“There was no really good, hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in Kansas City,” he says. “The pizza is the story here. I wanted to specialize in one thing and do it right.”
The buzz has been growing since Milone, 31, opened his pizza shop on the West Plaza in January, dishing up slices and strombolis — he calls them “Italian burritos,” and they come out of the oven a little more than a foot long. The pizzas are big, too: 16- and 18-inch pies centered on a thin, dinner-roll-puffy crust.
Milone has groomed his regulars to think of his pizza as New York—style. “I’ve had people who have moved here from New Jersey and New York tell me this is the closest they’ve had to the pizza back there,” he says.
Beginning Monday, July 23, Johnny Jo’s opens for lunch. The expansion means that the pizza oven is no longer Milone’s second job. When Milone opened Johnny Jo’s, the restaurant began operating at 5:30 p.m. each day because that was the earliest he was able to get there from Raymore, where he was a manager for the rental-car agency Hertz.
“We’re going full bore,” Milone says. “We’ve got the nighttime business. Now we just have to get the word out about days.”
The idea for Johnny Jo’s was born in an apartment kitchen seven years ago. Flipping through the recipe book of his late grandparents Richard and Nancy Milone, he happened on a blueprint for a Sicilian pizza. After a year spent tweaking the recipe — Milone called on the 11 years he’d spent working at Marco Polo’s for his godfather, Leonard Mirabile — he thought the pies might be good enough to sell. He tested his theory in 2006 by delivering free 16-inch pizzas, half cheese and half Italian sausage, to businesses near his home.
“The only thing I told them was that I need 24 hours’ notice. I have a day job and I’m doing this at night.”
Those businesses and other neighbors began placing orders, which Milone would deliver after a full shift in Raymore. By day, he helped people customize their rides; at night, it was their pies. Demand outgrew the oven in his apartment, and Milone began looking for a commercial space. When the former Cupcake A La Mode spot came open, he knew he’d found his hole in the wall. He signed a lease on the space, which offered just enough square footage to hold a new stone oven, last October, and was open three months later.
“I cook my pizzas on the stone,” Milone says. “I just put the pie on a peel, put it in the oven, and the stone gets it nice and crispy. With the stone, you can actually taste the pizza, the sauce. The crust has flavor to it. I don’t just load on a whole bunch of toppings.”
For Milone, the dough can define a pizza. This week he was working on a garlic and rosemary crust topped with veggies and a light brushing of Italian dressing. His cheese pizza, which he suggests that people try first, is topped with a 50-50 blend of mozzarella and provolone and a sauce made with crushed San Marzano tomatoes and the seasonings listed in his grandparents’ recipe. He says he’ll eventually expand his menu, and he’s working on a French sourdough crust for seasoned pizza knots. Among the sauces he’s testing are a garlic butter spread for his tomato-and-artichoke pie.
But even as the restaurant becomes his sole source of income, Milone says he isn’t interested in changing too much.
“I know how much pizza costs and how people cheapen it up just to make a profit,” he says. “I may not make as much as the next man, but I’m going to make a superior product.”
As of July 23, Johnny Jo’s is open 11 a.m.—9:30 p.m. Monday—Thursday, 11:30 a.m.—12:30 a.m. Friday, and 5 p.m.—12:30 a.m. Saturday.