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PZA Gourmet Pizza - VisitingNewEngland small business partnership

PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass., Rises Toward the Top of the Boston Area Pizza Scene

How a talented pizza maker and savvy businessman collaborated on creating a whole new paradigm for the neighborhood pizza place

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 6/10/2019.

Pizza to die for at PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Massachusetts.
Made-from-scratch pizzas at PZA in Salem.


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Steve Sampson and George Tsatsis have taken the basic house of pizza concept and given it an extreme home makeover at PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass.

In a pizza world where order-taking responses like "10 minutes, please" and "Is that all?" say it all about the Anytown USA assembly-line approach, Sampson and Tsatsis seem determined to break the chain mentality and throw overboard the dive pizza shop approach. They have clearly succeeded on many levels.

Dining room at PZA Pizza in Salem, MA.
Dining room at PZA Gourmet Pizza. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Sampson, 56, brings client fulfillment, brand loyalty, technology and marketing experience to PZA Gourmet Pizza. Tsatsis has taken what he learned from his dad at the Lynnfield House of Pizza -- in business since the late 70s -- and given PZA a modern edge without compromising the most critical tenet of the very best pizza out there. That would simply be not forgetting to make it taste great.

The collaboration makes sense. Sampson started his own software business at age 23 catered for the salon industry as well as having many other successful online and offline businesses. Taking over from his dad, Tsatsis operated the Lynnfield House of Pizza up until the last five years. He found the sales doubled in just three years by simply updating the business.

Steve and George met by chance in 2015 while vacationing in Aruba. Although both grew up north of Boston, they had never met until that time. They built some good camaraderie, started brainstorming about opening a "new fast, casual food concept," stayed in contact and eventually chose the Salem State University neighborhood to open PZA Gourmet Pizza in Oct. 2018. While Salem State students and staff frequent PZA (University administrative offices are up above in the building and the main campus across the street), it is mostly the Salem and nearby Marblehead neighborhood residents that eat at PZA -- sometimes several times a week.

"We wanted to make everything just a bit better without ruining our great pizza that people love," said Sampson, a Bentley University (Waltham, Mass.) graduate.

In simple metaphorical terms, Tsatis represents a working-class slice of the American Dream while Sampson augments that timeless small business mission as a bottom-line businessman by bringing in the dough.

"I have the expertise in business and marketing and George really knows his pizza," said Sampson.

The origins of the business name came from a visit to New York City, N.Y., where George saw a sign with Greek Style lettering at GRK Fresh Greek Restaurant.

"He said to me, 'Let's do something like this," so we did by coming up with PZA Gourmet Pizza," said Steve.

PZA Pizza in Salem, Massachusetts
PZA Gourmet Pizza storefront. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

They expanded the menu far beyond pizza, brought in a self-order kiosk (to be operating soon) and facilitated text ordering as well as services like GrubHub and faster delivery. The dining room looks modern with its industrial ceiling, hanging lights, sleek woodblock tables (there's seating for 47), open kitchen, brick and wood-paneled walls, a pleasing ubiquitous charcoal color scheme and wide screen televisions. The staff is bright, hard-working, responsive and committed in a restaurant genre that typically experiences high turnover rates.

This is clearly not your typical mom and pop pizza place.

"We try to be like the Starbucks of pizza with a cool space laid out thoughtfully and with TVs and free WiFi," said Sampson. "It's like the traditional pizza places on steroids. We looked at a lot of cool pizza places on Instagram and used a local architectural firm to come up with what we have here."

Pizza for the 21st Century

All the modern elements and conveniences at PZA Gourmet Pizza would be for naught if the pizza wasn't good. Because of George and Steve believing that pizza is a staple of the American diet, they knew right from the beginning that PZA's version better be good as the Boston area is over saturated with pizza places.

The pizza is so good that this writer would place the quality right up with with local legends like Santarpio's, Regina Pizzeria, The Pleasant Cafe, New London Pizza, Ernesto's Pizzeria, the Lynwood Cafe, Town Spa Pizza, Cape Cod Pizza and the Venus Cafe. Credit George for taking the family recipes and his deft know-how on how to bring everything to the next level at PZA Gourmet Pizza.

"We took everything that the Lynnfield House of Pizza offers and just made it better," said Steve. "Our goal is to put out the best product."

The classic Greek-style pizza gets a fabulous thin crust, void of the grease that tends to often impede this style of pizza. The cheddar/mozzarella cheese, homemade tomato sauce and oregano taste comes out in proper balance with not one flavor overwhelming the other. They also make a gluten-free crust, Detroit-style thick crust and a novel cauliflower-based crust called the "Skinny Pizza."

Although one can certainly order standards like cheese and pepperoni pizzas at PZA Gourmet Pizza, it is clear that a newer generation of pies take front and center stage whether as slices or whole pies.

The chicken parm pizza takes that favorite Italian-American dish and transforms it into a pizza with chicken cutlets, marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella and grated Parmesan cheese.

Chicken parm pizza from PZA Gourmet Pia in Salem, Massachusetts.
Chicken parm pizza.

The Big Mac Attack evokes the taste of that classic hamburger with ground hamburg, lettuce, pickle, red onion and a thousand island drizzle.

Big Mac Attack Pizza from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, MA.
Big Mac Attack Pizza. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

The Texas Pizza features grilled chicken smothered in barbecue sauce, caramelized onions and bacon over a white pizza.

The Texas Pizza from PZA Pizza in Salem, Mass.
The Texas Pizza. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

The Old World Pizza combines sausage, pepperoni, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers...

Old world pizza from PZA Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Old World Pizza.
Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

But then again, you can't go wrong with the cheese pizza that clearly has the fabulous tasty template that the Lynnfield House of Pizza served for so many years...

Cheese pizza from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Cheese pizza from PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Or the pepperoni with plenty of cheese and topping over that fabulous tomato base...

Pepperoni pizza from PZA Piza in Salem, Mass.
Pepperoni pizza.

For those who prefer calzone over pizza, PZA also turns out a masterful version as in the case of the chicken parm and steak and cheese calzones...

Chicken parm calzone from PA Pizza in Salem, MA

Chicken parm calzone. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Steak and cheese calzone from PA Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Steak and cheese calzone.  Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.


Going way beyond pizza

"People are not going to pizza places three times a week consistently," said Steve. "But they might have pizza one day, a salad with grilled chicken the next day, a roast beef sandwich the next day, a power bowl the next, etc."

PZA Gourmet Pizza not only offers an extended menu but makes sure to do things the right way (translated: favoring unique and flavorful over generic and bland) with its subs, wraps, burger bar selections, club sandwiches, salads, dinner plates, rice and power bowls and pasta dinners.
The Terrikyaki Rice Bowl with grilled chicken is a good place to start.


Chicken terriyaki rice bowl from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, MA.
Chicken terriyaki rice bowl.
Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Pizza and salad always seem like an ideal pizza house eat-in or take-out duo. Here, the PZA Greek Salad transcends the typical iceberg and store-bought vegetable version...

Greek salad from PZA Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Greek salad. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

On the traditional American diet side, PZA also knows how to make a nice, juicy burger with fries on the side...

Burger from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Burger from PA Gourmet Pizza. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

PZA also shows off its true comfort food side with this waffle fries, bacon and cheese dish...

Waffle fries, bacon and nachos with cheese from PZA Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Waffle fries, bacon and cheese. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

PZA also honors the North Shore tradition of the great roast beef sandwich with its own stellar version...

Roast beef sandwich from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Massachusetts
Roast beef sandwich. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

The Boston area has been known for its great sub shops through the years like Santoro's and Lena Subs. PZA follows that grand tradition with this Italian sub...

Italian sub from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, MA.
The Italian. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Many classic North Shore diners serve up tasty club sandwiches, but PZA can assume that role, also...

Turkey club from PZA Gourmet Piza in Salem, Mass.
Turkey club. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

PZA also makes some mouthwatering chicken wings...

House chicken wings from PZA Gourmet Piza in Salem, Massachusetts.
Chicken wings. Photo credit: PZA Gourmet Pizza.

Conclusion

PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass.

The concept of PZA Gourmet Pizza could have come across as trendy and gimmicky, but, fortunately, the business acumen of Sampson and the culinary wizardry of Tsatsis help avoid any pitfalls. In today's restaurant world, gourmet often translates to overpriced. A spotlessly clean dining spot with modern design can often result in a sterile look. A college area pizza location can often come across as hectic and cramped with pizza turned out assembly-line style.

On the contrary, PZA Gourmet Pizza comes across as warm and inviting, and clean and modern but with personality and a hometown vibe. It's also spacious and comfortable in, well, that Starbucks kind of way. George clearly creates food from love and tradition -- not just through those mere words but by continuously evolving his craft from a very strong family foundation.

Chicken bacon ranch pizza from PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass.
Chicken bacon ranch pizza.

Steve and George have created something special here and hope to open five to 10 more PZA Gourmet Pizza locations in the next five years within college area settings. They have their business eye on the prize by ultimately wanting to franchise PZA.

The true prize, however, is living in the moment -- that is, seeing their first business succeed in a short amount of time through putting everything together under one roof for the locals to enjoy. It's like a greatest hits collection of what makes the best pizza places so great. There's definitely some pop in this updated mom and pop pizza spot that brings in up to a couple of hundred people every day for lunch and dinner.

"No one else does what we do here," said Steve. "Forty-five percent (of our business) is pizza and the rest is all the other stuff we do. And then there's the setting, perfect for hanging out without feeling cramped or rushed. Families and really everyone seems to be satisfied what we are doing here."

PZA Gourmet Pizza is located at 331 Lafayette St. in Salem, MA. Tel. 508-594-4973. Web site: http://www.pzasalem.com.



Next small business story to enjoy reading: Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville, Mass. (Cape Cod)


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Discovering PZA Gourmet Pizza in Salem, Mass. This is unlike any other pizza place I have been to in Massachusetts.


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