Penelope Wood Fired Pizza is a Foodie 500 Restaurant Partner.
What’s the first thing you expect to see when walking into a coffee bar? It's pizza, right? Well, probably not, but in this case it’s exactly the experience.
Penelope Wood Fired Pizza resides within downtown’s Cartel Roasting Co. on Broadway and is the beautiful brainchild of Jared Schwartz. It’s a story of happenstance, perseverance, and, if you’ve ever had the chance to eat one of his tasty creations, it’s a tale of fortunate food fortuity.
“I lived in Phoenix for about 21 years but I was born in Florida,” said Schwartz as we hung out inside Cartel, his home base for his homemade pies. “I’ve been in Arizona pretty much my whole life and was in the food industry up there for about 17 years. I worked as a busboy, dishwasher, bartending, serving, and all the way up to director of operations. I went to school for Hotel and Restaurant Management and landed some management roles. I just fell in love with the industry — going above and beyond to make somebody's day.”
Being in the food industry means you’ll likely come across pizza in one capacity or another. It was a job that led Schwartz on his path of cheese, sauce, and a whole lot of inventive toppings.
“Right before the pandemic, I was working for an Italian family up in Phoenix. They really instilled a love they refer to it as the mama, the papa, the sister, and the brother mentality. Meaning that you had to be everything in the building all at once,” said Schwartz. “They helped me install a big emphasis on physical cooking and the sourcing of ingredients. So, that began to instill a love and passion for cooking I didn't really know that I had at the time.”
By February 2020, and things began to get really hairy — layoffs were happening all across the job board. Although, when the lockdown came to full fruition, Schwartz was handed something that got the dough balls rolling.
“When the restaurants closed down, my buddy Stephen, who is a chef, gave me a big old dough mixer he had laying around. I made a batch of dough, gave it to some friends, and they liked it,” Schwartz explained. “I started selling little do-it-yourself kits to people to make at home while we were in lockdown. It started gaining some traction and we said, that for each one we'd sell, we're going to donate a pizza to a restaurant employee that's been furloughed. We started advertising that and in the first month, we sold 400 pizza kits. It was really fun and my partner, who's also my partner in the food truck business (and everything else), Ashley, who’s a pediatrician, landed a residency program at Banner. So, we moved to Tucson in June of 2020.”
“I found a food truck online which was a deal,” Schwartz said with a big smile. “It was on a 1953 GMC pickup truck which we modified into a trailer. We spent a few months reconstructing a new oven on it. On my 30 birthday, I quit my job and started doing the food truck in January of 2021. We started to park in front of the Tucson Hop Shop and Caps & Corks — just hitting all the spots around town. It was actually kind of an amazing way to learn about Tucson during the pandemic. Everything was basically shut down but we were meeting people and becoming part of the community.”
Originally called Over The Counter, the truck was going full speed ahead while the idea of operating at a permanent location was beginning to ride shotgun.
It was a chance meeting with the owner of Cartel Coffee, who ironically had a large wood fired oven inside the coffee shop, that got things rolling forward with the Penelope Pizza concept.
“So, they had this wild notion and decided to build this pizza oven,” said Schwartz, referring to the already existing oven inside Cartel. “It was trucks full of cement, rebar, and I-beams. Three layers of firebrick on the bottom, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds. So, it's a beast.”
Over The Counter was too common a name and Penelope just happened to be the name of their mini dachshund. Although, their other dog, Oliver Twist Christmas Jr., was also a consideration but that’s a bit of a mouthful.
“It's been an interesting and fun synergy with Cartel,” said Schwartz. “You get a lot of people who like coffee and pizza, which is the breakfast of champions. Hundreds of people walking in the door every day to get a cup of coffee and then it's on me to try to convert them into pizza sales. It oddly hasn’t been that difficult. It’s been a fun project and a great partnership.”
Most recently, Schwartz expanded into doing pasta night pop-ups with an acclaimed local chef and other culinary outlets which provide desserts on the last Tuesday of each month.
“The pasta pop-ups came from a couple of ideas of having a space that I feel is underutilized. I just looked at the space and thought, ‘Hey, I'm closed on Monday and Tuesday so why not do something special on one of those nights?’ I've known chef Morgan Franz, who has worked in so many kitchens across Tucson for more than 20 years, and we collaborated on something that we both love to eat — pasta."
"He is an inventive pasta-making machine! We then paired with Dean Blair of Okashi Ice Cream and Confections to provide the sweet last course, and so far, the response has been phenomenal. This has inspired us to look into opening up a possible pasta shop in the future.”
Schwartz exemplifies that can-do, Tucson food-loving aura. Penelope Wood Fired Pizza is just the beginning, the pasta pop-ups are the second verse, and we’ll just need to be patient for the next chapter. Not too long, though — we’re hungry!
“Everything about this started by somebody helping me and I feel I have a platform to help other people,” Schwartz concluded. “There are so many people doing cool stuff in Tucson right now and I feel like the more the merrier. So many people want to see this town thrive. Luckily, I have found myself in the midst of those people, and it's a wonderful community to be a part of. I want everyone to know that this is a space they can come and utilize if they need to. I mean, wood fired bagels? Who wants to do woodfire bagels with me? Let's go!”
Penelope Wood Fired Pizza is located at 210 E. Broadway Blvd. For more information, visit penelopepizza.com and follow Penelope Wood Fired Pizza on Instagram.
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Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...