A very successful 2020 season running BarrelHead Pizza out of Pillitteri Estates Winery has Michael Zappitelli thinking big for 2021.
With the family-owned winery heavily geared toward exporting ice wine to 39 countries, Zappitelli claims he needed to do a hard-sell to push his in-laws back into the hospitality side of the business last year.
“I had to fight to start BarrelHead,” he says. “Hospitality wasn’t really a thought. The family had done it before. When I brought it up, I was told it hasn’t worked before, it’s not a great fit. So I had to kind of lay out a business plan, and say let me try this on a minimal budget, and let me show you it will work.”
And work it did. Expecting to sell about 50 pizzas per day, Zappitelli was pleasantly shocked to see demand almost immediately spike to 10 times that figure. He quickly scrambled to acquire more equipment and hire additional staff to satisfy his hungry customers.
He even recruited his brother-in-law, former Niagara Ice Dog Alex Friesen, to help out in the kitchen. “He plays professional hockey in Germany,” says Zappitelli, “and he was home a little bit longer because of COVID, and his wife Allie ran our bar operations. He offered to help, so I said sure.”
As word spread about BarrelHead and locals caught on, that demand never let up all the way through to the Thanksgiving weekend, even with the pandemic.
After taking a couple of months off to catch his breath and spend time with his almost two-year-old daughter Michaela and his wife Julia, he’s currently donning the second of the two hats he wears at Pillitteri Estates. The third-generation family member is their business development manager, concentrating on online wine sales, assisting with additions to the winery and developing revamped procedures. But as spring approaches, he’s ready to jump full-steam ahead back into BarrelHead.
In mid-April, he will transition fully from the wine side of the business back to hospitality. He’ll be busy setting up the wood-fired ovens and other new equipment. Then he’ll be running the menu through with the kitchen staff, and balancing the flavours of the ice wine cocktails that are also part of the outdoor menu. Visitors to Pillitteri Estates and locals alike will begin to smell the wood smoke from those ovens on Victoria Day weekend.
Last year’s menu featured just four Neapolitan style pizzas: Bianco, Giardiono, Margherita and Calabrese, which was the most popular. This year, BarrelHead will be expanding the menu to seven selections and introducing some other items.
“I’m revamping the whole menu, none of the old pizzas are coming back,” he promises. “I’m going very traditional Neapolitan style, with a Capricciosa, with ham, artichokes, kalamata olives and mushrooms, but with my own cool, creative culinary spin. We’ll still have the salads from last year, but we’ll add three appetizers and desserts as well, as that was a big ask.”
Zappitelli combines his love for Neapolitan style cooking and his experience working in the local restaurant industry since he was 10 years old to inform the decisions he makes with BarrelHead. Add to that a keen business mind developed through a degree in commerce at Brock University and a post-graduate diploma in sales and marketing from Niagara College, and the methodical approach he takes to business makes sense.
“I’m really fascinated by the subconscious, and how people perceive dollar value,” Zappitelli says. “I’m really super interested in price-pointing. I’m also a big believer in buying paralysis. One of the things I studied is why it’s important to not overwhelm the consumer. I’m a big fan of doing something small, having a good core menu, and doing it very, very well.”
Zappitelli admits that he has dreams of taking the business into a traditional bricks and mortar type of operation, but doesn’t want to expand too quickly.
“I don’t want it to be too big, where the quality suffers,” he says. “As a business person I want to scale it as big as I can, but I also don’t want to take away from the quality. We’re doing everything by hand, we’re sourcing everything locally from sustainable farmers, so we can only do so much as they provide us. But maybe in three to five years we can look at an expansion.”
He adds that the ambience of being outside in the cherry orchards, and giving something back to the locals are also both important to him, and the space they have right now allows him to do that.
Before he puts his head down and begins to work on the summer menu, though, Zappitelli has a contest that he’s hoping to win as well. He’s been nominated in the online Favorite Chef contest, which comes with a $50,000 prize and a double-page spread in Bon Appetit magazine. He has topped his category through the first two of seven rounds, with round three wrapping up this week.
“I still don’t know who nominated me, and my wife assures me it wasn’t her,” he tells The Local. “I got an email from Favorite Chef, and a couple of days later I heard back from them and they told me I had been hand-selected for the contest.”
Chefs from round the world are in the competition, and Zappitelli is surprised with his early success.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would do this good,” he says. “I’ve had a crazy amount of support from my friends, relatives, family members. A lot of people I haven’t really talked to for years, from high school at St. Michael, who I haven’t seen in 11 years, who have done the paid voting thing. It’s humbling.”
Supporters can vote for free, but paid votes, with 25 per cent of the proceeds going to the Feeding America charity, can also be cast.
If he indeed comes out as the Favorite Chef when the contest ends April 8, he would sock away some of the winnings for Michaela’s education, and perhaps take a family trip to Naples, Italy to experience and learn more about Neapolitan-style pizzas. And you can bet that the flavours of Naples will find their way onto the menu at BarrelHead.
To vote for Michael Zappitelli visit https://favchef.com/2021/michael-zappitelli.