Next Door Pizza earns its slice of the local market 

Patrick Cuezze used to be a lawyer. Now he sells pizza. He couldn't be happier.

"You never hear any jokes about pizza makers, do you?" he says. "I liked being in the courtroom, but that part was overshadowed by everything else connected with the practice of law."

Last February, Cuezze and his wife, Joy, opened a storefront pizzeria in Lee's Summit. Five months later, Next Door Pizza had been successful enough that they expanded into an adjoining storefront, doubling the size of their dining space.

Next Door Pizza is definitely the right concept for its location — the restaurant is close to a college and to residential neighborhoods — but the secret of this pizza joint's popularity is the Cuezzes' culinary concept. The thin- and thick-crust versions of the Neapolitan-style flatbread pizzas aren't too upscale and innovative (like Spin) or too lowbrow (like, say, Pizza Hut) for the locals. The place doesn't pretend to be more than what it is: a family-friendly neighborhood pizzeria and bar with a solid — I'd even say superior — product, attentive service and an accessible price point. You won't leave this joint hungry or broke.

A friend of mine (a fussy pizza aficionado who doesn't live anywhere near Lee's Summit) sent me to the place because he'd heard good things about it, even from people who don't particularly like pizza. I had also heard about the place from friends. "It's a sports bar," one said. "I go there to watch football games and eat fried meatballs."

Now that I've been to Next Door a couple of times, I can say that it's not really a sports bar, though a lot of screens are mounted on almost every wall, all tuned to ESPN. It's not raucous, at least during the dinner hours, and it's comfortable enough to sit down and have an adult conversation at one of the tables in the main dining room.

The newer dining area, with its bank of video games and cardboard cutouts of the two male stars of the Twilight movies, is a lot noisier because it's favored by big groups of adolescents. The bar, at the rear of the original dining room, now looks like a bit of an afterthought. It's not very big. You might call it cozy — or cramped. It gets much more lively later in the evening, when the kids and the couples are gone and the beer drinkers occupy every stool. (The "pub" stays open long after the kitchen closes.)

I had my first meal there with newlyweds William and Erin. They're expecting a baby next year, so she was ravenous. In her first trimester, Erin told me that she's hungry all the time, and pizza is one of the things she loves most. I had some serious cravings of my own. Patrick Cuezze uses only a first-rate (and expensive) brand of cow's-milk mozzarella, so I figured that a deep-dish pizza covered with fresh vegetables — like the Hippy Chick specialty pie that we ordered (topped with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, red pepper, tomatoes and red onion) — would be ideal for an expectant mother. It was ideal for me, and I'm currently fatter than Erin.

The Hippy Chick — an homage of sorts to a vegetarian neighbor of the Cuezzes — is one of the top-selling pies here. So is the other meatless creation: a mixture of creamy ricotta cheese and fresh spinach called the Unhinged. "Sales of my meatless pizzas are growing every day," Patrick says. (He also makes pies with gluten-free crusts.) "But my biggest sellers are still the Butcher of Longview (an orgy of meat toppings, including Mendolia Italian sausage, pepperoni, meatballs and bacon) and the N9ne, named for the local rapper Tech N9ne and smothered with all of the meats on the Butcher of Longview plus chicken, red onion, red peppers and lots of bubbly mozzarella.

Both the thin- and deep-dish versions of the meat-heavy pies were so hearty and substantial that a slice of each left me full and sleepy.

Tech N9ne was apparently flattered enough by his namesake dish to decorate one of the two-dozen full-sized doors — house doors — mounted around the dining room. Once the Cuezzes settled on Next Door Pizza as the joint's name, they began getting door donations from regular customers. A few are plain doors, but others — such as the WHB 810 door created by that radio station's on-air personality Todd Leabo — are done up like art pieces. "I didn't have a lot of money for décor," Patrick says, "so it's all worked out really well."

"We should create a door for the restaurant," William said, spearing a fried meatball with his fork. I might have given that suggestion more thought if I hadn't been so absorbed in spooning the house sugo — a rich, slightly sweet marinara — over a splendid meatball: slightly crisp and crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. It's served with slices of soft Roma bread. Could there be any other choice? Years ago, the Cuezze family owned a bakery in Independence, but Patrick understands that no local bread is quite so beloved with tomato sauce and a green salad as the venerable Roma loaf.

The tiny salad bar is simple and uncluttered. Patrick admits that he gets complaints from customers who would like a more elaborate array of greens and chopped vegetables, but the inexpensive spread — with the usual selection of sliced cucumbers, olives, grated cheese and such — is perfectly fine as a modest side dish for a slice of pie or a plate of pasta. (So far, there are only two pasta dishes on Next Door's menu, including penne drenched in a thick but not particularly remarkable Alfredo sauce.)

By the time the Cuezzes introduce their new menu in a couple of weeks, they will have added nine more chicken-wing options to the list of starters. (They sell a lot of the two variations — mild or really hot — on the current menu.)

I love the starters already available. The night I dined with Scott, Jason and Angela, we impulsively ordered something called Puerto fries: hand-cut, ice-water-soaked French fries (the most delicious, golden, perfectly crispy fries on the east side of the metro), smothered in a thick queso sauce (yes, it's a Rotel dip, made with a generic Velveeta-style product). Even better: the three sliders served on fresh rolls. Jason and I split these, agreeing that, though the fried-meatball version was good, the sausage slider was outstanding. The garlic cheese bread — on Roma, of course — was generously cheesy but needed more garlic.

Patrick says his clientele isn't afraid of garlic. He's even adding a new pizza with artichoke hearts and roasted garlic to the upcoming menu. Still, I'd like to see a lot more cloves of buttery, roasted garlic on his pies (and at the salad bar).

Scott, a vegetarian, called the Unhinged pizza "lasagna in a crust," and I agreed. All of Patrick's deep-dish specialty pies are very good. Maybe not as memorable as the kind you'd find in the Windy City but definitely upper crust by Kansas City standards. Patrick says he's experimenting with a focaccia deep-dish version. Bring it on.

Patrick also uses that same deep-dish dough to make powdered-sugar-dusted doughnuts, which he serves with a smooth, house-made sugary icing of Mexican vanilla and cinnamon. These don't sell quite as well as the miniature cupcakes made for the restaurant by another Lee's Summit neighbor, a baker who bills herself as the Pink Mixer and makes heavily iced, bite-sized confections in a variety of chocolate variations. My friends adored them, but I thought they were silly.

I may not like cupcakes, but I do like the Cuezzes' loyalty to their Lee's Summit community. Their friends and neighbors have designed doors, baked cupcakes and created a new pizza — the Bacon Explosion pie, a popular special that finds a permanent home on the new menu. Another neighbor makes the spicy barbecue sauce, Firebug, that Patrick puts on the barbecue chicken pizza.

Next Door Pizza is a neighborhood pizzeria in every sense of the word. If you don't believe me, ask Patrick Cuezze. His word is law.

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