John Milone uses two words when he describes fulfilling his dream of owning an authentic neighborhood “hole-in-the-wall” pizzeria.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
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Milone is the owner and chief pizza maker for Johnny Jo’s Pizzeria, located in the West Plaza neighborhood on 47th Street between Holly and Mercer streets.
“You will miss it,” Milone told me. “Even if you’re looking for it, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss it.”
I managed to find Johnny Jo’s on my first try, and I’m certainly glad I did. I’d heard of Johnny Jo’s first from my friend Jasper Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s Italian Ristorante and then just recently from Tara Van Loenen, the vice president of marketing and branding for Bread Butter Concepts, the folks behind BRGR Bar, Urban Table, Graham Dunn and Taco Republic.
But I didn’t connect the dots until I spoke with Milone. Turns out, Leonard Mirabile, Jasper’s older brother, is Milone’s uncle and godfather and Bread Butter’s offices are literally right next to Johnny Jo’s.
I get it now, a family connection and a neighborhood connection. But, more than anything, there’s a pizza connection because Johnny Jo’s has really, really good pizza.
“My signature pizza is the Italian Sausage and Pepperoni, but you can just have a plain cheese pizza and tell how good, how fresh everything is,” Milone told me over a couple slices recently.
If I were forced to describe Johnny Jo’s pies, I’d say they’re more New York-style but with a slightly thinner crust, which I really liked.
The slices are foldable, if you wish, but I preferred eating them “straight up.” I had a slice of The Meathead — pepperoni, Virginia ham, Italian sausage and hamburger. You’d think all of that meat would put the pizza out of whack, but it didn’t.
The sauce, which is tangy yet balanced, still shone through. There was just enough cheese. And, the crust is one of the best I’ve had anywhere, and that includes Italy. It’s just darned good.
“I’m using my great, great grandmother’s recipe, which can be traced back to Sicily,” Milone said. “It took me more than a year to perfect it because her portions were ‘a handful of this’ and a ‘pinch of that,’ but she was this petite woman and I’m this 6-(foot)-2-(inches tall) man.”
But, perfect it he did and not just over a year but over many years. Johnny Jo’s Pizzeria celebrated its two year anniversary in early January, but it was more than decade-long journey to get to that point.
“It was around 2000 when I was going to Avila University. I needed a job, so I went to my uncle (Leonard Mirabile) and asked for a job at Marco Polo, the deli attached to Jasper’s Restaurant,” Milone said. “I did everything, but I really loved making the pizzas.
“After years of making their recipe, I started messing with my own. Leonard would let me serve it to friends and good customers and they liked it, so I started looking for a space to open a real neighborhood restaurant, the kind we used to have when my dad was going up.”
But, there was more work to be done. Milone needed to learn how to make the dough in a large commercial mixer, and how to cook the pizzas in restaurant-grade ovens.
He was working for his father in the flooring industry during the day, and humping it at Jasper’s at nights, but always with an eye to own his own place.
“I figured Brookside and the West Plaza were the two neighborhoods where I could open a place like I wanted,” Milone said. “I didn’t want or need anything big and extravagant. I just wanted to get my pizza out to people and have them enjoy it.”
Milone said he wanted the place to have a real home-town, down-home vibe to it, and so it does.
But, be careful if you come down for a slice because, as Milone himself points out, you just might miss the pizzeria. That’s okay, just circle the block and try again. It’s worth the effort.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.