Serve Greek and Italian cuisine at Asylum Street Pizza in Norwich
This week’s edition of Local Flavor features James Kantzios of Asylum Street Pizza in Norwich. Kantzios started out in the restaurant business early on due to his father’s own roots in the industry. A Greek immigrant who learned the ropes, his father saved up enough money to open Asylum Street Pizza in 1984. Kantzios spent his childhood in this restaurant, whether it was doing his homework or working for his old man.
In 2018, Kantzios had the opportunity to make his dream come true. His father had taught him everything he needed to know and was ready to retire. He handed the business over to his son, only for a global pandemic to break out two years later. Despite the litany of challenges that Kantzios faced, Asylum Street Pizza persevered.
Kantzios: I was born and raised in Norwich. I loved growing up in this city. I feel like I’m part of the community. I ended up becoming a big part of Asylum Street Pizza here.
Blaine: What brought you to the restaurant business?
Kantzios: My father. He was the former owner of Asylum Street Pizza. Growing up, most of the time I did my homework here. Family celebrations took place in the pizzeria. I was completely immersed in the making of pizzas, mills and wings, all of that good stuff, from a young age. I also watched my dad cook. He is an immigrant from Greece. I learned how he ran the place and assimilated his work ethic. It became something that I wanted to end up doing. I wanted to make pizza.
Blaine: Tell me more about your father. When did he open the asylum?
Kantzios: He moved to the United States at the age of 16. Her first job was a dishwasher in East Hartford at AAA Diner. He did the dishes for six months, but worked hard enough and late enough to learn the menu and how to cook. He became one of the fastest cooks in the Hartford area.
His love for food continued to grow while he worked in restaurants. He ended up becoming a pizza cook in a friend’s pizzeria. By 1984 he had saved enough money to buy his own pizzeria. He opened this place in 1984. Fast forward to 2018, he retired and I took over the business.
Blaine: What was it like taking over your father’s business?
Kantzios: I worked for my dad full time at Asylum Street Pizza for years. I learned all the ins and outs of the trade. Working as a family can sometimes be a bit difficult; they will be a little harder on you than the others. It was difficult at first. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of hours. If I didn’t stick to it, however, I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to run the place or fulfill my dream of having my own pizzeria.
Blaine: What lessons did you learn from your father while working for him?
Kantzios: One of the biggest lessons he taught me was, âYou can’t do it all on your own. You need to make sure you have a team in place that will help you and that you can count on. You can’t be in a restaurant every second of every day, even though I try to be. He showed me how to find the right employees to trust.
I took over just before COVID-19. The pandemic ended up being a crash course for me. I had to learn to put the customer first. Something that I learn more and more every day is that the more you put the customer first, the more they will take care of your business. My team and I give 100% for our customers and at the end of the day they come to support us. Without them, Asylum Street Pizza would not be possible.
Blaine: What changes have you made to get Asylum Street Pizza through the pandemic, as the new restaurant owner?
Kantzios: First and foremost is staffing, just as COVID has struck. There were people who were afraid to work in a front company where you see so many different people every day. It was difficult to bring people back to work. Luckily, we’re back in full gear.
Another challenge has been the food shortage and rising prices. The price of chicken wings, for example, has tripled during the pandemic. Week after week we used to place our order and 100% know the food was coming. Last year and a half, at two years old, that was not the case. We are never quite sure that we have all of our food. We never know.
Blaine: What does an average day look like for you in Asylum Street?
Kantzios: Usually, I’m at the restaurant around 8:30 am-9am. The first thing we do is prepare a batch of dough. I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s just a habit. It takes time, but it’s important. We give our dough more time to rise. We also need to make sure that the water temperature is exactly the right one for the weather outside.
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Once everything is sorted out, we go straight to the controls. I’ll check our stock and make a list of what we need, make sure everything has been sliced ââfor the day, and go into prep mode for the rest of our menu, like our shepherd’s pie and lasagna. I work at the pizzeria until 9:30 p.m.
Blaine: Let’s talk about the menu. What is the style of pizza served by Asylum Street?
Kantzios: Here we have a Greek style pizza. This is a recipe that my family, the Kantzios family, have been using for as long as I can remember. My uncle owned Apollo Pizza in Windham and used the same recipe. We still make all the pizzas my dad had on the menu in 1984, but we’ve also changed the new pizzas. Our customers appreciate it.
Blaine: Looking at the different pizzas you offer, can you tell me about some of them? Let’s start with the Moussaka Pizza.
Kantzios: It’s a classic pizza from my dad. It is inspired by a Greek dish called Moussaka. We did our best to turn it into pizza. It contains eggplant, extra cheese and seasoned ground beef. You can also take it up a notch with feta cheese. This one has been on our menu for a long time.
The Breakfast Club pizza is also a winner. It’s not every day that you see a fried egg on a pizza. If you like steak and eggs this is the pizza for you. It starts with an American cheese base with sautÃ©ed steak, onions, peppers and mushrooms. It is covered with a layer of mozzarella, and when cooked, we put the fried eggs with a sriracha fillet.
Blaine: What about Zilara pizza?
Kantzios: It’s a funny story. This is another steak and onion seasoned pizza with a base of creamy garlic dressing. We use the latter with many of our specialty pizzas. It is also served with grilled mushrooms and mozzarella. We named it after a resort, the Hyatt Zilara in Cancun. We took the name, so every time I make this pizza I think back to that vacation.
Another big one is our Maui Wowi. It has ham, bacon and pineapple with mozzarella cheese and a habanero mango fillet at the end. It has that salty sweetness with a bit of spice that hits all your taste buds.
Blaine: Let’s look at the rest of the menu. Who are the other big sellers?
Kantzios: Our calzones are doing well. As with our pizzas, you can go the traditional route with cheese and pepperoni, or you can make your own. We also offer specialty calzones, such as Rodeo Yeehaw Calzone. If you love barbecue chicken, this is for you. It’s served with chicken, onions, bacon, mozzarella cheese and an egg on top. The wings are also very popular. We do a lot of different wings here. We make habanero mango, garlic parmesan, sweet chili and many other flavors.
Blaine: Is there something you would like to tell the customers who have supported you during the pandemic and who have kept Asylum Street Pizza open for business?
Kantzios: Yes, a big thank you to them. Without any of our customers, we wouldn’t be able to be here through COVID. They have supported us so much. COVID ended up being a kick-start for our delivery services because of them. It’s hard for everyone to get through this time, but having people come to the local pizzeria when we’re not even on a main road is wonderful. Norwich has given me back and I try to give back to the community as much as I can. It really means a lot.
Blaine: What’s up with Asylum Street Pizza that you’d like to share with the readers?
Kantzios: We are trying to roll out our new website; this should hopefully happen within the next month. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and even TIC Tac. We make stupid videos. You will find our weekly specials on our websites.