Artistry in the Oven

By Kelly Visser, Iowa Food & Family Project

You may think the whimsical artwork lining the walls of Gusto Pizza Co. is simply decoration for the light-hearted pizzeria. But the colorful portraits - a soprano singing into a spotlight, a football player with a #24 jersey or a goat in the arms of Vincent van Gogh - are more than a pop of color; they are an artistic interpretation of the pizza names lining Gusto's menu.

The local pizzeria's artistry and creativity doesn't stop with the portraits on the wall - it's woven into every aspect of the business.

"A pizza crust is the perfect blank canvas," said Josh Holderness, co-founder of Gusto.

Gusto was founded in January 2011 by three Des Moines natives. In the past seven years, the restaurant has built a fiercely loyal following of "Gustomers" while staying true to the founders' vision of bringing inspiration to the pizza they serve.

"We fell in love with the name Gusto because it's a reminder to do everything with 'gusto.' From the way our staff greets guests to the toppings on our pizzas to the way we do business, we're all about bringing heart, soul and imagination to the table," said Holderness.

Prior to opening Gusto, founders Josh Holderness, Tony Lemmo and Joe McConville each worked in fine-dining restaurants in the metro where they gained valuable culinary experience and perspective that has since lent itself to Gusto's imaginative menu.

"We take classically prepared dishes and translate them into pizzas," said Holderness. "This twist on pizza and the enthusiasm we operate with has allowed us to be successful."

And Gusto truly is a small business success story. The trio has opened four locations in the metro area, and has been named one of the Top 100 Independently Owned Pizzerias in the U.S. (out of the 42,000 nationwide) for the fourth year in a row.

The Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP) sat down with Holderness for a "slice" of what drives their business and why customers keep coming back for more.

Iowa FFP: How do you choose to source your ingredients?

Holderness: We're not a price-fighter pizza. We won't compete with the chains of the world, so we're not looking for the cheapest ingredients.

Whenever possible, we source fresh, high-quality, local ingredients from Iowa farmers or businesses. We don't buy any prepared products. Everything comes to us in its original form and we prepare our sauces and crusts in house every day.

A lot of times we start with a specific concept for a pizza, and connect with Iowa farmers and vendors to bring it to life. For example, for the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival we came up with the The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon pizza. It has six different types of bacon sourced from pork producers around the state.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Every single day we try to compete with ourselves to come up with newer and better combinations. It keeps driving us. We do a weekly feature; for the first two years we were open, we didn't repeat a feature.

The farmers and vendors we work with always bring new ideas to spark our creativity. For example, last summer I got a call from a farmer who was harvesting Italian cantaloupe and wanted to see if we could do anything with it. We kicked around a few concepts and decided to blend it into a sauce to create a pizza loaded with fresh seasonal produce.

In March, we do a "Road to the Best Gusto" competition to align with the March Madness tournament. We have a bracket of 64 pizzas submitted by our customers. We ask our audiences to vote throughout the tournament and feature the winning pizza on our menu for six months. It's a fun way to engage our loyal "Gustomers."

On an average Friday night, who do you see in your restaurant?

You may see a young 20-year-old couple, a family with young kids or empty nesters in the restaurant. It's a great family environment, but you can also get a glass of Iowa-brewed beer or wine for a date night.

I'm amazed by the number of kids that come up to me and say, "I love Gusto!" If you can provide a place that kids love and parents don't feel like they're sacrificing for "kid food," it creates a good family environment.

What types of pizzas do you see customers gravitating toward?

It's like clockwork. The first few times customer come in, they are drawn to our classic combinations, or as we call them, "entry level" pizzas. After about three visits, they start to ask about the more unique combinations. I think it just takes a little time to earn a customer's trust in trying the more abstract offerings.

Where can "Gustomers" find you?

We have locations in Downtown Des Moines, Johnston, West Des Moines (almost Waukee) and we just opened a new location in Clocktower Square in West Des Moines. We also have our food truck, the "Gustomobile," which we take around the state to about 80 events in the spring and summer.

How are you involved in the community?

As we looked how to give back to the community, we thought we should do what Gusto does best - feed people. We focus our charitable giving to supporting organizations that benefit the hungry and homeless people in Central Iowa.

More specifically, we partner with Joppa Outreach, a local nonprofit that not only feeds the homeless community, but also provides propane, toiletries, tents and helps move people to affordable housing and long-term employment. We host an annual two-day "Take a Slice Out of Hunger" event, which includes a low country shrimp boil and charity golf outing to benefit Joppa Outreach.

Click here to learn more about Gusto.