Billy Manzo is the owner and head chef at Federal Hill Pizza, and anyone will tell you, he’s a character. If you were writing a sitcom where the wacky neighbor was based on a gregarious, Rhode Island-bred persona, Manzo would be your number-one casting choice.
Manzo has competed – as a member of the World Pizza Champions – in pie-making competitions around the world. He’s been on the Food Network as well as the TV series Phantom Gourmet, and he’s one of only two certified Master Pizzaioli in the US. He and his wife Christine opened Federal Hill Pizza in Warren and recently expanded to a second location in Providence. Manzo was happy to talk about his journey with Federal Hill Pizza and his non-profit, Chefs Feeding Kids.
Did you always have an affinity for pizza?
I never really remember growing up and being a freak about anybody’s pizza in Rhode Island. If I wanted pizza, I’d go to my favorite place, but it was more like, “Yeah, it’s good.”
Food had always been really interesting to me. My whole life, I thought cooking was really cool. And I always kind of fought it: “Ah, I didn’t want to get into that B.S. industry.” There’s the labor, I know the numbers, I know the analytics, you’re gonna fail. It’s gonna fail. It’s a restaurant, you got no shot.
And the next thing you know, I started serving pizza at [my cigar lounge] Sikar, and the first night I did 40 pizzas.
So the manager of East Side Market is having a drink at my bar. He says, “I want to talk to you about your dough. I think I want to sell it in my supermarket.”
Once I went to East Side Market, Dave’s found out, Dave’s took me. Stop and Shop took me, Shaw’s took me, Whole Foods took me - I was in 200 supermarkets in less than six months. My lease was up, and I needed a place to make dough. So I rented a little hole in the wall.
I’m making dough, and I got people banging on the door at 11 o’clock, saying, “We wanna have your pizza!” I tell them, “I’m just making dough,” but I can’t say no. So I’m making pizza for these guys, they’re saying, “Billy, your pizza’s unbelievable.” Christine says to me, “You gotta open up a place.” I’m saying, “No way, people are fruitcakes, labor costs, the whole scene is insanity…”
Out of nowhere, a friend says, “I think a place is available. Go down to Warren, check it out.”
Tell me about your non-profit.
I grew up in this area, and there were a lot of kids who – I didn’t know, I wasn’t old enough – who came to eat dinner at my house after little league. And you get older, and you realize – they just didn’t have food in the house because the dad had an addiction, or the mom didn’t care. Whatever it was, they just didn’t have food.
As I got older, I had my daughter, I thought about those kids, and I thought, “Well, I gotta do something,” so I came up with Chefs Feeding Kids. What we do is ask chefs from around the country to do something really cool for your community – church group, boys’ club, it could be you donating to your local football team – take a video or picture of your special event, and I’ll put it on my site called Foodbuzz.
A lot of chefs and restaurant owners don’t get their due. So on Foodbuzz, we talk about what’s hot, what’s not, recipes, all these different cool things in the world of food and beverage – and we throw in these articles about what chefs or restaurants are doing in their communities. The goal is eventually to make it so that all the kids in the country are eating normal food, not crap.
How do you balance that work and still seem so relaxed and satisfied?
I think if you find something that you have fun doing, and you can make a career doing it, what’s better than that?
Federal Hill Pizza
495 Main Street, Warren • 401-245-0045