Il Pizzaiolo: Pizza Rock, Sacramento, CA

Metal flames shooting from its artistic sign in front hint at what is in store for customers who visit Pizza Rock in Sacramento, California. Once inside, a real PeterBilt semi truck crashes through a wall hovering over its bar with a DJ booth spinning loud, lively music inside the truck’s cab. Balancing the wall opposite the truck are enormous 12-foot black booths. Gazing up at the ceiling, ambient lighting illuminates a recessed mural of Pizza Rock’s version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, featuring an electric guitar to represent the “Creation of Rock.”

Pizza Rock is a destination, an attraction. The ambiance is dark. The walls are brick. The hostess stand replicates a toolbox. The men’s room looks like a graffiti-filled alley. Brown paper bags serve as placemats and tomato cans hold silverware wrapped in bright cloth napkins on each table.

Pair the atmosphere with Tony Gemignani’s award winning Neapolitan pizza and then toss in some charismatic, acrobatic pizza makers. The result is an energizing pizza experience. “This isn’t Pizza Rock and Roll,” says co-owner George Karpaty. “It’s Pizza Rock, as in rock being edgy, hard, loud. It’s where artisan pizza meets nightlife energy.”

Karpaty sat down with Pizza Today recently to discuss Pizza Rock’s debut and its unique vibe. The restaurant opened in January 2011 amid a citywide buzz over its launch.

Karpaty and Gemignani not only set out to open a one-of-a-kind restaurant, they refurbished an entire block of K Street in Midtown Sacramento, an area that is resurging as an entertainment district thanks to the city’s redevelopment efforts. Pizza Rock is sandwiched between the partners’ new nightclubs — District 30 and Dive Bar, which opened around the same time. Karpaty, who also owns a successful nightclub, Ruby Skye, in downtown San Francisco, and Gemignani envisioned the Pizza Rock concept more than three years ago and sought out the right opportunity.

Confident that Sacramento would embrace the Pizza Rock concept, Karpaty says, “We saw enough high quality, relatively new establishments that were doing fairly well for a downed economy.” Incentives from the city helped create a win-win situation. “So the risk/reward was extremely attractive.” It also provided an advantage for the launch team coming from Karpaty and Gemignani’s home base of nearby San Francisco. “It was very important for us to be close to our homes so we could have a hands-on management approach until we get it tweaked, dialed and perfect,” Karpaty says.

The build out of Pizza Rock cost nearly $3.5 million. By the time it opened, Sacramento chatter was already buzzing about the mural, truck and the mermaid swimming in a huge, live seawater tank next door at Dive Bar. “Putting the truck up and the mural was an absolute grand slam marketing genius homerun, because that is what people talked about,” he says. The features generated a lot of attention from local media and Pizza Rock hit the area with print, radio and billboard ads announcing its arrival.

Pizza Rock ExteriorThe concept is working in Sacramento. In 2011, the restaurant generated $3.8 million in sales. Karpaty anticipates Pizza Rock will break the $4 million mark in 2012. “We always laugh and giggle because you’d hear negative people talking about, ‘Ah, it’s a schtick’ and we knew that when you came, we were going to blow your mind,” Karpaty says.

With the attractive décor, he says the food is what keeps people coming back. Much like Gemignani’s spot in San Francisco (Tony’s Neapolitan Pizzeria), Pizza Rock uses four different oven styles to offer a variety of pizza — Neapolitan, classic Italian, Roman, Sicilian and American. The pizzeria expects to add a Detroit style soon.

Despite the broad menu, Pizza Rock’s food cost still stays below 30 percent. The restaurant has backed up its “Respect the Craft” motto with a menu filled with artisanal flare. Most famous for its Neapolitan, Pizza Rock sells Gemignani’s World Pizza Cup Winner, the Margherita, at $14. Another customer favorite is the New Yorker with mozzarella, hand crushed tomato sauce, garlic, pepperoni, Italian fennel sausage, ricotta and oregano at $16.

With its traditional American medium hand-tossed crust, the Sacramento (mozzarella, pepperoni, Molinari salami, bacon, mushrooms, red onions, bell peppers, black olives, Italian sausage and cherry tomatoes at $17) has a strong following. The calzones are monstrous, offered deep-fried or baked. The West White is filled with mozzarella, burrata, Parmigiano-Reggiano, crushed red peppers and garlic, and is priced at $13. Sandwiches like the PLT 10 with crispy smoked pancetta, mixed Sonoma greens, tomato, pesto mayo, a balsamic reduction on a house made rosemary focaccia add options for the lunch crowd.

With the state capital and a thriving downtown, Karpaty says Pizza Rock stays full at lunch and has a lively happy hour seven days a week. Initially, Friday and Saturday night waits exceeded two hours. The restaurant has now settled into 30-minute to an hour-and-a-half waits most nights of the week and at lunch.

It packs in patrons for an “Acoustic Weekend Brunch.” “We rotate a bunch of acoustic guitarists through the venue,” Karpaty says. “They sit on stools and play the perfect Sunday brunch vibe.” Bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas are also a big draw for brunch. It has become a place to be and a place to be seen.

After the dinner rush dies down, Pizza Rock becomes a hip nightclub with its kitchen staying open to serve its late night crowd. In fact, its bar accounts for 35 percent of sales. Pizza Rock’s employees are part of the dining experience. While its general manager handles the technical interview, Karpaty says he also interviews to look for a certain quality —“a glow, a uniqueness, a human art being that is cool, fun and has an internal smile.” As a customer, he adds: “I get the same 45-second first impression when the server walks up to my table.”

Recently, Pizza Rock introduced its electric bike delivery service with one condition. “We are only doing what is called ‘the grid,’ so that’s anything where we can get to it in eight minutes,” Karpaty says.

Still a young restaurant, Karpaty says they’ve had their eyes on a nationwide expansion of the concept since its inception. He says they’ve established consistency controls and its operational procedures have been standardized for growth.

While at International Pizza Expo, Gemignani stopped by the Pizza Today booth to announce plans in the works to bring Pizza Rock to Las Vegas as part of a new downtown Las Vegas redevelopment venture. A pizza entertainment attraction may be just the right fit for attraction rich Las Vegas.

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.

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