Pizza is a personal thing, subject to each individual’s tastes, familiarities and habits. But insofar as it’s possible to officially declare who makes the best pizza in Tempe, Canadian television has done so: it’s Nello’s, at Southern and McClintock.
The reality series Pizza Wars, which pits three restaurants from a given area against each other, recently shot an episode in the city, and the 30-year old pizzeria outdistanced two of its competitors to take the trophy.
As we speak, the trophy is sitting on the table at one of the booths at Nello’s, in front of owner Eric Gronning.
The base reads “Pizza Wars Certified: BEST PIZZA IN TEMPE.” Mounted at the top is a laminated fake slice of pie, with rather unappetizing, rubber-vomit-ish-looking toppings under the acrylic.
“I told them that looked kind of gross,” says Gronning. “I said we should put a piece of ours up there instead.”
The producers of the north-of-the-border series—which rotates with Burger Wars and Taco Wars—spent three days shooting in Nello’s.
Day 1 was showing how Nello’s pies are made. Gronning did the honors in the kitchen, whipping up a “margarita” pizza—olive oil, feta and Romano cheeses and chunks of garlic, with sausage—for the cameras.
“They had a host who was trying to mess me up,” recalls Gronning. “He’s witty, and we’re bantering, and I’m trying to focus.”
Pressure aside, Gronning did manage to land a quip:
“My line was, ‘I think I’ll cut this pizza in four slices, because I don’t think we can eat eight.’”
For Day 2 of the shoot, the judges were fed the pie; then came Day 3, the presentation of the award, with Sun Devil Stadium as the background.
Nello’s was named the champ over La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar on Mill and Venezia’s Pizzeria on Southern.
A missionary’s son who grew up in the remote community of Tanana on the Yukon River in the heart of Alaska—“I spent the first eight years of my life without electricity or running water, and with a five-dog sled team”— Gronning studied business and public relations at Purdue and the University of Phoenix and worked as director of sales for the Arizona Cardinals during the Stallings and Bugel years.
He’s a sports fanatic—his son Paxton’s name is a conflation of John Paxson (Chicago Bulls) and Walter Payton (Chicago Bears). Small wonder that the Southern and McClintock Nello’s is heavily decorated with Chicago sports memorabilia.
Gronning still keeps a hand in sports—he’s in management for the Chicago Cubs Spring Training at Hohokam.
“I handle the national anthem and who’s throwing out the first pitch. All that stuff that nobody notices.”
But he’s also owned Nello’s since 2004. “I’m kind of a non-blood brother to the two brothers who started it, Brian and Gino Mai.”
Thus Gronning has been a habitué of the place since before it opened in the early ‘80s.
“I helped put fliers on cars about the opening,” he says.
“I used to bring in pro athletes in those days.”
He probably never imagined that, three decades later, he’d be the one in competition, baking pizza for glory and pride. And a trophy with a (well, make-believe) slice on top.