PAY NO ATTENTION to the sign on the marquee above U.S. 1 on the south end of West Palm Beach. Regardless of what those dancing red letters say, “Pizza Mambo” is long gone and soon to be forgotten. (Mostly forgotten, anyway, but we’ll get to that later.)
There’s a brand-new pizzeria in its place, and its arrival has been so eagerly anticipated that it might not even need a sign on a marquee.
PIZZAioli, brought to you by the same husband-and-wife culinary team responsible for the wildly popular bakery Aioli, finally opens to the public on March 31 at 7404 S. Dixie Hwy.
And for a pizza joint that’s only about to start pumping out pies, it already has a decent following — the lucky Aioli regulars who have been raving about the place since scoring invites to two informal taste testings earlier this year.
“It’s fantastic,’’ Susan Reinheimer said on a recent Friday night between bites of a barbeque chicken slice.
A variety of pies, available “to go” for now, will be made from Aioli’s signature whole-wheat sourdough and baked next to a smoldering chunk of cherry wood inside a custom-built Fiero Forni oven.
Chef Michael Hackman’s menu will include traditional favorites like “pepperoni” and “margherita” but also a few topped with surprises — from the “breakfast” pizza with honey ham, crispy bacon and runny eggs to the “four-cheese white” of ricotta, mozzarella, fontina and parmesan.
“The way we do pizza is not the way everybody else does pizza. We don't want to be boring,’’ said Melanie Hackman, Michael’s wife. “We’re not a New York pizza. It’s different. It’s high hydration sourdough artisan pizza, which basically means the dough is harder to work with but it gets you a better crust.’’
As the PIZZAioli motto says, it’s “pizza reimagined.’’
The motto also applies to PIZZAioli’s location, in a spot once occupied by Pizza Mambo. And at this part of the story we might as well address the elephant in the room — or in this case, the dead iguana once stored inside a chest freezer in the room.
Long before PIZZAioli moved in, Pizza Mambo served up pies from the same spot at the northeast end of the small plaza for years — until the health department shut the place down on June 18, 2020, after finding a series of violations.
Most egregious of the offenses, summed up days later in a Newsweek headline: “80-Pound Iguana Discovered Hiding In Florida Pizza Restaurant.’’
The owner said the dead lizard, a gift from a friend, was kept in a chest freezer separate from the main food-storage freezer. But enough of that. Fast forward to three years later.
The Hackmans have cleared the place out, scrubbed it cleaned and transformed the space into a sleek spick-and-span bakery. Initial plans called for the new place to pump out all of the signature sourdough bread enjoyed by customers at the Aioli mothership bakery across the plaza.
“We moved our wholesale bread production here, and that was the premise for the space,’’ Melanie Hackman said. “However, we realized that the equipment for pizza and bread overlapped so we were like, ‘Why not?’’’
The Hackmans knew they had nothing to lose, thanks to a successful pizza experiment they conducted in 2020 in the early days of the pandemic. After indoor restaurants were forced to shutter, Aioli started baking pizzas to go. Customers loved it.
The pizza experiment, however, was a one-time gig that ended a month or so in. But once the Hackmans took over the old Pizza Mambo location, they decided to bake pizza again. Not just any pizza, but special pizza with its own special oven, separate from the bread ovens.
They ordered a Fiero Forni oven, manufactured in Brooklyn and driven by truck to West Palm Beach, where two techs flew down from New York to assemble the white igloo-shaped oven on site in West Palm Beach.
The new pizza place was coming together, but something was still missing.
Michael and Melanie prefer not to mambo too much into the space’s dubious past, but they have a sense of humor that led them to pay subtle homage to the previous pizza joint’s infamous final chapter.
They hired artist Rachel Vanatta and asked her to paint something bright and tropical on the walls of PIZZAioli’s public restroom. An outdoor nature mural with leaves and foliage, they said. Maybe even some wildlife. An iguana, perhaps?
Vanatta said she didn’t ask too many questions.
“I had a feeling it had something to do with” Pizza Mambo, “but I didn’t push it too much,’’ she said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘You want an iguana? You get an iguana.’’’
The Jupiter artist did as she was told. She covered the walls with bright yellow and green leaves. And on a small section of wall, between the sink and toilet, she painted a green iguana.
It’s resting peacefully across the top of the hand-soap dispenser. But it’s not going to attract the attention of public health inspectors.
“It’s tasteful and subtle,’’ Melanie said with a smile. “You have to know the story.’’
Only a few of the dozens of Aioli regulars who attended a private PIZZAioli taste testing in early March ventured into the restroom. And of those who did, only one or two said they noticed the inside joke on the wall.
But just about everyone raved about the pizza, baked from flour milled and processed in Indiantown on 14-inch pies and pan pizzas.
The plan for now is to offer their new pies to go from Thursday through Saturday 5-9 p.m., complementing the daytime hours of the Aioli bakery across the plaza.
At some point, they will expand the pizza operation to Tuesday through Saturday.
“The menu will change, but it will be super simple. Five pies a night,’’ Melanie said. “And as we grow our team and kind of feel the community out, we will do fresh pasta to go and other things.’’
Scenes from the PIZZAioli tasting party March 3, 2023...
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.