Tom Iannucci is a pastor on Kauai. He’s been a police commissioner here. He’s an ex-Marine. He’s a voice on the radio. He’s a husband and father of three.
All of that meant nothing when he went to school in Naples, Italy, for four weeks to study the craft of traditional Neapolitan brick oven pizza.
In fact, he got yelled at. Almost every day. For a tough Italian who’s not used to being pushed around, he took it in stride and kept coming back the next day for more. Not that he liked it.
“I felt like an eighth-grader being scolded,” Iannucci said. “Do it wrong, you get yelled at. You have to do it right. They demand perfection.
“They could care less who I was, where I was from, who I knew or what I knew, what I do. As far as they’re concerned, I start at ground zero. I’ll earn any respect I get.”
So he did.
By the end, the 53-year-old had begrudgingly earned their respect and got what he came for — to learn how to make the best pizza in the world.
“I learned the old school traditional way of making this pizza,” Iannucci said.
The “Pizzaiolo” is back with plans to open his own pizzeria on Kauai. He’s searching for the right location, hopefully between Eleele, where he lives, and Lihue, with hopes for an opening later this year. He plans to have a brick oven made in Naples shipped to Kauai.
“We want to bring something special to Kauai, something traditional, something unique, fresh and light, at a reasonable price,” he said. “My passion is to try and bring forth this traditional artisan Italian pizza to Kauai. What we want to do is bring something of quality and of the Italian culture to Kauai. Maybe eventually add a traditional New York-style as well.”
When it happens, it will fulfill a lifelong dream that started back when he was a kid growing up in New York and was raised eating that famous New York pizza made from scratch. When he later left New York and ventured out in the world, he discovered one thing that disappointed him: Not all pizza was as good as that from the Big Apple.
“You’re raised on this your whole life,” he said. “You take it for granted. I left New York, I couldn’t leave the pizza.”
Everywhere he went, and his military career took him to many places, he searched out and tried the pizza. In Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. He’s had pizza in 18 states, testing and trying out pizza all in hopes of finding that pizza style he grew up with.
Still, he never could quite find what he was after. So in 1990, he began making his own. He practiced. He experimented. He learned.
“You can’t find it, you make your own,” he said. “It’s become a passion for me. I’ve learned how to make something I love.”
He studied. He read industry publications about pizza. He trained in New York. He trained in Rome. He attended pizza expos. (In fact, he’s at one this week in Las Vegas). He learned about dough and sauces and cheeses and toppings. He learned about baking pizza. He analyzed fermentation times, crust structure, dough properties and various recipes and techniques.
He never tires of good pizza.
“I’m like a pizza nerd. I sit there at night and study things like gluten structures, hydration percentages, different styles and recipes and watch videos of various known pizza makers speaking and working at their craft,” he said.
In his 22 years on Kauai, he estimates he’s made and given away hundreds of pizzas he made at home. Family, friends of his children, neighbors, church members, visiting ministers, firefighters, all have been on the receiving end of an Iannucci pie.
“Over the years I began to hone the skills,” said Iannucci, who is pastor of Breath of Life church in Lihue, which he started with wife D’Lissa in 1995. “I had three kids and a church to practice on.”
Using fire bricks from the old Lihue mill, he even built his own wood-fired, brick oven — an essential for great pizza — in the driveway of his Eleele home.
People over the years have asked him: When are you going to open a pizza shop?
Last year, he decided the time was right.
Backed by friend and business partner Dave Erickson, they began planning to open one on Kauai. But first, they decided Tom should go back to school and learn about pizza from the very best. That meant a trip to Italy, the birthplace of pizza, where Enzo Cocci operates a pizzeria in Naples called La Notizia and conducts a training program. It’s known as a demanding, but outstanding Neapolitan, pizza school.
“If you want to learn how to make sushi, you go to Tokyo,” Iannucci said. “If you really want to learn about pizza, you go to Naples, I wanted to immerse myself not only in the pizza, but in the pizza culture and the people.”
Through the classes and his time working in the pizzeria, Iannucci discovered that Italians have little regard for pizza in America.
“They kind of look down upon American pizza,” he said.
So he had to start over. He checked his pride at the door. Forget what he thought he knew about pizza and listen to what he was told.
“A lot of myths were broken when I got there,” he said.
The very foundation of great pizza doesn’t start with the sauce or the cheese or the topping.
“The key thing is how they make their dough and how they are very concerned about keeping it light and digestible,” he said. “That’s the foundation of Neapolitan pizza, it’s all about your dough. The dough, the formation and composition of your dough, is the base you start from.”
That’s why they spent a week learning how to hand mix dough, 40 minutes for each batch, no mixer. It got to the point where their knuckles were raw from pushing down the dough again and again.
“There has to be so much air pushed into the dough because the crust has to light and airy, thin,” he said.
“They really believe you should be able to taste crust, the oil, the sauce, the tomato, the topping.”
Try as he might, Iannucci made mistakes, and it was noticed. Didn’t put the pizza in the oven quite right. Dough not prepared properly. Yep, he got yelled at. There were times he was tempted to revert to his rough and tumble days. But he kept his head down, his mouth shut, and kept moving ahead, striving for the perfection they demanded.
At the end, they smiled, shook his hand and he graduated as a certified Pizzaiolo. But their were no pats on the back and “you did a good job” but rather his instructors simply urged Tom to continue to practice this artisan craft as much as he can and as consistently as he can. Otherwise, they said, he just wasted his money.
He said La Notizia serves about 2,300 pizzas a week and about 700 pizzas on a Friday or Saturday night.
“That’s how good those guys are. Their whole thing is quality and, you need to think like a customer. What would they expect, what would you expect.”
Iannucci said he can preach from the pulpit and operate a pizzeria. He notes the Apostle Paul made tents and preached. Jesus was a carpenter. In his first six years after starting Breath of Life, he held down a full-time job.
“It’s something a lot of pastors do, work two jobs, and I have a great staff that stands behind me,” he said.
He plans to continue pastoring, but will hand over a few duties to others.
“I’ll concentrate on teaching the word of God,” he said. “The ministry will continue. It’s just shifting locations.”
And he believes the pizzeria will be a way to bless people. In the end, he said, God gets all the glory.
“I want to represent God through the business,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”