The Tomato Head
Mahasti Vafaie, owner
All these years of Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Best Pizza awards and the Tomato Head’s position as an “establishment” on Market Square make it hard to remember that 23 years ago Mahasti Vafaie was somewhat of a renegade with her tiny pizza place, choice of a downtown location, and off-the-wall bands (and funky on-the-wall art, which has not changed). Here’s what the innovator has to say about her own success since the August 1990 opening—and prime evidence that she remembers the old days better than any of us:
Pizza when I was a kid: In 7th and 8th grade, my best friend and I used to frequent a small pizza place in the Armenian district of Isfahan, Iran. The pizzas were thin crust and fairly greasy, but the cluster of dimly lit small rooms, the lovely courtyard, and the fact that our parents would let us frequent the place alone, made for an amazing pizza experience.
My pizza mentors: My biggest pizza mentor was David Chambers, my first hire. I knew nothing about pizza when I opened the restaurant. He pretty much taught me everything I know about pizza. He had an amazing dedication to perfection when it came to pizza. My most influential business mentor was my second boss in Knoxville, Harold McKinney of Lord Lindsey. My management style is a direct result of his style, which was really hands-on, respectful, and generous. His willingness to give responsibility to very young employees and to believe in them was such a contrast to all the chain restaurants that I had worked in up until that point.
When I eat at the Tomato Head: I am usually tasting specials when I am at work, so I don’t ever really eat a meal. When I dine in, I usually order the same thing for several months then I move onto something else. At the moment I am eating our house salad with oil and vinegar.
The secret to our crust: King Arthur Flour, water, salt, and yeast.
The secret to our sauce: Fresh basil.
The most memorable pie I ever served: This was more weird than tasty—frog leg pizza.
Did I ever think the business might not make it? For the first three years, every day.
The next generation: Both of my children like to eat our pizza, oh yes. My 9-year-old daughter has it pretty plain—she has just chicken on her pizza. My son is 11 and he’s pretty adventurous. The last pizza he ate was salmon and red onion. I haven’t really thought about whether either one would like to take over the business some day. As of right now, they really don’t have that much of an interest. It would be nice if they did.
Something many people don’t know—or maybe forgot—about Tomato Head: Paper plates, plastic forks, Eugene Chadbourne, Freakwater, Exit 65. Oven rides in the defunct bread oven—not too many people knew about those. We used to scream out customers’ first names in order to deliver food. In the old days, you were not able to sit at one of our tables on the Square and have a beer or a glass of wine, and in the early days of dinner service on Friday nights and every other Saturday, we did not have a host. Customers just wrote their names down on a list and managed the wait list on their own—chaos! We only started with 10 tables, and if it hadn’t been for Whittle Communications, I would probably would not still be in business. Those were the only people at first who would eat here!
Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria
Christian Murray, “some manner of kitchen manager”
Pizza when I was a kid: What I first remember is a place called University Pizza in Syracuse. After my family moved to Tennessee, we ate at Pizza Hut every Friday for a couple of years. It was kind of my favorite food—a specialty. We were the kind of family that ate meatloaf twice a week for years. I remember going to Chuck E. Cheese with a friend and their parents bought me pizza. We were having meatloaf at home that night and I got sent to my room because I’d already eaten.
My pizza mentors: I work with a bunch of great cooks and have been at Barley’s about two years now. I did work Papa John’s as a kid, but it was fast-food pizza, not very memorable—more of a job and a paycheck.
The secret to our crust: It’s made in-house and made well—we have really good pizza.
The secret to our sauce: All the garlic, there’s so much garlic in that sauce, it makes it so much better.
When I eat pizza at Barley’s: I usually get Alfredo sauce and an unruly amount of toppings—pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, spinach, artichoke hearts, and this roasted onion and tomato blend that they put in the sauce. Customers could ask for this, too—go right ahead. As long as I’m there, I’ll know what you’re talking about.
My favorite beverage pairing with pizza: It depends on what I’m eating. If I’m just sitting down to play pinball and drink a Miller High Life, it goes best with a basic mushroom or pepperoni pizza. With a heavier pizza, you need heavier beer, like a Dead Guy.
The most memorable pie I ever served: Green olives and anchovies. I’ve seen a couple of them go out as slices and a couple as pies. It sounds like a terrible combination—I just kind of cringe and am glad I don’t have to eat it.
Something many people don’t know—or maybe forgot—about Barley’s: All our products are prepared in-house, and we try to use as fresh a product as we can. I know that other people do that too, but I think people start thinking of Barley’s as a bar first and pizzeria second.
Hard Knox Pizzeria
Dean Bastian, Co-owner with wife Jill Johnson
Pizza when I was a kid: In my hometown, it was pretty much like Domino’s is today—pretty basic. Pizza for me was really about the fact that my father introduced it to us. He was one of the World War II vets who came home from Italy and said, “Hey, there’s this thing called pizza!” He made it at home for us. He got this stuff, Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix, with a dough mix you make yourself and some sauce and like a packet of Parmesan. He’d add cheese, pepper, onions, and that was our Saturday night treat. He was my influence and introduction to pizza.
When I eat pizza at Hard Knox: Every day I work, I eat pizza here. We have great salads, calzones—but I really don’t eat anything else but the pizza, and I eat pretty much a basic: Red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, crushed red pepper, and dried oregano. Occasionally I try others just to check the quality, but I stick with the classic combination. We don’t put crushed red pepper in our sauce or on many of our pizzas, but it adds lots of flavor.
My pizza education: I built my own wood-fired brick oven 15 or 20 years ago. I’d read how in Naples they all loved to make pizza in a wood-fired brick oven and was like, “Damn, I gotta try it.” At the time, this required building one; no one could purchase one like you can now. I found plans online from a guy in Australia—he was like the Johnny Appleseed of wood-fired ovens. Then I had to learn masonry; it took six months, but it was great, like a monument to pizza in my backyard. The neighbors were like, “Umm?” but then when they had the pizza they were like, “Aha.” It really clicked. I was in advertising at the time, but I always knew that was something that was going to come to an end, so I put this in my back pocket.
The secret to our crust: When I made a crust at home, I always learned from different books. When we got to Knoxville five or six years ago, and I purchased the oven for Hard Knox, we hired a guy who was kind of under contract for the oven manufacturer, and he helped us learn the oven and in four to five days, all the things we needed to know about how to open. One thing was the secret of cold-fermented crust. We make the crust, roll it out, ball it up, and put it in the walk-in [refrigerator] for a while. It develops an interesting flavor and character you wouldn’t get if you used it immediately.
The secret to our sauce: We make it from scratch, but there’s nothing startling unusual about it—canned plum tomatoes, a blend of spices. It is a cold sauce; I don’t think there’s anything remarkable about it but it’s fresh. It would be considered more of a New York-style pizza sauce. One of the things we wanted to do when we got to Knoxville, we wanted to make sure what we did was unique, but not over people’s heads. I knew enough about Neapolitan pizza to know that they don’t season the sauce, which I think to the Neapolitans is fine, but people in Knoxville would go, “Hey, that’s kind of bland.”
Some things I’ve learned since we’ve been in business: How important it is to keep the employees happy. I always knew that, but it’s hard to find good employees in this category, when you’re doing everything by hand, from scratch. And the oven’s a pretty simple idea on the surface, but it’s tricky on so many things. You invest so much time in training employees who can handle all of that; you want to keep them around. And one of the things I hadn’t really thought about before opening is that it’s a business of pennies; the margins are small. I guess people think anyone with a busy restaurant is making a mint, but it isn’t true. I’ve really learned I have to watch every penny.
Something many people don’t know—or maybe forgot—about Hard Knox: Our ovens operate exclusively on wood. Even if people have eaten the wood-fired pizzas from places that have gas-assist wood ovens, they might want to also give us a try, because the pizza is different. We’re doing it the hard way!
Did I ever think we might not make it? I think everyone has moments of doubt with something like this. But I think we were both so hellbent on making this work, whatever issue came up, we were going to make it work. One of the things we did, when we opened in 2009, we started out really small and simple, and because of the oven, we could only do one size of pizza. But I saw the lunch customers eyeing the 12-inch pizzas like, ‘That’s too much food,’ so we started making six-inch pizzas, calzones. There were times like that, when if we didn’t react, we would have been in trouble. But this is a dream: we are not going to let anything stand in our way.”
Charlie Peroulas, owner and cook
Pizza when I was a kid: When my mother cooked things we didn’t like, we called my dad [Arthur Peroulas] and had him bring us a pizza from Pizza Palace. It was a treat; that’s the flavor I grew up on; that’s what we wanted. We’d get in trouble sometimes without mom knowing we’d called—it was never a good idea to try to play one parent off another in our house!
When I eat at Pizza Palace: Oh, I eat a little of everything—in this business you are always tasting, but rarely sitting down and eating a meal. We eat the pizza that gets overcooked, the orders that didn’t get picked up—lots of leftovers!
My favorite topping: I’m not picky, I like a little of everything. Pepperoni is probably my least favorite, but anything, it doesn’t matter—plain cheese or a pizza that’s all loaded up.
The secret to our sauce: The pizza sauce is homemade and seasoned with a blend of spices, and our sauce for the spaghetti, gosh, it’s a great recipe that our family has, seasoned with the best ingredients and it simmers for hours.
Something most people may not know about Pizza Palace: Our onion rings and our pizza make a great combo! Of course, 90 percent of the orders that go out of here have onion rings, but a lot of people don’t expect them to taste so good alongside our pizza.
Did I ever think we might not make it? No. When I got in, the business had already been established—we’ve been around 52 years, and when my dad and uncles started this they were successful from day one. There are the everyday challenges—maintaining the levels of quality that will keep you around. But this product pretty much sells itself, and we’ve been around long enough we’re pretty safe.
Something most people may not remember about Pizza Palace: Part of it is our East Knoxville location—we’re a destination restaurant, I don’t spend money on publicity, so people might forget we’re here, although our loyal customers are here on a regular basis and they may pass 20 or 30 restaurants to get here. Still, it’s nice when people remember—“Hey, we’re here! We’ve been here 52 years, and we’re one of a kind.”