Italian Done Better

The story behind Tauranga's game-changing pizza joint, Avenue Pizza.

Real McCoy Italian pizzas complete with sourdough bases that take days to create and lovingly hand-crushed tomato sauce? Avenue Pizza may just be a Tauranga game-changer.

“I just want to make good food. I want people to know what real pizza tastes like.” And it doesn’t get any more ‘real’ than flour imported from Naples and hand-squashed tomatoes, which is exactly what owner and chief pizza maker Jo Thompson has on offer at his new joint, Avenue Pizza. It boasts a simple menu, authentic ingredients and quirky locale (inside Tenpin Tauranga on 13th Ave, to be precise).

“Smashing our tomatoes by hand might seem a bit crazy, but it’s the way to do it if you want your sauce to taste right,” says Jo. “We import our flour from Italy because it’s the flour that does the job I need it to do. Anyone who knows me understands I’m not one to do things by halves — if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right.”

Watching Jo carefully stretch the dough, swirl the sauce around, toss a few pieces of mozzarella and fresh basil leaves on top, then cook his masterpiece to perfection is nothing short of mesmerising. While he’s been “obsessed with pizza” for a long time, making it from scratch is a fairly new gig for him. Last year Jo and his wife Maia Potier returned home from a three-year working holiday, where they toured around Europe as the talented indie-country duo,Joseph & Maia. “We had an amazing time floating around the world doing our music, but being on the road as a musician always had an expiry date, especially when our daughter Bonnie came along,” says Jo.“While we were away, we ate some incredible food and I fell in love with pizza. I’m not a chef, but before we left Europe, I told my friends I’d move home and open a pizzeria within a year. They thought I was joking, but you know what? I did it — and I even had five days to spare!” he laughs. “Maia’s been a huge support and the mastermind of it all, really.”

Jo putting the toppings on one of the four pizzas he has on offer.

His sourdough bases take days to prepare; one of Avenue’s excellent margherita pizzas.

As Jo cuts up his freshly cooked margherita for a taste test, Jo’s dad walks into the kitchen and pinches a slice. “He’s the real baker of the family,” Jo explains. “I grew up with Dad constantly baking, although I didn’t really get into it myself. My first foray into baking was at Best Ugly Bagels in Auckland. Being a musician often means you have a mixed background, because you’re never making any money! I’ve been managing George Cafe since we moved home but have also been making pizza on the side, working on the Avenue Pizza menu — which is all about simplicity.”

Jo may have been inspired by Italy when creating the menu, but Avenue has a distinctly local spin. “We’ve got Little Drum Coffee, Island beer from Papamoa and pepperoni from Blackforest Gourmet Butchery in Gate Pa. Aside from our flour, we’ve tried to go local as much as possible.” And Jo’s focus on simplicity extends right across the business — there’s only one size coffee and two milk options (one full milk and one vegan alternative). We can confirm the classic margherita with tomato sauce, olive oil, basil, mozzarella, parmesan is absolutely delicious. Then there’s the mushroom with pecorino cheese and a garlicky chorizo pepperoni. “We also have a special flavour that rolls in and out every week, like a vegan option with a distinct George Cafe vibe as I’ll be stocking their Bu Deli butter,” says Jo. “Some of the most beautiful pizza joints in the world have only two options — one with cheese and one without. Good pizza has nothing to do with the toppings, and everything to do with the dough.” Jo’s sourdough bases are lovingly created over three days, which is standard in Naples but pretty unique in these parts. “Our dough is all hand-stretched — we don’t use a roller. It’s really delicate, so you have to respect the process, even if it means throwing it away at the end if it’s not right. Because our sourdough is so easy to digest, I encourage anyone who’s gluten free — rather than coeliac — to give our pizza a go.

Avenue Pizza owner Jo admits he’s been obsessed with pizza for some time.

“There seems to be this new foodie world out there,” says Jo. “People are starting to go back to basics and put a lot of time and energy into their products. There’s a resurgence of people caring about what they put in their bodies and caring about where their food comes from. It’s really exciting and it’s changing our culture.” Jo also talks about the changes in the way we do business. “We’re here to run a business that represents our younger generation that are redefining the way we live our lives. If you put in the hard work when you need to, your career doesn’t have to be the stressful nine-to-five our parents experienced. As long as we can make ends meet an have a good time doing it, that’s all that matters, right? I don’t know how people will react to Avenue, but I hope they love our pizza as much as we do. I’m just excited to be doing what I love, working with great people making good, honest food.”

Avenue Pizza, 135 13th Ave, Tauranga, @avenuepizza

Story by Laura Tuck. Photography by Tim Shipton.

First published in issue 14 of Our Place Magazine.