Glancing at Jay Jerrier, you’d never guess he’s the most polarizing pizza maker in North Texas.
With his close-cropped hair, architecturally sophisticated glasses, easy smile and cherubic face, — all set atop a slightly pear-shaped frame — you might guess businessman. Or 40-something dad. And you’d be right.
But look closer and you’ll see a glint of Boston bulldog in his eyes — a flicker of the tenacity that caused a former corporate exec to walk away from his cubicle kingdom and dedicate every waking moment to making the perfect Neapolitan pie.
Just like the kind he first fell in love with on his honeymoon in Sorrento, Italy.
As Jerrier describes his quest for Neapolitan nirvana, which took him from backyard pizza baker to food cart pedaler to owner of four Cane Rosso restaurants and counting, you hear confidence, almost cockiness in his voice. It’s the quality that has helped vault him to the top of the competitive local pizza heap in just a few years, all while making a style of pizza some people in North Texas had never tried — and others actively disliked.
“I understand when someone goes on Yelp and gives us one star because they think we’re serving up something that feels like a soggy tortilla and they just hate it,” Jerrier says. “But that’s not what we’re going for.”
The world, Jerrier says, is divided into those who love authentic Neapolitan pizza — with its soft, puffy crust and fresh, purposely limited, gourmet toppings such as burrata or bacon marmalade — and those who loathe it.
Including Jerrier’s 12-year-old daughter, Emma. He gladly admits she doesn’t like his pizza … at all. (Though his younger daughter, Ella, is a big fan.)
Criticism doesn’t seem to faze Jerrier. Neither does ambivalence or jealousy over his lightning-fast rise.
“First let me say that I never hate other pizzerias, but there are those who might feel compelled to take us down a peg or two,” admits the 47-year-old Boston native. “And among our patrons, we always understand that some of them will love this pizza, while others will really dislike it.
“Maybe it’s because we’re awesome,” continues Jerrier, with a trace of his habitual dry irony. “I mean, my mother thinks I’m awesome. It’s that rags-to-riches thing, as we started from a humble mobile oven, lugging it around in the cold and the rain, and it blew up from there. Haters are just gonna hate.”
Beyond the kitchen, Jerrier has built his following (and rep) with a mixture of funny but often brash postings on social media. His Facebook and Twitter feeds are a must-follow, if only to keep an eye out for more flame wars over ranch dressing or floppy crusts.
“On social media, I can’t communicate the eye-roll or sarcasm of what I’m saying, so some people take it too seriously,” Jerrier says. “Again, the only area where I am super cocky is about the quality of our pizza. And I say that knowing that some people — even some quite close to me — all but hate it.”
A big slice of success
The “haters” haven’t prevented Cane Rosso from scaling the treacherous DFW pizzeria mountain, however. After only four years of full operation, Jerrier’s empire has grown from one restaurant in Deep Ellum and $150,000 in annual sales to four locations and $10 million this year. The staff has expanded from one — Jerrier — to 250.
A critical darling, Cane Rosso has accumulated a string of accolades, including D Magazine’s Best Pizza, since 2011, and the Dallas Observer’s Best Pizza, again since 2011 (except for last year, when Jerrier’s newer venture, Zoli’s NY Pizza Tavern — more on that later — took top honors). And Eater.com has named Cane Rosso one of its 38 Essential Pizzerias nationwide.
A 2012 appearance on the Food Network’s popular show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives propelled the restaurant to a 40 percent spike in sales.
“That show aired on a Tuesday night,” recalls Jerrier, “and by the weekend, sales were ridiculous.”
Riding this wave of popularity, Jerrier quickly expanded beyond the flagship Deep Ellum location, which debuted on Valentine’s Day 2011. So far, new branches have thrived in White Rock Lake (2013), Fort Worth (2014) and the Village at Fairview (2014).
Jerrier anticipates unveiling a Carrollton location in late July or early August. (The pizza oven was installed last week.) And plans are already afoot for Il Cane Rosso’s first expansion outside the Metroplex, in Houston, tentatively set for December.
“From the second I saw Jay operate, I knew he was going places,” says Nancy Nichols, one of the deans of local restaurant critics, and currently a senior editor at D Magazine. “With his quality ingredients, he’s created a whole new pizza experience.”
Those ingredients include items like Italian double-zero flour, known for its extremely fine grain; San Marzano tomatoes purchased from a specific purveyor; and Cano Rosso’s distinctively creamy mozzarella, made in-house. All of this attention to detail has resulted in a lineup of pizzas that has become synonymous with the Cane Rosso name.
Zoli is a carnivore’s favorite, combining hot soppressata and Italian sausage, while the No. 1 seller remains the classic Margherita.
Then there is Jerrier’s take on a classic BLT, called the Delia, which incorporates bacon marmalade, arugula and grape tomatoes.
“It has always boiled down to not getting overly fussy with quality ingredients,” Jerrier says.
The entire creation is cooked in a $13,000, 6-foot-by-6-foot Italian oven, burning cords of Texas oak at 900 degrees for 75 seconds so the dough blisters and becomes spongy-soft.
Executive chef Dino Santonicola, a pizza maker born and raised in Naples, oversees the operation, completing the circle of authenticity. The certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which confirms the restaurant follows the methods pioneered in Naples, makes it official.
In Fort Worth, diners raised on a steady diet of Mama’s Pizza (thick, cheesy and buttery) and Joe’s (thin, cheesy and gooey) have “really embraced the Neapolitan style,” says Jerrier.
“We really don’t get any complaints about it being soggy or not crispy — well, no more than the other locations,” he says of the Magnolia Avenue restaurant. “They really seem to like the variety and combinations of toppings — the Honey Bastard and our Heim Barbecue Pie are very popular. … So if anything, Fort Worth is meat-centric.
“The only thing Fort Worth complains about are 1) the wait for a table and 2) the parking. Pro tip: There is an awesome parking garage about 200 yards away!”
Selling to the masses, not the classes
For all the money Jerrier happily spends on ingredients for his pizzas, “Jay can be the cheapest man on the planet” when it comes to other aspects of the restaurant budget, says Megan Dennison, Cane Rosso’s director of operations and Jerrier’s co-captain.
“Jay would never spend $20,000 on a ceiling treatment or $30,000 on floors,” adds Dennison. “And he’s right, because most people get sucked into dumping $450,000 on interior design, leaving them with nothing to operate on. Jay does it in reverse.”
The most important topping on Jerrier’s pizza empire may be his business acumen.
Before moving to Texas, the Georgetown grad managed bad-debt porfolios for GE Capital in Connecticut. So he knows how to watch the bottom line.
“We are cheap,” admits Jerrier. “With the restaurant failure rate so high, we couldn’t afford to go into the super ritzy areas of Preston Center in Dallas or West 7th in Fort Worth. To me it’s all about low rent and maximum sales and hoping everybody has a good time. One of my slogans is: ‘Sell to the masses, not to the classes.’”
Which may explain why, in 2013, Jerrier gave the critics of his cushy-crusted Neapolitan pies exactly what they clamored for: authentic, thin-crust New York-style pizza, served in a cozy, slightly fraying parlor in Oak Cliff.
Zoli’s NY Pizza Tavern was born.
Zoli’s is everything Il Cane Rosso is not — starting with its lineup of New York-style pizzas, slathered with traditional toppings such as meatballs, pepperoni, chicken and dried mozzarella. The head pizza maker, Lee Hunzinger, had been making pizza on Long Island since age 13. The restaurant even has a cozily bohemian, Greenwich Village feel to it, seating 40, with walls done in subway tiles and cork wallpaper, the faded burgundy banquettes unapologetically chewed up.
“I did this because I know there are plenty of people who really don’t like Il Cane Rosso’s type of pizza, finding it too floppy,” Jerrier says. “At Zoli’s, the pizza is crispy and thin, with lots of toppings, and it’s totally authentic.”
So, you see, he really is a man of the people. The Pope of Dallas Pizza, as he’s been called.
But still, he can’t help poking fun at the Neapolitan naysayers. A link at the bottom of ilcanerosso.com reads: “Hate Cane Rosso? Try Zoli’s, where tips don’t sag and the ranch flows like rivers!”
Social media smart-aleck
That brand of humor, which Jerrier lets flow freely on social media, is another important piece of the pie for Cane Rosso.
“When it comes to social media, we wanted it to be more than just, ‘Hey, tonight we are featuring this happy hour price,’” says Jerrier. “We wanted it to be about being a fan of the restaurant, a fan of eating, and to take you behind the scenes. Of course, we also like to joke around.”
Jerrier enjoys the online jousting, even if he risks being misunderstood.
“I realize that some people are just waiting to get pissed off,” says Jerrier. “As for me, I’m really a big pussycat. My mother loves me. My dogs love me. I don’t know why others don’t.”
Yet it’s precisely Jerrier’s online snark and attitude that seems to win him more admirers than enemies.
“Jerrier knows that he has naysayers, but he’s not afraid to be brash right back at them — and this city will reward him for that attitude,” says D Magazine’s Nichols. “Sure, some people might detest his personality, but they are far outnumbered by those who would follow him, like a pizza Pied Piper, over the nearest ledge.”
Online, he clashed with some customers demanding a gluten-free pizza option at Cane Rosso.
“We don’t do gluten-free pizza because it’s too hard with all that flour flying around the restaurant,” Jerrier says. “Once, I cavalierly joked around that our customers could just eat one of our gluten-free cardboard pizza boxes. Now, that remark made people freakin’ mad. They came back at me with ‘Celiac disease is a serious ailment and you are making fun of it.’”
Another issue that riled up some Cane Rosso customers was the copper-lined fountain on the patio at his White Rock Lake restaurant. When children of some of his customers amused themselves by throwing gravel and sticks into the $10,000 fountain, and other kids waded into it with nothing on but swim diapers, Jerrier took to social media to admonish parents, and “they pretty much went nuts,” he recalls.
“They were saying, ‘How dare you talk about our parenting like that,’” says Jerrier. “Well, I do it because those kids have just all but destroyed a $10,000 fountain. I never in my wildest imagination thought parents would let kids throw rocks into it or take off their clothes and climb into it. But many customers figure: ‘I’m paying money to eat here so I and my kids can do whatever we want.’”
Then there is Jerrier’s infamous no-ranch-dressing policy.
“Yes, it’s true,” Jerrier says. “We had a little joke when we opened the restaurant that for $1,000, a customer could break this little glass case and get our lone bottle of ranch dressing. In Texas, ranch dressing has been a particular favorite among sorority girls who would love to dip their pizza in it. Personally, I find that disgusting.
“So after we got so many requests for a side of ranch, that’s when I decided to stick that bottle of dressing behind an emergency alarm glass, with the sign reading: ‘Side of delicious ranch dressing: $1,000.’”
“‘How un-American for daring to tell us we can’t have ranch with a pizza,’ was how some customers reacted,” recalls Dennison. But she’s now convinced that Jerrier’s playful antagonism attracted more business to Cane Rosso.
“It ended up being so busy after that ranch dressing episode,” she says. “It went viral, to the point where Hidden Valley sent us a care package of a bunch of dressing packets.”
Fellow restaurateurs such as Jeff Bekavac, chef de cuisine of Neighborhood Services in Dallas, admire — maybe even envy — Jerrier’s chutzpah on Facebook and Twitter.
“Those people see him on social media and say, ‘Oh, it’s Jay Jerrier, that pizza guy,’” says Bekavac. “They know him through his funny posts, so they end up going to the restaurant because they want to see what this guy and his place is all about. They then discover that he also puts out a very good pizza, so they realize that his Facebook stuff is not just a shtick.”
Advocate for ‘underdogs’
As much of an agent provocateur as Jerrier can be on social media, and occasionally in person, there’s a softer side to his personality that nobody can really argue with: his lifelong devotion to rescue dogs.
Cane Rosso is Italian for “red dog,” and Jerrier has named some of his most successful pizzas after the red dogs in his life: Zoli, Delia, Cassie and Palinka.
“I love animals and I hate to see them neglected or abandoned,” says Jerrier, who ever since he got married in 1995, and later settled in Texas, has always kept numerous dogs — mostly vizslas or Hungarian pointers. “Dogs are so appreciative, and my rescue nonprofit, Cane Rosso Rescue, is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
On an average spring Tuesday evening, Jerrier often heads to Cane Rosso’s White Rock Lake location for its weekly Pups on the Patio event. His fundraisers have continued to grow in scope and size, and he has been known to spend as much as $4,000 on rehabilitating an ailing dog before placing it in a good home.
His foundation has placed 40 foster dogs in new homes.
“These are not fashionable breeds like Labradoodles or golden retrievers,” adds Jerrier. “They are the ones on the fringe that not everyone goes for. They are underdogs, and it’s nice that we can throw them a bone, so to speak.”
Jerrier certainly identifies with the underdog.
“In the pizza restaurant world, we were definitely underdogs,” he says. “There is no way based on historic percentages that we should have succeeded.”
He recalls “struggling early on through so many crappy pizzas that I just couldn’t get right. … But that is where passion comes in. We were and remain passionate about how we want to do things. And then, as suddenly, I finally made a pizza that tasted like what I once had in Italy, and it made everybody who tried it very happy.”
OK, almost everybody.
Jay Jerrier’s tweet nothings
The owner of Cane Rosso and Zoli’s has developed a social media persona that makes him a must-follow on Twitter and Facebook. You’re never quite sure what he’ll say.
Here is a selection of some of his cheekiest posts:
April 22, 2015: “Ever try our hottest pizza, the Che Cazzo? The secret ingredient is a picture of me shirtless.”
Nov. 28, 2014: “BLACK FRIDAY SPECIAL! Buy any pizza at DOUBLE the regular price, receive a second pizza of equal or lesser value FREE! Also, no rental charge for glassware when you buy a drink! What a deal!!!”
Nov. 24, 2014: “Are you suffering from Low-P? Please visit your nearest Cane Rosso. No pills or messy creams. We will gently, but lovingly, insert 2-3 authentic Neapolitan pizzas into your mouth hole. You will instantly become more virile, lose belly fat, and have increased energy. Caution: you may need to repeat this procedure daily.”
Nov. 1, 2013, Cane Rosso White Rock: “Antipasto platter — perfect for vegetarians, skip the crostini if you are gluten free, or just eat the plate if you are vegan.”
Oct. 22, 2014, Cane Rosso: “I’m not sure if my business cards should say ‘Pope of Pizza,’ ‘Merry Prankster’ or ‘Total A-hole.’”
Sept. 26, 2014, Zoli’s: “You don’t need to go to Fair Park (for the State Fair) to eat food that is horrible for you. French Fry Crust Pizza tonight!! Dip it in ranch to push it just over the edge.”
April 30, 2014, Cane Rosso White Rock: “More Patio SEATING just in time for great weather! Please note that this is ‘seating’ … not a climbing apparatus or runway/launch ramp to the embattled fountain.”
March 24, 2014, Cane Rosso: “We’ve had to go to extreme measures thanks to the international exposure and to prevent ranch dressing food trucks from parking out front.”