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Bitch at Us: Michael Lastoria of &pizza

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&pizza has made quite a name for itself in this city, thanks to its customizable and delicious pizza made just for you in a matter of minutes. Founder Michael Lastoria, a former New York resident, intentionally selected D.C. to launch &pizza, as he was drawn to the diverse character of the city’s longstanding and emerging neighborhoods. The tight knit &pizza team, affectionately known as the tribe, is so committed to their customers’ experience, they regularly offer special perks like surprise “pizza-bombing” at local events, a member loyalty program, hosting weddings, and even paying for a tattoo for any brave (and hungry) soul that eats $1,500 worth of &pizza. While customers frequent the many locations for lunch and dinner, we think &pizza is equally suitable for brunch (just throw an egg on top!). We snagged some time in Michael’s busy schedule to talk the &pizza philosophy, its growing brand, and a potential roving brunch biker gang. Read on to see what he had to say and head to any &pizza for your fix now. Cowabunga, Bitches!

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You came to D.C. from New York. What made you decide to launch &pizza here?

We actually looked at a handful of other cities to potentially launch &pizza in and when we came to D.C., we saw a real opportunity in the fact that DC was such an emerging market with so many cool, eclectic, and up-and-coming neighborhoods. We thought it would pair well with what we hoped would be an emerging brand, so it was a perfect match. D.C. continues to go through a re-invention of itself every few years and one of the guiding principles of &pizza is taking one of our favorite past times and re-inventing it, so there’s a synergy there.

There are &pizzas popping up all over town. How do you decide which neighborhood to move into next? How do you incorporate the personality of each neighborhood into each store?

In terms of picking locations, we have a really good real estate team at Streetsense. Kelly and Gary have done a good job in showing us the ropes. We also keep our ear to the ground, listening to what our guests say. You’d be surprised how many locations we look into because of feedback on all of our social media channels saying, “Please bring &pizza here”, and we want to listen to that stuff. Of course, we have to do smart real estate deals to make sure the location can be open for years to come, so we have to be careful about where we pick.

On the design side, it was really important to create a neighborhood pizza joint that is actually connected to the neighborhood. We wanted to maintain the vibe of a local place. We ask ourselves, “How do we design around the existing bones of the space and the history of the neighborhood?” And, “How can we pay homage to what’s already there without disrupting anything?” That’s how we think about design as it pertains to each location. People want to put us in the chain category and, in some aspects, it resembles a chain in that there is more than one, but it’s more a collective of bespoke, local pizza shops.

Tell me about the process for figuring out how to crank out piping hot pizza so fast?

I think part of it has to do with educating our guests on how to make a pizza not get overwhelmed by the amount of toppings. Some people who come to &pizza grab a menu and then see all the toppings and freak. It’s helpful to walk them through the process if it’s their first time and guide them based on food that they like by asking questions like, “Hey, are you a vegetarian? Then you can make recommendations based on that. Then there’s having an oven that knows how to make pizza fast.  Oven technology has evolved so it’s been only in the past kind 5 years that you’ve been able to get fresh hot pizza with fresh ingredients fast. It’s what allows the business model to work.

&pizza is always up to some fun stuff like pizza bombing, holding weddings, and even paying for tattoos. How do you come up with these fun ideas? Have you paid for someone’s tattoo yet?

Well we just paid for six of our tribe members to tattoo it on themselves. It’s kind of a standing thing: if any tribe member wants to get the ampersand tattoo on them, we’ll pay for it. No one on our &pizza rewards app has reached “maverick” status. If you do, you get a leather bomber jacket and a tattoo. You have to eat a good amount of pizza, but we have people getting there.

One of the mottos we live by is, “thinking differently and acting un-accordingly”, so we always want to do stuff that feels right to do or we want to be done to us. We thought about the loyalty program and pizza bombing as things people who work at &pizza want for themselves. If they loved a brand, what would that brand give them that they would actually use? So we just think about things that we want for ourselves.

What is on your ultimate &pizza?

My &pizza is actually more simple. Ancient grains is my dough and I get spicy marinara, the house-made mozzarella cheese, jalapenos— and that’s pretty much it. I also put a little Parmesan and cracked pepper. To me, I prefer less on my pizza, but a lot of people love more.

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Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?

My favorite place to brunch is the Big Bear Café. Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday, I like to get up with my girlfriend, ride my motorcycle around town and end up by Big Bear Café and sit outside, catch some rays, drink some great coffee, and eat some great food.

What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?

Outside of making pizza, I try to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible but I love scrambled eggs. You have to scramble them for a good 3-4 minutes, so it’s low heat and constantly mixing so they end up creamy. Then, I’ll layer in some giardiniera, avocado, and tomato.

Do you prefer to brunch in or out?

I’m more of a stay in guy, but it’s always nice to eat out every once in a while. When I eat out for brunch, I prefer to be outside.

What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?

I have to order espresso and I usually get an Americano with 3 shots of espresso. That’s mandatory in the mornings for me. Outside of that, I’ll pretty much eat anything, although I’m mostly vegetarian. Can we start a Bikers Who Brunch website and get a motorcycle gang that rides around the city and has brunch?

Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?

Oh wow. I definitely prefer a spicy Bloody Mary. The more heat and horseradish, the better.

If you had to invite a group of local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?

Patrick Leahy, Joe Biden – you could also throw a Clinton into the mix.  It if was old DC, it would be scrambled eggs with Chuck Brown and Duke Ellington.

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