CLIFTON PARK – The Cariotos didn’t plan to open a restaurant. In fact, it was the last thing on their minds.
But those who’ve gotten a fresh pizza pie from Classic Crust’s wood-fired oven are glad the couple changed plans.
Julie and Greg Carioto opened the charming Classic Crust at the former Italian restaurant Rocco’s in Clifton Park in the midst of the pandemic after years of running a catering business from a truck that featured a wood-fired pizza oven.
The two are Capital Region natives and have been married 25 years. Previously, Greg co-owned Carioto Produce, while Julie, who had gone to culinary school, took care of their three children.
They first became interested in wood-fired ovens when they tried wood-fired pizza at a family friend’s home.
“We loved it. We were like, ‘This tastes so different.’ Then it just went from there and we got obsessed with the oven,” Julie remembered.
Shortly afterward, another friend sent them a photo of a vintage truck with a wood-fired oven, and they connected with the South Carolina-based contractor who’d outfitted it — and inquired about getting one of their own.
With their 1964 Chevrolet truck, outfitted with a Mugnaini wood-fired pizza oven and beer taps, Classic Crust Mobile Catering got its start in 2014.
“We had it built and just jumped right in blindly, thinking we were going to make this work. We knew it was unique, especially to this area,” Julie said.
They started with public events such as the Alive at Five concert series in Albany. Their schedule quickly filled with weddings and private parties.
“We did that for six years. We always said we would never own a restaurant,” Julie said. “With [Greg] being in the produce business, he sold to restaurants. So he knew what it entailed. But we lived close by [to Rocco’s] and we’d come here for dinner, and we would just sit here and look around this building, and we fell in love with it.”
When the owner of Rocco’s was looking to sell the Cariotos decided to give it a go. They closed on the building in January 2020, just a few months before the pandemic lockdown began. Looking back, the Cariotos see the timing in a more positive light: It gave them more time for renovation work.
“It slowed us down,” Greg said.
The building, believed to have been constructed in the 1850s, underwent a complete renovation. The kitchen was gutted and a large wood-fired oven was installed. They kept the base of the bar but replaced the top. The back of the bar was also transformed, with a large mirror installed, making the space feel larger than it is. The Cariotos also installed all Edison lights and a black leather banquette along one wall.
“It was kind of a blessing. We got things done right, we felt like, and then we actually pulled the truck out of storage and put it in the parking lot and sold pizzas right from the truck while we were getting all of this done. That gave us a little introduction to the neighborhood,” Julie said.
They were finally able to open in July 2020. Abiding by the ever-changing pandemic regulations was a challenge.
“The new experience of opening a restaurant is tough enough, and then we had the pandemic rules on top of everything,” Julie said.
“It was nerve-racking,” Greg added.
It helped that they had a strong staff from the start.
“We have an amazing staff. They were fabulous. And here we are. Things have been great,” Julie said.
Lately their main challenge has been running out of Wickles Pickles. The spicy pickle topping has become a customer favorite, and when a shipment of the pickles was late, customers were disappointed that they had to miss out.
The Wickle Pickle pizza, which also has crisp bacon, mozzarella and a garlic dill ranch, is one of Classic Crust’s most requested items, along with the pulled pork pizza with shredded mozzarella cheese, coleslaw and sriracha aioli.
Classic Crust has other traditional offerings, such as a veggie pizza and a meat-lovers pizza, as well as some more contemporary items such as brie-and-pear and lobster pizza.
Most of the ideas for the pizzas and other dishes come from events the couple has catered.
“I took all of my customers’ favorites and that’s how I designed the menu. I knew what already worked,” Julie said.
“Pretty much 99% of what’s on that menu we [served] at a wedding, and I’d say, ‘Julie, those bacon-wrapped dates, I don’t know what you put in them but people are going crazy,’ ” Greg said.
That includes the wood-fired skillets, which are rich in flavor and ideal for sharing. Hot skillets of spinach-and-artichoke dip, burrata Caprese or Buffalo chicken dip are served up with fresh bread.
The dips are heated in the wood-fired oven, as are other dishes on the menu, including chicken kebabs. The method gives the dishes a distinct flavor.
“It’s a really unique piece of kitchen equipment,” Julie said.
Typically heated to between 700 and 800 degrees, the open-faced oven cooks pizzas in a matter of minutes, making for a crisp crust dusted with char.
The Cariotos take pride in the freshness of their ingredients and have a freezer for only two things: gluten-free dough and ice cream. Everything else is as fresh as it gets.
It’s noticeable. As Daily Gazette restaurant reviewer Caroline Lee wrote last year, “The mozzarella is creamy and melty, the sauce bright. And the pizza is ‘juicy’ in the best way, with a high ratio of fresh, brilliant sauce to crust and cheese.”
Their reputation has been gaining ground and spreading outside the immediate Jonesville area. The Cariotos often have customers visit from Saratoga Springs, Wynantskill, Schenectady and Niskayuna.
“It’s definitely expanded,” Greg said.
People come for the food, of course, but also find a friendly, neighborhood atmosphere that comes not only from other customers but the employees as well.
“We have an amazing work family here. Even customers comment on it. They comment on how happy our staff is, because they’re back there dancing and being silly,” Julie said.
Classic Crust Pizza Bar is at 989 Main St. in Clifton Park. For information, visit classiccrust.com.