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Upscale pizza venture succeeds in city’s heart

September 20, 2018

Dodici Pizza & Wine is an example of how attention to detail can make for a successful business venture, though it also signals a downtown in transition.

Dodici, Italian for the number “12,” opened in the J.H. Fernandez y Hermano Building at 1200 E. Adams St. on July 18. Owners Trey Mendez, Dante Pensa and Graham Sevier built their business model on Neapolitan-style pizza, which harkens back to the birth of pizza.

“Traditional Neapolitan style, it goes back to the origins of pizza in Italy,” Mendez said. “This is really just a rustic, original pizza the way it was made a couple of hundred years ago. ... We’ve actually had people that have come to visit us after they’ve been to Naples and have said that our pizzas remind them of being in Italy, which is to me the ultimate compliment.”

This, along with a wine list featuring boutique labels from Chile, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United States, had made Dodici a hit from day one, he said. Opening night was mobbed and the second night was even crazier, Mendez said.

“Day two we were so busy we ran a little bit behind on some of our orders,” he said. “Immediately we had a partners meeting that night and said we’re not going to let this happen again. ... I’d say as of day three we’ve been functioning and operating as efficiently as possible, putting out an outstanding product. We’ve been full.”

Mendez bought the Fernandez Building in 2010. At the time, the corner Dodici now occupies, kitty-corner to Market Square, was home to De Angeles coffee shop and later a dress shop/photo studio. That tenant’s eventual departure left Mendez with an opportunity.

“I had always liked the corner space because it had the double frontage on it, the big beautiful windows where people could just sit down and look out,” he said. “I always envisioned it would be good for a café or some sort of restaurant.”

Mendez approached Sevier, who opened 7th & Park Coffee in early 2017, about doing something with the corner.

“He knew he wanted to do something cool, something a little bit progressive, something that would bring people to downtown,” Sevier said. “Nine months later we opened the doors for service.”

It took many months of exhaustive wine and pizza research, however, said general manager Pensa, who came aboard as partner about halfway through.

“We were making pizzas at Trey’s house for a year or year and a half, probably, just messing around with the idea,” he said.

Sourcing the ingredients also took a lot of time, Pensa said.

“We found people that had contacts with importers, and then we got in touch directly with the importers themselves, and then I worked with them to procure the meats and cheeses,” he said. “That was probably a three month process in itself.”

At the heart of the operation is Dodici’s Stefano Ferrara oven, handmade in Naples then shipped to California for a custom tile job before coming to Brownsville.

“When it arrived we had to remove the window and the molding on the window so we could actually fit it,” Mendez said. “It was about a two-hour process to actually bring the oven inside. It weighs about 6,000 pounds.”

Sevier said the oven is the restaurant’s only heat source.

“We don’t have a microwave,” he said. “We don’t have a stove. Everything we do that needs to be cooked, we use that oven.”

“Which is fun and scary at the same time,” Pensa added.

The oven can reach 1,000 degrees, though the pizza makers normally keep it a notch or two lower. Still, it cooks fast.

“The pizza’s in 60 to 90 seconds, depending on where you put it in the oven,” Pensa said.

“The oven itself, you have to learn it,” Mendez said. “It has different hotspots. The people that make our pizzas, they’ve learned the oven. It’s kind of fascinating to watch. It’s artistry, really.”

He said trying to succeed with such a venture downtown 10 years ago would have been difficult, but that Brownsville is changing.

“We give credit to Terra’s (Bar & Grill) for kind of changing the outlook on what you could get downtown,” Mendez said. “I think they succeeded in bringing a different clientele downtown that hadn’t really been downtown in a while, and I think we’ve stepped it up after that.”

He believes Brownsville is ready to come back downtown, which is undergoing positive changes as a new business presence — Dodici, Terra’s, Kraken Lounge, the Library Bar and others — continues to grow, he said.

“You see a community that’s thinking differently, and it’s more open to certain ideas,” Mendez said.

Part of it involves breaking the stigma that downtown is unsafe, which has always been more of a perceived than actual problem, Sevier said, noting that a new police substation and stepped-up patrols have had a big impact.

“The police have made a commitment to helping downtown, and we’ve seen it,” Pensa said. “It’s not just talk.”

The revitalization of Market Square has likewise been helpful for downtown in general and Dodici in particular, he said. Mendez said the restaurant’s success is already encouraging others to explore similar opportunities as people start to view the area differently.

“I will say, though, it’s something that takes a lot of work,” he said. “An idea and a little bit of money’s not enough. You’ve got to have all the things in place to make it succeed.”

Retrofitting the historic corner at 12th and Adams with a trendy pizza and wine joint was a learning experience for everyone involved — including the city officials whose codes didn’t precisely fit the situation — though issues ultimately were resolved without sacrificing the building’s historic character or public safety, Mendez said.

Ideally, Dodici’s experience will make it easier for the next entrepreneur who comes along, he said. Pensa estimated that 10 to 12 new restaurants and bars will open downtown in the next five years, adding “this is just the beginning.”

“We never know what we can leverage for downtown until people start looking in this direction instead of looking north, and seeing what buildings are available,” Sevier said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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