Besting Themselves

In The Business: Triple-threat Tucson restaurateurs Aric and Josh Mussman are committed to quality.

November 1, 2013

In the BusinessIssue 3: November/December 2013

When you were starting out, who were your models?

Aric: Josh and I have been in the restaurant industry since we started working. We almost have 30 years of restaurant experience between us. We can’t take credit for how good our pizza is, you know. It’s been perfected in Italy for hundreds of years. We just run it here.

So the Italian restaurant was your model, versus someplace in Tucson?

Josh: There’s a restaurant in Seattle called Tutta Bella. I was out there visiting my uncle and he was taking me to all these little Italian restaurants. He says, “I’m going to take you to a certified pizzeria.” I tried it, and I fell in love with it. Growing up in Tucson, we didn’t have anything like it. I was talking to the chef, the pizzaiolo, and he said, “If you’re really interested, there’s an academy you can go to.” So I went out to L.A., and Italy, and trained to learn how to do this cuisine. The Italian way is such a beautiful thing. Our sauce, for instance: Our sauce is very basic, a San Marzano tomato with a little sea salt. It’s such a flavorful and robust tomato, and the Italian way is up from there. Start with the base, and put fresh ingredients on. Put fresh garlic on the pizza. Put fresh spices on. When you take a bite, it’s the freshest pizza you can eat.

Do you also serve products from the local foodshed?

Josh: It’s tough at the Veros [Vero Amore], because so much of our stuff comes from Italy. There is a lot of produce in Arizona, but it’s harder to get your hands on it.

Aric: All our firewood is local pecan wood. Both restaurants’ wood-fired ovens go through a lot of pecan wood.

Josh: We’re trying to use Mt. Hope for our seasonings, spices. Mt. Hope is a company that basically grows their own spices in town. They’re good. We try to use them a lot. We use the highest quality, and we don’t skimp anywhere. I’d rather go that route and serve someone a quality dish.

How do you judge quality?

Aric: We want the stuff to taste the best, period. If it’s a Tucson beer that’s the best, great, we’re going to get that one. If it’s not, we’re going to get another. We want to deliver the best possible product. We have a pretty good palate knowing what our customers like, and we have loyal, regular customers that have been coming in forever.

Do relationships with certain breweries guide your decision to stock a beer or wine?

Aric: There are breweries we’ve been supporting since they were tiny. They might make a specialty beer and only produce 10 kegs. We’ll get three of them; sometimes we’re the only people in Arizona that have a particular beer. But if, for instance, one of those companies has a porter that we’re pouring, and we taste a better porter, we’re going to switch.

Josh: I think the wave of the future’s going to be distilleries. Breweries are going to fade out a bit, because it’s oversaturated. Too many people are trying to brew right now. You’re already kind of seeing micro-distilleries starting to sprout up in the Seattle area. They’ve been doing stills in Kentucky for years. That’s kind of come back.

How deep do your pockets have to be to start three restaurants?

Josh: To do a restaurant from the ground up? A million dollars, but if you take over this restaurant when we leave—it’s a 30-year-old restaurant, but the hoods and all equipment are in it—you could probably do it for 50 grand.

Aric: We took over in Dove Mountain. The people put in a million and a half dollars and went out of business in five months. Just putting in a kitchen alone, with the plumbing you need, and the fire suppression, it’s a ton of money.

What’s the toughest cut you’ve had to make?

Josh: Finding out people weren’t legal. It’s always hard because some of the best workers we’ve had didn’t have their citizenship. I wasn’t really firing them for anything they did wrong.

What investment has given back the most?

Aric: We paid off Noble Hops in a year and a half. We were living in Dove Mountain, and we’d get off work and say, “Hey, let’s go have a drink. Where do you want to go?” There’s nowhere to go. So we opened something [Noble Hops] that we would want to go to that people our age, people in their late twenties, thirties, would want to go.

Josh: It gets progressive. I mean, we serve hookahs. You go on a Friday night, there’s twenty, thirty, forty year olds smoking hookahs, hanging out on the patio. Aric: People say about our places that they don’t feel like Tucson, and part of that is that we love traveling. Any time we have free time, we like to do a trip, and we learn stuff from everywhere we go. We were the first real gastro-pub; we were the first certified pizzeria. We’re taking ideas that we get from around the country and around the world, and just bringing them to Tucson. ✜

Lisa Levine blogs about inner and outer natures.

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