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Life on the Truck With Pitruco Pizza

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The fire crawls up to the roof of the oven.
The fire crawls up to the roof of the oven.

The best new pizza in Philly is coming from three guys who aren't chefs, and have never worked in professional kitchens before they opened up their pie-slinging venture, Pitruco Pizza. If a lack of experience isn't already enough of a challenge going up against the pizzaiolos working in Marc Vetri and Stephen Starr's kitchens, the Pitruco boys decided to build a mobile wood-fired oven on a truck and sell pizza that way. Against the odds, though, Pitruco has gotten a lot of early buzz for turning out an amazing product, and is often mentioned in the same breath with the best in the city.

Eater spent a day with two of the owners, Jonah Fliegelman and Erik Hilkowitz (the third, Nathan Winkler-Rhoades is finishing up a post doc program in Boston), on the Pitruco truck, to learn about the trials and tribulations of life on the road.

Fliegelman arrives at the lot in Mt. Airy where the Pitruco trailer lives around 7:30 A.M. to chop wood that will be used throughout the day in the oven. A blend of white oak and red oak is what the crew has figured works best when making pies. Fliegelman is the fire guy, and always works the oven.

"We need at least three people, but usually four to make Pitruco work. I am responsible for a lot, but the fire is what I do," said Fliegelman. "There was a lot of trial and error along the way, but we've got a good handle on it. Nathan (Winkler-Rhoads) had already been doing this a long time."

Winkler-Rhoads was the driving force behind the launch of the project, and has been a pizza hobbyist for quite some time. He even attracted the attention of the Boston Globe when he built a pizza oven in his backyard in 2009. Winkler-Rhoads still follows the progress of his Pitruco project closely online. "Nathan emails me when he sees pictures of our pies online, and critiques our work," said Fliegelman. "I'm sure he will come back after his post-doc is done. We see where he's keeping his attention."

Soon after Fliegelman gets the fire working, Hilkowitz shows up with fresh produce he just purchased in the Italian Market. Fliegelman and Hilkowitz have a commissary in a house nearby the parking spot for the truck, and spend a good two hours prepping everything for the day.

"Everything we use is done from scratch," said Hilkowitz. "All of our sauces, our dough, our veggies, and toppings are done in house. We buy the meats from a purveyor in the Italian Market, but slice it ourselves and the same goes with our cheeses. It's a prep-heavy concept."

The menu has multiple options, without a lot of overlap between pies, so the amount of ingredients required for the truck is staggering. And, with full-size pies starting at a paltry $6.50 and topping out at $9, there isn't a lot of margin to make profit. But, as a food truck, keeping prices low is integral to the business.

"It's tough, we need to move a lot of pizza to make this worth it financially," said Fliegelman. "But, I love the business, I love what we do. It's fun."

Fliegelman said he got a lot of flack from his parents when he started the business. But, instead of parental worry about lack of funds as a young entrepreneur, they were more concerned about life fulfillment. "Both of my parents are nurses and work with underprivileged people and patients with AIDS," said Fliegelman. "They're very giving people. I used to teach tennis for the Arthur Ashe Youth organization, and they were OK with that. But, they worried if this was the right move for me. But, I think it is."

Hilkowitz has worked in restaurants for a good portion of his life, and most recently was employed by the Fair Food organization, which focuses on consumer education for buying local and organic foods. "Working here allows me to spend most of my day with some of my best friends in the world," said Hilkowitz. "It's not a bad way to make a living."

After loading up the truck, the duo lugs the huge trailer through Mt. Airy and into the city via 676, which can be an adventure unto itself. "We get in accidents, minor ones usually, about once a week," said Fliegelman. "We've had physical run-ins with Li'l Dan's and Jose Garces' Guapos Tacos. It's part of the deal."

Once at the spot in LOVE Park, the boys get everything ready for the inevitable lunch rush. After little more than 3 minutes, the first customers already start asking when they'll be up and running. The crew is ready to pizza in just under 10 minutes, a record time.

The well-oiled machine turns out about one pizza per minute, with one employee stretching the dough, then onto Hilkowitz who puts together the pie, and Fliegelman fires them in just under 2 minutes. Average time from ordering to boxing: 5 minutes.

After their biggest day ever, the Pitruco crew was headed off to Bella Vista for dinner service. Before leaving, Eater asked Fliegelman what advice he would give anyone that was thinking about starting their own truck, and he offered: "Don't do it. Really, financially it's not going to support you, and you should only do it if you're ready to work long hours and bust your ass. It's not for everyone." He followed that up with, "But, it was the right choice for us. We have a lot of fun. We're just not going to get rich doing it."

You can follow the adventures and locations of the Pitruco boys on Twitter. Don't sleep on one of the best pizzas in the city, and some of the most genuine guys you'll ever meet.

· Pitruco Pizza [Twitter]
· All Pizza Week Coverage [~EPHI~]

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