“You can’t do everything by yourself:” Asylum Street Pizza in Norwich – Norwich Bulletin
This week’s edition of the Local Flavor features James Kantzios of Asylum Street Pizza in Norwich. Kantzios started off early in the restaurant business due to his father’s own roots in the industry. A Greek immigrant who learned the ropes of cuisine, his father saved up enough money to open Asylum Street Pizza in 1984. Kantzios spent his childhood in that restaurant, whether it was doing his homework or working for his old man.
In 2018, Kantzios got an opportunity to achieve his dream. His father had taught him all he needed to know and was ready to retire. He handed over the business to his son, only for a global pandemic to break out two years later. Despite the litany of challenges Kantzios has faced, Asylum Street Pizza has persevered.
Kantzios: I was born and raised in Norwich. I loved growing up in this town. I feel like I’ve become part of the community. I ended up becoming a big part of Asylum Street Pizza here.
Blaine: What got you into the restaurant industry?
Kantzios: My father. He was the previous owner of Asylum Street Pizza. Growing up, a lot of the time I was doing my homework here. Family parties were held in the pizzeria. I was fully immersed into making pizza and grinders and wings, all that good stuff, right from a young age. I watched my dad cook, too. He’s an immigrant from Greece. I learned how he ran the place and absorbed his work ethic. It became something I wanted to end up doing. I wanted to make pizza.
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Blaine: Talk to me more about your father. When did he open up Asylum?
Kantzios: He moved to the United States when he was 16. His first job was a dishwasher over in East Hartford in AAA Diner. He washed dishes for six months, but worked hard enough and late enough to where he learned the menu and how to cook. He became one of the fastest short order cooks in the Hartford region.
His love for food continued to grow as he worked at diners. He ended up becoming a pizza cook at a friend’s pizzeria. By 1984, he had saved up enough money to buy his own pizza shop. He opened this place up in 1984. Fast forward to 2018, he retired and I took over the business.
Blaine: What was it like taking on the business from your father?
Kantzios: I was working for my dad, full-time at Asylum Street Pizza for years. I learned all the ins and outs of the business. Working with family can be a little tough sometimes; they’ll be a little tougher on you than others. It was challenging in the beginning. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of hours. If I didn’t stick through it, however, I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to run the place, or achieve my dream of having my own pizzeria.
Blaine: What were some of the lessons you learned from your father while working for him?
Kantzios: One of the biggest lessons he taught me is “You can’t do everything by yourself.” You need to make sure you have a team in place that’s going to help you and that you can rely on. You can’t be at the restaurant every second of every day, even if I try to be. He showed me how to find the right employees to trust.
I took over right before COVID-19. The pandemic wound up being a crash course for me. I had to learn how to put the customer first through it. Something I learn more and more each day is the more you put the customer first, the more they’ll take care of your business. Myself and my team give 100% for our customers and, at the end of the day, they come in and support us back. Without them, Asylum Street Pizza wouldn’t be possible.
Blaine: What changes did you make to keep Asylum Street Pizza going through the pandemic, being such a new restaurant owner?
Kantzios: First and foremost was staffing, right when COVID hit. There were people who were afraid to work in a front-of-house business where you see so many different people every day. It was tough to bring people back to work. Fortunately, we’re back at full staff.
Another challenge has been food shortage and price increases. Chicken wings, for example, tripled in price through the pandemic. Week by week, we used to just place our order and know 100% the food was coming in. The past year and a half, to two years, that hasn’t been the case. We’re never entirely sure we’ll get all our food in. You just never know.
Blaine: What does an average day look like for you at Asylum Street?
Kantzios: Usually I’m in the restaurant by 8:30-9 o’clock. First thing we do is prep a batch of dough. I’ve done it for so long it’s just habit. It’s time consuming, but it’s important. We give our dough extra time to rise. We have to make sure the water temperature is exactly right depending on what kind of weather is outside as well.
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Once that’s all set, we hop right into making orders. I’ll check our stock and make a list of what we need, make sure everything’s been sliced for the day, and go into prep mode for the rest of our menu, like our shepherd’s pie and lasagna. I work at the pizzeria till 9:30 p.m.
Blaine: Let’s talk about the menu. What’s the style of pizza Asylum Street serves?
Kantzios: We have Greek style pan pizza here. This is a recipe that my family, the Kantzios family, has used for as far back as I can remember. My uncle used to own Apollo Pizza over in Windham and used the same recipe. We still do all the pizzas my father had on the menu back in 1984, but we put twists on new pizzas as well. Our customers enjoy it.
Blaine: Looking at the different pizzas you offer, can you talk to me about a few of them? Let’s start with the Moussaka Pizza.
Kantzios: That one’s a classic pizza from my father. It’s inspired by a Greek dish called Moussaka. We did our best to convert it into a pizza. It has eggplant, extra cheese, and seasoned ground beef. You can take it up a notch, too, with some feta cheese. That one’s been on our menu for a long time.
The Breakfast Club pizza is a winner, too. It’s not every day you see a sunny side up egg on a pizza. If you like steak and eggs, that’s the pizza for you. It starts off with an American cheese base with sautéed steak, onions, peppers, and mushrooms. It gets a layer of mozzarella cheese on top, and after it’s cooked, we put the sunny side up eggs on top with a sriracha drizzle.
Blaine: What about the Zilara pizza?
Kantzios: That’s got a funny story. It’s another seasoned steak and onion pizza with a base of creamy garlic dressing. We use the latter with a good number of our specialty pizzas. It comes with grilled mushrooms and mozzarella, too. We named it after a resort, the Hyatt Zilara in Cancun. We had taken the name, so every time I make that pizza I think back to that vacation.
Another big one is our Maui Wowi. It has ham, bacon, and pineapple with mozzarella cheese and a mango habanero drizzle at the end. It has that salty sweetness with some spice that hits all your different taste buds.
Blaine: Let’s look at the rest of the menu. What are some other big sellers?
Kantzios: Our calzones do well. Like with our pizzas, you can go the traditional route with cheese and pepperoni, or you can create your own. We offer specialty calzones too, like the Rodeo Yeehaw calzone. If you love barbecue chicken, it’s for you. It comes with that chicken, onions, bacon, mozzarella cheese, and an egg wash on top. Wings are a big hit, too. We do a lot of different wings here. We do mango habanero, parmesan garlic, sweet chili, and a lot of other flavors.
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Blaine: Is there anything you’d like to say to customers who have supported you through the pandemic and have kept Asylum Street Pizza open for business?
Kantzios: Yeah, a huge thank you to them. Without any of our customers, we wouldn’t be able to be here through COVID. They supported us so much. COVID wound up being a jump start to our delivery services thanks to them. It’s hard for everyone going through these times, but to have people come to the local pizzeria spot when we aren’t even on a main road is wonderful. Norwich has given back to me and I try to give back to the community as much as I can. It truly means a lot.
Blaine: What’s coming up for Asylum Street Pizza that you’d like to share with readers?
Kantzios: We’re trying to roll out our new website; that should be coming hopefully within the next month. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and even TikTok. We do some silly videos. You’ll find our weekly specials on our sites.