You gotta be cool and comfortable with a new-wave, old-school, no-thrills, seatless South San Antonio pizza joint with two employees and a phone.
The curiosity is warranted because the fare is ab fab, all a neighborhood spot should be: friendly, deviating from drab and decidedly delicious, dedicated to straightforward, select ingredients while paying homage to the vintage slice shops from the past thriving into the future.
In the morning hours of daily pizza par excellence, Dusty Dworak ‘13 can be found in a nondescript storefront commencing his labor of love – combining organic flour, water, and sea salt. Twice a day he feeds the mother culture that produces a naturally leavened, chewy, slightly sour crust.
“Great bread baking is the bedrock to push the pizza experience,” Dusty boasts with enthusiasm. “No commercial yeast.”
Once Dworak tosses and lays dough over a 16-inch pan, he slightly overlaps a single layer of fresh mozzarella. His tomato sauce couldn’t be simpler: raw, crushed, canned Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, organically grown and vine-ripened in California. Slight salt and garlic. That’s all.
Dworak deals exclusively with Texas-sourced suppliers such as Dos Lunas Cheese, South Texas Seasonals, and Barton Springs Mill. He selects whole pork shoulders from Peaceful Pork in Fredricksburg (a rare exception to the factory farming trend) for his signature sausage: meat, fennel, garlic, salt, and black pepper. “The only way I was going to do it was to buy from a farmer I know and grind in-house.”
The toppings also include pepperoni, ricotta, crimini mushrooms, or pickled serrano peppers.
To cut costs, Dusty and his partner in pie (and life) Victoria Moreno chased down a somewhat battered Blodgett gas deck oven in Wisconsin and hauled home (24-hour drive round trip). What it lacks in romance and extreme heat it makes up for in control with lower BTU.
And unlike the New York City coal-burning cathedrals such as Lombardi’s, Arturo’s, and Grimaldi’s, “cheese is on bottom rather than on top so that the sauce flash cooks in the oven. Killer combination.”
The result is minimalist, well-crafted perfection, crispy on the bottom, soft but not watery on the top, with deep charring along the edges. The final touches have Dworak shaving parmigiano reggiano cheese and adding extra-virgin olive oil over the pie from a needle-nosed squeeze-top bottle for rich, mouthwatering bites. That blistered, blackened crust is not something one leaves on the plate.
All smart, thoughtful, different, divinely delicious. Welcome to Lovers Pizzeria. Everything one would desire from a start-up made to defy conventions in a franchise-filled genre built on them.
Dworak was a standout student-athlete at St. Thomas. His vaunted baseball crew included Cavan Biggio ‘13, Justin Sebo ‘13, and Hunter Pallasch ‘13 and was supported mightily by Michael Rodgers ‘14, Ben Condara ‘14, and Rawlings Elam ‘14. The riches with Astros luminary and National Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio head coaching were consecutive state titles and a state championship final among four straight semifinal appearances.
Dworak signed with the University of Texas at San Antonio, earned his degree in finance, and developed a taste for culinary distinction working before and after graduation at 2M Smokehouse on the city’s east side. Owner Esaul Ramos provided the tutorial fresh from his own grooming at La Barbeque in Austin. Once Dworak honed his skills, he succeeded his mentor as lead pitmaster, churning out spicy bark brisket with a fine balance of smoky and beefy flavor.
“I was hired four months in and the first person that wasn’t part of the family,” Dusty says. “Trim, smoke, slice the meats. Awesome training in a small setting. Learned how and what to learn, including executing the business side.”
Dworak reveals he “fell in love with BBQ and figured I would open a shop one day.” He was soon seduced by a siren not named Victoria.
Midway through his five-year stay with 2M, Dworak journeyed with a friend to New York City where there’s been pizza for as long as there has been pizza anywhere in the country.
His ad-lib tasting tour began at John’s of Bleecker St. on the West Side, initially opened in 1929 on Sullivan Street by immigrant Giovanni Sasso from Naples, Italy. Dusty slid into an old-style original wooden booth to savor a classic square slice before darting down the street to Joe’s, still supervised by Joe, the founder in 1975, for large, foldable, and cinematically cheesy creations. Then to Prince Street Pizza north of Little Italy where the specialty is pepperoni-heavy chunks that have routinely permeated the social media zeitgeist.
After a year of living deliciously following his pizza epiphany, Dworak returned to the NYC mecca with Victoria and then the two charted a separate pilgrimage to Philadelphia for an odyssey more enlightening than Homer’s epic tale. Together they encountered another deep bench of pizzaiolos and wood-fired, Neapolitan-style bonafides. That experience led Dworak to later cold-calling Joe Beddia, the owner and inspiration behind Philly’s breakthrough Pizzeria Beddia, originally in the burgeoning Fishtown neighborhood.
“Joe not only invited me back for an inside look at his operation, he paid for my plane ticket and hotel during my stay,” Dusty says, still not comprehending the magnanimous gesture. “2M had gotten a ton of hype. He saw I was serious and understood there was nothing in San Antonio that could provide the same insight.
“Joe explained that Domenico DeMarco (founder, heart, and soul of Brooklyn’s famed Di Fara Pizza) viewed pizza like pasta. He originated (and insisted upon) scissor-cut fresh basil and olive oil garnish with extra cheese to finish. Through Joe from Dom, I learned to think flavors, not just toppings.”
To label Dusty as a newly minted pizza nerd was much too mild. More accurately, pizza obsessive without a hint of exaggeration. His not-so-sudden realization measured beyond technique and artisanal ingredients. The illumination was more philosophical. Zen. Identify a style. And the ultimate real life-changing lesson for Dworak was that he could dedicate himself to one specialty, do it extremely well, and be successful.
Pizza compulsion could pay off.
Lovers staged its less than grand opening August 1 in the location once occupied by Carnitas Lonja. Alejandro Paredes (a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef) offered the space after relocating his tiny taqueria that shocked the local culinary scene with a focus almost exclusively on carnitas.
Dworak is aiming to repeat the mojo by planting his stamp on America’s most popular food. He plotted an aggressive and prudent strategy with a mission-driven focus similar to his schoolboy baseball success.
Rather than relying on varying pitch selection and spin rates, the repertoire is a perfect ratio of sauce to cheese to toppings. Micro repetition and execution. Consistency forges the standard. Repeat ad infinitum.
Ninety days into the enterprise, Dworak was excited to host a familiar, supporting presence from the past. St. Thomas Athletic Director Mike Netzel visited with delight prior to Eagle Football taking on San Antonio Antonian.
“This was scary, texting with Devin Bear the other day. It’s about to be our 10-year reunion,” Dworak shared. “Our baseball group all grew up together, played together, and have stayed together. We were tight then and won big. Friends to this day. Time of my life.”
Even though a less-than-menacing physical presence on the mound, Netzel reminds that the then 150-pound Dusty “could shove with the competitive heart of Nolan Ryan.”
When quizzed if he pitched high and tight, the immediate response was “Absolutely. My favorite spot.” One was left imagining the flair of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn via Major League, but harnessing more than occasional control. “I still remember my senior year pitching against Kohl Stewart (the 2013 fourth overall selection from St. Pius X). Matched him strike for strike and struck him out twice with inside fastballs.”
Dworak’s hunger for success today is just as deep as the schoolboy hardball chase. It’s merely a different commitment to the grind. He and Victoria are in lockstep valuing “being professional, every day on top of our game. That is the absolute truth. Everything flows from that attitude. It’s what running a business is all about.”
Victoria offers a wide array of contributions: prepping seasonings, deserts, and hand-crafted Italian sodas. If not working the register and embracing customers, it’s washing dishes.
The tag team may be launching from humble designs but is fixed on flipping the city’s pizza world upside down with a nod to New York that traces to Naples, Verona, and Caiazzo, Campania.
“This neighborhood is finding us but the city has never had a pizza like this before, so we’re having to educate the audience as well as serving,” Dworak says. “Same exercise as I saw with 2M. I’m convinced this will find traction.
“I love the era of the slice shop. The person, the integrity, the character, all that established the legacy. The old guard won’t live forever. And there’s none of that presence here in Texas. My goal is that Victoria and I can channel the best of what they’ve done and introduce that tradition to a new market. That would be my dream come true.”
One pie, one toasty slice of heaven, at a time.
Catholic. Basilian. Teaching Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge since 1900.