Publication: Syracuse New Times
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

John Freightenburgh's gourmet pizza is terrific, but it's his restaurant that's really unique. A wood-fired oven imported from Italy rolls to yard parties, festivals and picnics all over Central New York in the back of a seven-ton truck called the Pizza Rig.

This will be the first full season for the Fayetteville entrepreneur after introducing his pizza to local diners at DeWitt's Paradise Market. "We opened at Paradise Nov. 10," Freightenburgh says. "The response was overwhelming. We had a fantastic response. We got to hone our trade a little bit. It gave us a good spot to get started and learn the temperatures of the oven and how much wood to put in and get a feel for what people are asking for and what they like."

The pace of business at Paradise lent itself well to the individual, made-to-order style of the Pizza Rig. "It wasn't a busy place unless they had big bands there, then we made them as fast as we could," Freightenburgh recalls. "People want me to go to the State Fairgrounds and Jazz Fest and all that, where there's high volume, but this isn't really a business for that. It's more for catering and keeping the quality up. Anybody who uses a wood-fired oven at a busy event usually par-bakes the dough and they use cheaper ingredients. It's just more of a volume thing. I would rather stick to the smaller venues and put out a good product and keep the quality up."

That formula made the truck popular with visitors at a two-day music fest at Pompey's Kellish Hill Farm May 6 and 7, where many customers, tempted by the smoky, savory aroma, got their first taste from the new mobile vendor. "This is my second one today," confessed Thomas Gafrancesco of Liverpool. "It's fantastic. I really enjoyed the quality of the pizza. It's a very nice product. It is very unique and the fact that they can be prepared in six minutes is also a nice feature, especially when you're at a festival and want to have a little snack quickly."

Freightenburgh's business partner, his son Jeff, does the prep work, poking, kneading and dressing the freshly made dough. It's stored in the rig's commercial refrigerator along with all the ingredients-sauce, cheese, meats and vegetables-used in customizing the pizzas to customers' orders.

"We chose our own toppings," Gafrancesco said. "I chose the breakfast pizza. It has Canadian bacon, cheese, peppers and sweet Vidalia onions. I'll tell you, that pizza did it for me."

After sliding each 9-inch pie into the oven, Freightenburgh keeps his eyes on the bubbling disc from start to finish. Flaming logs keep the oven extremely hot, so it takes only about 90 seconds to get the crust done crisp. Customers can expect their pizza to be ready in as little as four minutes after ordering.

Both Freightenburghs have some food service experience, Jeff having spent three years tossing pizzas at the DeWitt Wegmans, while John had a short-lived restaurant in Cicero after working in eateries as a youth in his hometown of Saratoga Springs which, incidentally, has a business known as Pies on Wheels. "This is something that's been more popular out West," Freightenburgh says. "It's finally made its way here and it's getting more and more popular."

Not only is the mobility of his business a huge selling point for its versatility and convenience, it makes it more financially viable, especially as a new business. "Because I did have a restaurant before, I know that during slow times the payroll and the overhead kill you," he points out. "So the mobile part-I can let it sit all winter and it doesn't cost me anything."

As a partner in Harriot Contracting for four years, Freightenburgh had been busy installing railings in such major sports complexes as Citi Field, the new Meadowlands Stadium and Consol Energy Center, home of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "There was big push on everybody getting new stadiums," he says. "Last year it started dying out. So I didn't have anything coming up and was looking at starting a side business. I started looking online to see what was available for the wood-fired pizza ovens. I got kind of intrigued when I saw other people using them on trailers. The more research I did, the more I realized I could start a business, put it in the truck and be self-contained. "

In March 2010 Freightenburgh purchased a Chevrolet truck that had been specially designed for vending, and set out to modify it to meet his business plan. "I ordered the oven, which comes from Italy," he says. "It's totally wood-fired. There's no propane or gas or anything else, just like you'd get in Naples. I installed the wood-fired oven in the side doors. It has special refrigeration and a chimney through the roof."

Next came some research on smoking pizzas. "I started getting all the information I could and studying about how to make the pizza," Freightenburgh says. "There's been a study recently on the best pizza in the world and it turns out it's wood-fired pizza, no bigger than 10 inches that comes from Naples {Italy} baked in an oven between 800 and 900 degrees- which is exactly where I make my pizza."

Freightenburgh is on site this summer at the Manlius Farmers Market in the village center on Wednesdays and Sundays looking to impress customers and get some gigs for his roving pizzeria at graduation parties, wedding receptions and picnics. "That's why I signed up for the farmers market and the Kellish Farm event, that type of stuff. I don't think there's going to be a lot of money in it, but I think that's where I'm going to make my contacts for the parties. Right now we're in a come-try-us kind of mode to see if we can get the word out."

There are always brochures on hand with all the information necessary to book the Pizza Rig for events from pool parties to birthdays to company picnics. "That's where I think the money is with this thing," Freightenburgh explains. "You have more control over it and I'm not paying $1,500 for a two-day event to get the truck in there where I have to make a ton of pizzas before I even start to make money. The parties and stuff like that is where I'm going to make my money."

Catering customers can order practically any toppings and several specialty pies are available as well. "We've been experiment- ing with a lot of different toppings," Freightenburgh says. "We do roasted red peppers, Vidalia onions, pepperoni, spinach, all the traditional toppings in any combo you'd like. We use Gianelli sausage."

The chicken-bacon-ranch is very popular and wings fans can order a pie with Buffalo sauce, chicken and mozzarella. Both specialties are priced at $7, while the plain tomato sauce and cheese versions are $6 with any combination of three toppings for an additional buck. "For kids we do a regular cheese pizza and they're happy with it," Freightenburgh explains. "If we do an event where people really want to keep the quality up, we use the San Marzano tomatoes that come from Italy and we use fresh mozzarella.

"Everything is totally flexible. We can work out anything. People have different interests, it could be a vegetarian party. Whatever they like, we incorporate it into the Pizza Rig."

Catered events can include appetizers, fresh salad and dessert. Bookings are available on the Pizza Rig's Facebook page or by phone at 744-8740.

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