PHOENIX, Ariz. — Two thousand miles from Wheeling, in the Phoenix neighborhood of Litchfield Park, Ariz., is the farthest-flung outpost of the nascent DiCarlo’s Original Pizza franchise.
It is owned and operated by Michael Miklas, who’s doing his best to explain to Arizona residents “the DiCarlo’s way”: A crispy crust topped with tangy tomato sauce and that famously cold provolone cheese.
“I talk to customers all day long,” the Glen Dale native said. “I explain it to everybody. I have it down so well I can stretch dough, count money and explain DiCarlo’s Pizza all at the same time. If people don’t want the cold toppings, fine, I’ll cook it for them. But 99 percent of the time they take it my way. And 99 percent of the time they say it’s really good – that they’ve never had pizza like that before.”
Miklas, whose parents ran Miklas Meat Market in Woodsdale, graduated from John Marshall High School in 1987 – he likes to say he’s the most famous alum after country music star Brad Paisley. After a cross-country move and a 24-year stint in the Air Force, Miklas found himself working as a warehouse manager in the Valley of the Sun. There, he found the pizza not quite up to par while treating his workers to the occasional lunch.
“They’d pick a pizza place and get some pizza and wings and they’d keep saying how good it was,” he said. “And I thought to myself ‘you guys don’t have a clue what good pizza is.'”
What was a 43-year-old retired master sergeant to do?
Naturally, he put in a call back home to the Ohio Valley and asked DiCarlo’s Original Pizza President Anna DiCarlo if he could open a new franchise.
“The first thing I did in Phoenix was check out the competition,” DiCarlo said. “It’s called Pizzeria Bianco. It’s a Neapolitan pizza with high-end cheese and fresh pizza dough. Pizzeria Bianco makes a good pizza. And I said, ‘this is excellent pizza, Mikey, but ours is better. They can’t touch our crust.'”
Given the green light, Miklas went straight to work setting up his new business, a process that took nearly a year. The doors opened in May 2013.
But he has found it to be a difficult sell due to his slightly out-of-the-way location, difficulty obtaining permission to put up signage and a population uninitiated into the DiCarlo’s mystique.
But the Ohio Valley ex-pats? They can’t get enough of the stuff.
“My sister called me and told me that she had wonderful news,” said Phoenix resident Laura Harding, who grew up in Bellaire and Wheeling. “She told me a DiCarlo’s was opening up in town. I told her ‘I thought you were pregnant, but that’s great news, too.’ Now she frequents the DiCarlo’s out here about as much as I do. I think it’s better than the ones back home.”
Such a fan of the pizza, and so unwilling to see her little piece of home fail, Harding does postings on social media for Miklas free of charge.
She doesn’t even ask for a discount on the pizza. She does it, she says, because Miklas is such a good guy and that it’s “absolutely critical” to get the word out.
Though he now calls Phoenix his home, architect John Tarr grew up eating at the Elm Grove DiCarlo’s.
He’s such a fan that he had them cater his 2009 wedding at Oglebay.
He’s tried several different methods of getting his fix since moving across the country, including having relatives pack frozen boxes of it in their suitcases en route to Sky Harbor International Airport.
“Since it’s so hot here sometimes the pizza would start to thaw upon arriving,” he said. “Actually shipping pizza through DiCarlo’s seemed to work better than the suitcase method.”
Tarr said the Phoenix DiCarlo’s reflects the Elm Grove style, so much so that it feels like home, though unfortunately it takes 40 minutes to get there from across town without traffic. He makes the drive when he can, though.
“The owner is friendly,” he said, “and he always comments that he has people drive from all around the Phoenix area to visit the store – many of them are transplants like me. There is something fun about having that rectangular box with the familiar stamped logo in the refrigerator for a snack.”
According to Miklas, his fans don’t have to worry about him closing up shop.
He’s investigating home delivery as a possible means of boosting sales – something that doubled a friendly competitor’s business. Beyond that, the trick is getting people in at least three times.
That’s the magic number for getting them hooked, he said.
“I’ll do anything for a customer,” he said. “I have to get people in here more than once. I get so many customers who are afraid I’ll go out of business but I’m not even close. I’ll do this until I don’t have any money left. And I’m not close to that point.”
DiCarlo is optimistic as well. She’s reassured Miklas several times that he’s doing a great job, and that she has confidence in him because of his character, evidenced by his strong work ethic and his military service.
She pointed out that while the pizza shops have been in the Ohio Valley for decades, DiCarlo’s as a franchise is still in the beginning stages as well, only having been around since 2005 and that Miklas just needs to keep doing what he’s doing.
“I love the guy,” she said. “And everybody who has tried the product has raved about it. Mike is doing an excellent job. With delivery and the excellent marketing Mike’s doing, I’m hopeful that sales can go up.”
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