walker. “He would take a nap, come back up, work through dinner, then go back to sleep.”
The hard work paid off: The Shawnee pizzeria, which parted ways with Pizza Shoppe and changed its name to Old Shawnee Pizza in 2003, celebrates 45 years in business this year.
Joe, who turned 77 last month, still works most mornings at Old Shawnee Pizza, which is also operated by his son, William, and his daughter, Lisa Walker. Last year, the family opened a second Old Shawnee Pizza at 19617 W. 101st St. in Lenexa.
For more than four decades, Old Shawnee Pizza has been known for its crispy, cracker-thin crust and creamy garlic salad dressing.
“We make our own crust every day, we make our own sauce every day, and we have our own seasoning recipe manufactured for us by a company in Columbia, Mo.,” William said.
To make its signature crispy crusts, Old Shawnee Pizza’s chefs mix up a dry dough and let it ferment for 24 hours. Balls of dough are flattened out by a rolling machine, then topped with one of nine sauces (classic red, garlic-infused olive oil, pesto, barbecue, alfredo…) and toppings.
Old Shawnee Pizza’s toppings menu features 13 kinds of cheese (including goat cheese and Provel, a blend of provolone, Swiss and American), 19 varieties of meat and 25 vegetables and herbs.
Once a pizza is prepared, it goes into the 550-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown and slightly flaky at the edges.
I’m big on barbecue pizza, so I took William’s advice and ordered the Smoke House pizza, topped with barbecue sauce, chunks of grilled chicken, bacon, pineapple, jalapeno, red onion and fresh cilantro. I also tried the St. Louie, a meat lover’s pizza with plenty of pepperoni, salami, black olives, banana peppers and Provel cheese.
Picking a favorite is tough — I loved the sweet and smoky flavor of the barbecue pizza and the tangy taste of the banana peppers on the St. Louis-style pie — but if I had to, I’d go with the Smoke House, which made me a pineapple-on-pizza convert.
William estimates that about 80 percent of Old Shawnee Pizza’s customers are regulars who order the same thing every time. When I was there, I was one of the only customers reading through the long menu. A guy in the vinyl booth next to me didn’t even look at the menu before ordering a hamburger pizza, “light on the sauce,” with a house salad.
Old Shawnee Pizza’s signature salad — a bed of crunchy iceberg lettuce topped with shredded cheese, bacon bits and pepperoni — is basically a vehicle for the pizzeria’s signature garlic dressing. Customers who can’t get enough of the creamy, pale green dressing can buy a bottle to go.
Another customer favorite is the OSP dip. The layered and baked dip includes cream cheese, marinara, pepperoni, onions, black olives and jalapenos. It’s served with a bare pizza crust that’s brushed with garlic-infused olive oil, then baked until crispy and cut into strips.
The 45-year-old pizzeria’s menu also includes classic Italian pasta dishes — lasagna, manicotti, fettuccine alfredo — and some pretty hefty sandwiches. The Sicilian, for example, stacks spicy capicola ham, Genoa salami, pepperoni, melted provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion on a hoagie bun with a smear of Old Shawnee Pizza’s garlic dressing.
“It’s a heart attack on a bun,” said William, who plans to celebrate many more anniversaries at the family pizzeria. “I hate to see somebody put so much time and effort and sweat into it and see it disappear.”
Old Shawnee Pizza
Location: 6000 Rogers Drive in Shawnee
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: The Smoke House pizza, topped with barbecue sauce, chicken, bacon, pineapple, jalapeno and onion, and the St. Louie pizza, with pepperoni, Genoa salami, red onion, black olives, banana peppers and Provel cheese.
Vegetarian: Order the Italian Paradise pizza. The meat-free pie features fresh garlic, onion, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, spinach and three cheeses on a garlic and olive-oil-glazed crust. Following a gluten-free diet? Order your pizza with a gluten-free crust, which Old Shawnee Pizza buys locally from Olivia’s Oven.
More info: shawneepizza.com