The Pizza Issue | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

April 20, 2016 News » Cover Story

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A Life Well Tossed
Three men, 75 years of shared pizza-making experience 

By COLBY FRAZIER

In America, where the faces inhabiting the space between New York City and Los Angeles are as varied as the terrain, there is one establishment, in addition to a grocery store, gas station and the ubiquitous burger joint, that can be counted on in nearly any town dotting the atlas: a pizza parlor.

In the annals of publishing, many book-length investigations have peered into America's love for pizza. Of course, one city—New York City—strikes a special chord with pizza aficionados, if for no other reason than New Yorkers believe that their pizza is unrivaled as the finest food on earth.

But every place needs pizza, and in Salt Lake City, there is a wealth of superb pizzerias fueled by passionate chefs who spend their professional lives with one thing on their minds: making incredible pizza.

What follows is a trio of pizza stories—tales of three men and the pizzerias they came to own, all through a combination of hard work, blind luck and a somewhat accidental passion for pizza that has refused to be extinguished.

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Free Wheelin' Don
Don Murray was a 20-year-old taking a break from college when he landed a job as a pizza delivery boy at Free Wheeler Pizza in 1989.

At the time, Free Wheeler had multiple locations across the Salt Lake Valley.

In no time, Murray found himself in the kitchen, making pizzas—a gig he stuck with until 1994, when Free Wheeler's then-owner was looking for partners to help staff various locations. Murray bought in, and opened a location at the rear of the Zephyr Club —a much-beloved and mourned music venue that now sits vacant on 300 South and West Temple.

"I kind of liked the history and the vibe of the place and kind of stuck with it," Murray says of his foray into the pizza world. "Then the opportunity to buy it came along, and I just decided to go for it."

When the Zephyr Club shut down, Murray's branch of Free Wheeler moved into a spot on Main Street, where the Wells Fargo tower now sits. Following another relocation in 2002, the shop grew roots at 150 S. 400 East in 2002.

For Murray, the process of dialing in the ideal-tasting pizza has been 17 years of trial and error. Think about it: What kind of dough, sauce and toppings are needed, and how much of each does one use if the goal is to create a well-balanced pie? Each ingredient is a riddle unto itself, and the variables are endless.

"I think we've kind of honed it," Murray says of his pies, which feature a distinctive sourdough crust and can be crowned with around 50 different toppings. "There's still learning to do. We're still figuring a few things out, but as far as the product, I think we've got it where we want it."

Murray's bread and butter is delivery service (it's free downtown), though he has a small dining room, with floors bedecked in red and white checkered tile, simple furniture and vending machines in the corner.

By sheer appearances, Free Wheeler is a no-frills pizza joint. But Murray says he's become known for crafting some of the more adventurous pizzas around. He tries to tailor them to the season—much as a bartender does with cocktails—offering an Oktoberfest pizza in the fall, a Caesar pizza called the Ides of March and a pair of Cinco de Mayo pizzas—the Fajita and the Tostada.

Murray, 47, now has 11 employees, and his pizzas have been selling as well as ever. "Right now, things are about as good as they've been for us," Murray says, noting that he's once again thinking about branching out and opening up a second location with a partner.

When Murray took that small break from college 27 years ago, he says he had no idea he'd never return to school and that a future of pizza was in the cards.

"It's been pizza ever since," Murray says.

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Sun Of a Rust
Wally Stephens has never been to New York City, but he's heard from many a New Yorker that Rusted Sun's pizzas are "OK."

"That's what I'm told—it's fairly New York-style," Stephens says of his pies. "From someone from New York to say 'It's OK,' that's actually quite high praise."

But Stephens—with his graying long hair and trimmed beard—doesn't come across as a guy who gives a damn about what others think. For the past 17 years, Stephens has simply attempted to make the best pizza he can, and the lack of seating on any given night in his small pizzeria at 2010 S. State St. is a testament to his success.

For Stephens, the path to a life of pizza was circuitous. A native of Reno, Nev., he arrived in Salt Lake City just after high school to attend the University of Utah. He earned a degree in psychology, but along the way, fell in love with managing restaurants.

It started with a waiting job at a restaurant called Shenanigans on the corner of 300 South and West Temple and later as a manager for Domino's Pizza. Then, Stephens scored a job as an assistant manager at a local pizzeria called DeLoretto's, which had either four or five locations, depending on who is talking.

Stephens managed the DeLoretto's near the Smith's in the Avenues, and the DeLoretto's that occupied the building that currently houses Rusted Sun before moving onto other ventures. Then, out of the blue in 1998, the owner of DeLoretto's called Stephens, explaining that he wanted to sell his string of pizza joints.

"He basically gave me the place," Stephens says, noting that the lease on the building was turned over to him and the ovens, tables, plates and recipes cost a mere $15,000. Even by 1998 standards, that was a steal.

Stephens says he fancied up the recipes some, offering barbecue chicken pizzas and buffalo chicken pizzas, for example. But the plain cheese pizza at Rusted Sun, Stephens says, is still more or less the same plain cheese pizza that DeLoretto's offered.

In addition to altering the menu, Stephens made minor cosmetic changes, building a bar and replacing the countertops. He also switched from plastic plates to real china, from paper cups to pint glasses and from paper napkins to linen.

"I just classed the place up a little bit and it worked," he says.

In the early days, Stephens says he had visions of expansion: knocking down walls and making the dining room bigger or opening up satellite locations. Those plans, though, never materialized and now, Stephens says, he sees some wisdom in staying small—a reality that he says helped him weather the Great Recession.

"The more I pondered it, the more I realized I know how to run a restaurant, not a huge corporation," Stephens says. "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

During his 17 years in the pizza business, the restaurant owner says he's watched the number of specialty pizzerias bloom—a phenomenon he used to worry about.

"I realized over the years that I never even notice when another place opens," Stephens says of his competition. Pizzerias, he continued, are a lot like other local institutions. "It's like how there are never enough Mormon churches in this town, or 7-Elevens."

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Big Apple Man
With memorabilia from New York City lining the walls and a mural of the city's skyline pre-9/11, having a slice of pizza in Big Apple Pizzeria is about as close as one can get to the big, big city in Salt Lake City.

The look and feel of the place isn't the only thing that is reminiscent of New York. Big Apple owner John Nelson says a good chunk of his customers are East Coast transplants who are eager to taste a bite of authentic New York-style pizza. A good portion of the time, Nelson says, these refugees return for more.

"I make as close to New York-style pizza as I can without shipping in the water," he says.

But the flat, hand-thrown dough, the Bakers Pride pizza oven with a pizza stone set inside and the meticulous care taken to ensure that the taste of the dough is not overpowered by the sauce, the sauce is not overtaken by the toppings and that the whole pizza is a testament to balance, is present in Nelson's shop.

While Nelson's pizzas are a draw for the East Coast set, Nelson himself was reared in Wales, a tiny outpost in Utah's Sanpete Valley. He moved to Salt Lake City in the 1980s to attend to school, and arrived at pizza the same way as many of his peers—by chance.

What is now Big Apple, located at 2939 E. 3300 South in Millcreek, was once a DeLoretto's. In 1985, a few months after DeLoretto's opened, Nelson got a job waiting tables. Within a month or two, he was managing the place—a gig that suited him for 12 years.

Then, in 1998, the owner was ready to get out, and Nelson took over the business, changing the name, altering the feel inside the place and expanding the menu. The basic recipes that DeLoretto's used, though, Nelson retained.

"He had a good thing going," Nelson says of the owner of DeLoretto's, Heath Koltenuk, who now owns Nuch's Pizzeria and Restaurant. Koltenuk, Nelson says, was a native of New Jersey and knew his pizza. "I have a steady clientele," Nelson says. "I've got people who have been coming in here since 1985."

Owning a pizzeria is a distant cry from where Nelson thought he was headed when he took a waiting job three decades ago. At that time, Nelson was close to completing a degree in political science, which he hoped would lead to a job in civil service, where he could eventually become a foreign ambassador.

"I gave up on the aspirations of politics and decided to go into pizza," he says.

It was a good decision. Nelson still likes going to work, and enjoys making and eating pizza—the latter of which he says he makes room for every single day.

"Lately, I've been throwing breakfast bacon on it," he says of his go-to pie.

He opened a now-closed satellite location in the Fort Union area, but says sales never took off there. For the past two years, though, Nelson says business has been as good as ever and he's drawing up plans to expand his space.

Accident or not, Nelson says he imagines his life in pizza isn't all that different from how other people find their way through life.

"That's how life goes for the most part," he says. "You get started on something and plans change and that's what happened to me. I started making pizza and things changed."

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