The dark-haired kid who used to sell you lemonade as you tooled through Downers Grove, today, owns a mobile pizza oven.
So instead of quenching customers' thirst with cool drinks, Alex Ciciora tames their hunger with hot pizza.
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Ciciora, 22, started The Pizza Via, a family-run catering business that uses hand-tossed dough and fresh ingredients to bring brick-oven pizzas to company picnics, family reunions and other such celebrations.
"I've always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "I was the kid who shoveled driveways in winter and made lemonade stands in the summer."
He found his passion for food during his junior year at Downers Grove South High School and studied culinary arts at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Inspired by the pizza-oven his father built in their backyard, he headed to pizza school where he became a certified pizzaiola, a pizza maker trained in the Italian art of classic pizza styles.
Ciciora still makes his home in Downers Grove. I caught up with him between gigs.
What was your first restaurant job? What did you learn from it? My first restaurant job was hosting at Carrabba's Italian Grill. I learned how to deal with customer issues, and I was able to see how the front of the house operates in contrast to the kitchen.
Describe your typical day. I usually get up and work out, and after that, it depends on how busy I am for the week. Some days I have to shop for ingredients and prep in the kitchen, and on others I have to fire up the oven and go through the inventory of equipment to be used for a party.
What do you like most about your job? I enjoy the atmosphere. The host brings together fun people who are there just to have a good time, and I am providing really good pizza. With great people and great food, how can I go wrong?
What do you love about pizza? I love the simplistic idea of pizza. The main ingredient is a crust or dough, but it is also the most ignored. When you have perfected that basic crust, almost any flavor combination imaginable will taste good on it.
What is your favorite type of pizza? My favorite is a classic Margherita, a perfect balance of wild yeast crust, San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh fior di latte mozzarella cheese, pecorino Romano cheese and olive oil. I bake it in a 900-degree oven for 90 seconds to create the perfect slightly charred crust and melted mozzarella.
What's the most common mistake people make when preparing pizza at home? The most common mistake is rolling out the crust with a rolling pin. In doing so, the cook is pushing out all of the air bubbles the yeast has been working so hard to create. This makes the crust tough and cracker like. Instead, shape the crust first with your fingers, then press out the middle and stretch it over your knuckles slowly until it is the desired size.
Are there any ingredients that you believe have no business on a pizza? Almost anything will taste good on a good crust, but balancing flavors can be tricky. The only thing that doesn't belong on a pizza are too many ingredients which can make the dough soggy and floppy. Stay minimal, but don't be afraid to use bold flavors.
How did you end up in Namibia? What did you learn from that experience? I was visiting family as a graduation gift from my parents. I thought I would just be teaching about pizza when I was at NICE (Namibian Institute of Culinary Education), but I learned a lot about the culture and native foods. I wish I could have stayed for the giant mushrooms that come out in early April.
Where do you find culinary inspiration? I try to find inspiration wherever I can. I am good at tweaking ideas. I always keep my eyes open for cool ideas or flavor combinations. I look at other cultures and what they have put together to make a dish and make my own additions or subtractions based on my flavor pallet. Even just looking at what I have in the garden gives me inspiration.
What ingredients are always in your refrigerator? I always try to have pizza dough in the fridge. When it starts to get too old for pizza, I like to make bread with it. Other than that, I always have chicken stock which can always be used to add a little more flavor in anything I cook.
What was the last meal you cooked at home? For breakfast I made sauteed veggies and rice with chopped skirt steak and an over easy egg.
What do you do in your spare time? I enjoy spending time with friends and family. I also play Frisbee golf when I need to unwind.
Tell us about this recipe: This is the pesto sauce I use for my pesto, prosciutto, Kalamata olive pizza. It's great on pasta or salad, and it's easy to make.
Try this at home or arrange a visit from chef Ciciora at (630) 457-8807; thepizzavia.com.
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