Gabriel Moreno was born into the Tucson food business. His grandfather, Jaime Moreno, operated a series of local restaurants and a convenience store for much of Gabriel’s childhood. At Jaime’s Bar & Grill, the longest-lived of the culinary outlets — it thrived on Fourth Avenue from the early 1990s until 2000 — Gabriel’s father served as a daytime bartender, his uncle ruled the kitchen, and one of his aunts designed the menu.
“I grew up in the restaurant office, hanging out with my granddad watching ‘Young Frankenstein,’” Gabriel said, “sometimes helping with the back grill, running dishes, and taking orders.”
And falling in love with pizza.
The romance was sparked by the arrival of Brooklyn Pizza Company next door to his grandfather’s restaurant and market. Jaime owned the corner lot and rented the space to the fledgling pizzeria. “I was watching the guys toss pies when I was around 11 or 12 years old,” Gabriel said. “That’s all I wanted to do. I thought it was so cool.”
While other family members and staff members went their separate ways after Jaime’s Bar & Grill closed – “They had their lightening in a bottle for a decade, but the bar business is exhausting” – Gabriel pursued his pizza dreams, with a few early detours. “Just like any other 15- or 16-year-old coming up in Tucson, I worked at Eegees and then at Chipotle when they were first coming through,” he said.
Gabriel started down the pizza path in 2005 when he was hired at Rockin’ Pizza, at Broadway and Swan in Midstar Plaza. “It was pretty much a never looking back from there,” Gabriel said. Owned by Tommy Dubielak (aka Tommy Rat), a tour manager and sound engineer from the Bronx, the restaurant had a lot of old music memorabilia on the walls. “Part of what I learned at Rockin’ was culture,” Gabriel mused. “Tommy was full of energy and attitude and he probably even taught me a little bit of my business sense just watching.”
Next stop: Tubac, where Gabriel helped Dominic Puglisi open the Italian Peasant in 2010. Puglisi, who lived for most of his life on Long Island, New York, was looking to retire in the sleepy southern Arizona town with a restaurant that drew on his Sicilian grandmother’s cooking and her warm presence. Gabriel also has an Italian grandmother on his mother’s side, so it was a perfect fit.
It was at the Italian Peasant that Gabriel began to understand how passion and craft might combine. “I worked under CIA chefs and Cordon Bleu chefs, learning about the different styles and methods of cooking,” he said. Put in charge of the pizza kitchen, Gabriel was able to apply his newfound knowledge to the object of his devotion. He said, “I was learning why the pizza becomes a pizza in the oven. What is the salt doing with the flour? How is the yeast affecting this?”
Puglisi passed away in 2014 at the age of 59. Gabriel didn’t stay in Tubac much more than another year after losing his beloved mentor.
His next job came as a bit of culture shock. “I went from a very sleepy town lost in time to Grimaldi’s on Sixth and Campbell. Everything felt faster there,” Gabriel said. That sense of acceleration was no illusion, he soon realized. “It actually was faster because we were doing coal-fired 900- to 1200-degree cooking in eight-foot-long ovens, just pizza after pizza after pizza.” He had gotten used to creating East Coast-style pies in ten to 12 minutes in a 550-degree oven, but “these maniacs are putting out pies every five minutes. It was an adrenaline rush.”
Gabriel was the kitchen manager at Grimaldi’s until the store closed in November 2017. He fired off the last pies with the remaining crew, many of whom remain good friends.
Not long afterwards, he was contacted by Marc Frankel, who was opening Pizza Luna on Speedway and Wilmot. Frankel was looking to semi-retire in Tucson with his wife, Tracy, after having run a successful chain of pizzerias in Portland, Oregon. “It was probably the most ‘right place right time’ scenario of my career,” Gabriel mused.
For one thing, there was his introduction to state-of-the-art equipment, including the spiral mixer, with a rotating bowl and a hook that spins to knead the dough. “It’s almost like every little chunk is getting its own individual piece of attention,” Gabriel enthused. Then there was the experimentation with high-quality ingredients, including a finer, lower-gluten flour than the ones Gabriel had worked with before. Above all, there was the careful process. The dough was nursed for 72 hours, minimum, and handled once a day until it was ready to be turned into pizza.
“It became a very personal relationship with the food we were making, watching this little slime ball turn into a big beautiful starter and then a silky elastic dough,” he explained, laughing. “Yes, I’m a pizza nerd.”
But Gabriel wasn’t only forming relationships with food. At Pizza Luna, “I was able to collaborate with pizza makers I’ve known for 15 years, and with people who you could just tell they had talent, so we got to train them from the ground up,” he said. “To be able to build the team that I worked with and be able to make the food that we were making was a dream come true.”
Which led Gabriel to take a much-needed pause and contemplate his own new concept, one that would bring him back to where he began: a family restaurant. This time, with some two decades of cooking and management experience under his belt, he would be the one calling the shots. With the encouragement of his wife, Vivian; the help of longtime team member, Travis Holloway, who’s worked with him since the Italian Peasant days; “and my grandfather’s approval, of course,” Gabriel created Jaime’s Kitchen, a pizzeria with a catering component.
“At first, it was just going to be a small catering business, where we could help people meal plan or take care of events. But pizza was an itch that just wouldn’t go away,” Gabriel said.
A key to achieving the ultimate goal of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant proved to be The Hub, a ghost kitchen off First Avenue near Fort Lowell. It was ideal not only for its basic facilities but also for the fact that it is closing for renovations this August, thus creating a deadline for Gabriel to find a physical location for his new dining room.
Since they settled in at The Hub last summer, Gabriel and his crew have been busy perfecting a dough that is versatile enough to work with many different pizza styles, all with creative scratch toppings.
Since there’s currently no dine-in option, they’ve also worked to gear their recipes to delivery and takeaway, to make pies that stay hot enough to be hefted a reasonable distance, and firm and fresh enough to be enjoyed the next day, whether reheated or cold.
From all indications – including this writer’s taste test and rave Yelp reviews — they’ve succeeded beyond their expectations on all counts.
Along with his goal of serving great pizza, Gabriel aims to re-create the ties to the Tucson food community that he remembers from his grandfather’s day. “As we look for the brick-and-mortar store, we will be sifting through old pictures to put up because our core is the family history and Tucson history.” You can already see a nod to the past in the neon green logo of the pizza menu, the exact color and design of his grandfather’s original restaurant sign.
Jaime Moreno himself will be an important presence in the restaurant that bears his name. Gabriel said of his grandfather, “He hangs out here a bit but it’s small and hot, especially when the oven is cranking. That’s why I’m really excited to move this to the next level. He’s a people person and I can’t wait to see him behind a small bar or behind the counter.”
We’re looking forward to it, too. Gabriel promised we would be among the first to know where Jaime’s Pizza Kitchen lands. We’ll let you know as soon as we do.
For more information about Jaime’s Pizza Kitchen and to place an order, visit tucsonjaimes.com.
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Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...