Pizza to the Rescue – Q&A w/ Riki Tagliapietra of Cut Stone

“There’s nothing like sharing food with the community and delivering happiness through flavor. We get to share so many joyful moments with people every day and I can’t imagine many more jobs with such instant gratification.” – Riki Tagliapietra

In this captivating interview, Riki Tagliapietra recounts his extensive and varied career in the hospitality industry, from his early days at Common Grounds to co-founding Cut Stone with his wife Jandel. Their shared passion for hospitality led them to transform a fire truck into a mobile wood-fired pizza business, bringing a taste of Italy to their hometown of Kenosha. Through innovation and community dedication, Riki and Jandel have built a beloved local eatery known for its unique Neapolitan-inspired pizzas and vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.

Can you give us a rundown on your long and successful history in the hospitality business?
I (Riki) first started in hospitality by working for Bobbi at Common Grounds. They weren’t hiring so I just showed up and took the trash out every night until they let me work there. Many jobs and lives later, I was working at the Kenosha Hospital Emergency room when I was convinced to try and become a police officer. During my last year of school and final interview process with KPD my favorite coffee shop (The Nook) shut down suddenly and based on past experience with Bobbi at CG, I decided to re-open it. It was a fun year of learning a TON about the business side of hospitality that ended The Nook but began a longer restaurant career. I joined Sazzy B as a bartender and eventually worked my way into becoming their Director of Operations for the Grease & Honey Restaurant group. I worked with them all through covid and after that hard hustle, decided to try my hand at a desk job which… clearly wasn’t my Jam.


Jandel is also a life-long hospitality pro. She put in a lot of years at the “Mike’s” group as well as working as a manager at Kaiser’s for many years before it changed ownership.

Throughout our respective journeys we both fell in love with hospitality and… each other as a result. Now we get to combine our different experience and skill sets into our own awesome little pizza business.

During the pandemic you and your wife Jandel, started making pasta in your home kitchen, what inspired that?
Honestly, probably the fact that we’re crazy. We were both working non-restaurant jobs with me at and Jandel teaching for KUSD. While we both had great experiences in other industries… not making and serving food was weird so we started a little pasta side hustle to keep ourselves involved in the industry we love.

What motivated you to go with a fire truck?
Who wouldn’t want to own a firetruck? We looked at a few other pizza truck options but when we saw a fire truck with an oven on it.. We accidentally pushed up our business plan by a year out of pure, child-like excitement.

How did you find your fire truck? And how many did you look at before getting the one you have?
We had been looking at a lot of wood-fired pizza trucks and ended up on quite a few sales lists which sent us emails about new offerings. We had just been browsing until an email came through with a picture of a fire truck with an oven on it and we both decided that we should probably at least go take a  look at it. Clearly… we were smitten, and now we’re full-time fire truck pizza makers.

What went into modifying the fire truck to turn it into a wood burning oven? Or was it already set to go?
I always tell people that we’re way better at making pizza than building food trucks. Our truck was built over three years by an incredibly talented gentleman named Mike Izzo in Medina Ohio. He custom built the truck as a retirement project that simply had bad timing. By the time the truck was finished, covid hit and he had some family obligations and was never able to use the truck. We were lucky enough to meet him and his wife and after discussing our plans and recipes, they decided we were worthy of such an awesome vehicle and we purchased it from them on the spot.

Can you give use a rundown on what kind of fire truck you have? What is the history behind it?
The truck is a 1993 Spartan Fire Engine that served the community of Orange Village Ohio for over 20 years before being retired and replaced. After being retired the truck was purchased by Mike Izzo who completely redesigned and rebuilt it as a food truck, replacing the water storage tank with a full kitchen and adding a custom build oven where the pumps used to be.

What was the conversation like when you told people you were going to buy a fire truck and make pizzas on it?
Luckily we live in a great city full of “midwest nice” folks who were pleasant enough not to tell us how nuts we are.

Take us back to that first time you brought the fire truck out for an event? What went right and what went haywire? And what did you learn from the experience?
Oh god, Day 1 was a wreck. The night before our first planned event, our intended venue changed plans and we had to find another location on incredibly short notice. Luckily Laura from The Fresh Bar and Andy Pitts were amazing and allowed us to join The Fresh Bar in their Downtown Kenosha lot which turned into a wonderful relationship. That night we made fresh pasta and prepped ingredients until 4 am at Kenosha Ice Arena who graciously allowed us to use  their “snack shop” kitchen. After a short nap, we woke up first thing to head downtown and the fire truck battery was dead. We jump started it with a 1969 Pontiac and made it to our destination. Once we made it honestly, things went pretty well. We sold a lot of pizza and pasta and had a great time. When we returned home though we learned the best first day lesson possible… always lock the food truck refrigerator door… Everything we had left over, including several gallons of a beef ragu fell out of the refrigerator and bounced all over the kitchen creating a spectacular mess. But hey, we got better.

After doing events with the fire truck, you decided to open a full restaurant in Downtown Kenosha? Was that always the plan? Your dining area has a unique and upscale look to it, what was the inspiration for the design?
When we took over the Downtown Kenosha space, we had only intended to use it as a prep kitchen space and did that for almost a full year. The building we’re in is eventually slotted to be demolished to make room for a large apartment complex and the longer that plan has been delayed, the more we have added to the space. We’re still very hesitant to use the “R” word (restaurant) as we still do most of our cooking on the fire truck, but the extra kitchen space and dining room allow us the ability to get a lot more creative with our menu and that’s been pretty awesome. The upscale and unique design is a direct result of Jandel being far better at making things look nice than me. Our building has a really unique layout and she did an incredible job of making our dining room feel like home.

Cut Stone recently won the 2023 “Mobile Pizza Business of the Year” award from No. 1 trade publication for pizzeria owners and operators, Pizza Today. Tell us what that means to you to be recognized in such high esteem only a few years in the pizza bizz?
We were pretty surprised, and excited, I’m pretty sure I yelled out loud when we got the email. We make really different style of pizza than the typical regional styles of Kenosha, Milwaukee and Chicago so it’s always amazing when we get positive feedback, especially from high levels in the industry. Beyond that, we LOVE this city so much and we are incredibly proud to read the word Kenosha in a national publication. We’re so happy any time we get to tell the world how awesome our hometown is.
Author’s Note: For more on this award CLICK HERE

What is this Pizza brunch thing I am hearing all about?
It’s Pizza… for brunch. Hahaha. We are often booked or out of town on weekends which is why we’re generally closed on Saturdays. When we find ourselves with an open Saturday, we open up the shop from 9 til 2 and offer a really fun menu of breakfast pizzas and cocktails in addition to our standard menu. It’s a ton of fun and people love the specialty breakfast items. We try our best to host one pizza brunch a month when we can. Keep a close eye on our social media to know when they’re happening.

Besides pizza, what else does Cut Stone offer?
On the truck, we’re pretty much just pizza these days plus a few desserts, but in the shop, our full menu always offers salads, appetizers, and amazing handmade desserts. Other than pizza, our top selling item is the Wood-fired Meatballs. Jandel is a meatball perfectionist and creates incredible flavors with a custom meat blend from Hometown Meats and only fresh herbs. They are served in scratch-made marinara with toasted Paeilli’s bread. We also try to offer other options as specials like a night for calzones and pasta nights during the winter.

With some many great pizza joints in Kenosha, why start a PIZZA business?
Kenosha has so many incredible pizzerias that we absolutely love, but no-one was was making the style of pizza we both missed most whenever we return from trips to Italy. Jandel bought me a small wood-fired oven for home and we started experimenting with different flours, recipes, and preparations for fun which turned into having our friends and family over for dinners which inspired us to share our love for wood-fired pizza with the city. They style is so different that we thought most Kenoshans would think we were absolutely crazy, but instead we’ve gotten so much love from this awesome city that we just keep adding more and more to what we do.

Cut Stone has collaborated with/ some great local business-like Mr. Wings, East View Coffee & Tenuta’s.  Will you continue to partner with other local businesses?
Of course. To me, one of the best things about this city compared to anywhere else in the world is our high concentration of unique, locally owned independent businesses. Every one of us who lives here or visits needs to make every effort to make sure that continues. You can get Starbucks or Raising Canes in any chain-filled suburb on earth, you can only get the world class flavors of Mr. Wings or the conscious quality of East View here. Small business is the true life-blood of this community and our business mentality is that we either survive and succeed together or fail alone.

Can you explain your Neapolitan crust and why you decide to go with that for your dough? Also how do you create that tasteful perfect dough of yours?
Traditional Neapolitan pizza is the original Italian pizza. It’s known for a soft, fresh baked bread outer crust and an impossibly thin center and it’s only achievable at extremely high temperatures. We like to call our pizza “neapolitan inspired” or my favorite coined term “Kenosha-politan”. We aim for a flavorful, light, airy crust in the neapolitan style, but we cook the bottom of our pizza a bit longer for a crust in between traditional neapolitan, which should be so floppy you can fold it in 4ths, and a crispy Kenosha style pub pizza. We like to think we’ve found the perfect balance, you’re still going to need to fold your slice, but it will still have some char on the bottom as well.

Your name Cut Stone has an interesting meaning behind it, can you tell us how the name can be? And were there any other names that you almost went with?
It’s the literal translation of my family name, Tagliapietra. We wanted to honor and acknowledge the history and traditions of our Italian family, but with modern ingredients, preparation, and recipes. Also, if we put “Tagliapietra” on the sign no one would ever be able to pronounce our business name or type it into google maps.

Your wood fired calzones are to die for! My personal favorite, what is your secret to making these so tasteful?
Our calzones are delicious because, just like our pizzas, they’re made with the best ingredients available and then fired with local wood. We use the same dough recipe as our pizzas for calzones, but we get to choose different toppings to stuff them with since they are protected from the high heat of the oven in a little pocket of deliciousness. Since we only cook with a wood fire, we’re able to cook calzones the traditional way which creates a perfect crust in ¼ the time that it takes to cook a calzone in a standard restaurant oven.

How do you maintain the perfect temperate for wood burning cooking?
Just like the intricacies of making the perfect dough and sauce, running the oven with only wood is a bit of an art form. To cook well, we need a lot of heat from slow burning coals, and a flame to keep that heat moving. It takes us a minimum of 2 hours to get our oven to cooking temperature and then after that it’s careful dance of adding different types of wood at different times to keep the bricks hot enough, but not too hot.

Is there a special kind of wood you use? And how much wood do you need for a typical night at the restaurant?
We use a combination of oak and ash. Oak burns slowly at high temperatures and ash keeps our flame burning to distribute the heat throughout the oven. We don’t really measure how much wood we go through in a night but it takes a lot to get the oven to temperature and after that we add in a log every 30 minutes or so depending on how busy we are.

What do you love about the restaurant business?
What’s not to love? There’s nothing like sharing food with the community and delivering happiness through flavor. We get to share so many joyful moments with people every day and I can’t imagine many more jobs with such instant gratification.How important is it to you to source local or specialty ingredients in your Italian dishes?
Sourcing quality ingredients is the most important part of our menu. The magic in real Italian cooking doesn’t come from complicated preparation or wild recipes. Simple, fresh, quality ingredients combined with care and attention turn a simple meal into a memory.

Why a wood fire pizza business?
To bring the flavors and experience we love from Italy back home to share with our community.

How do you manage working outdoor events with the fire truck and run the restaurant?
We’ll let you know when we figure it out? Hahaha. We currently operate with one oven (and it’s attached to a fire truck) so we have never been able to be open on the truck and at the storefront at the same time. We have some big plans in the works so hopefully that will change soon, but for now, our storefront hours will adjust a bit once food truck season begins.

What is/was your favorite event you vended at?
We get to attend A LOT of awesome events but our favorites are easy. Our favorite venue to work with is definitely Petrifying Springs Biergarten. Those guys are great and we all work together really well to make Tuesday nights a pretty awesome experience. Favorite event though, that’s 100% Kenosha Pride. We have an absolute blast every year at Pride and look forward to it for the 364 days after it’s done.

Does Cut Stone do Private events?
We do! Our schedule gets pretty full, pretty early, but when we have gaps in large public events we love getting to bring the Engine 4 fire truck to parties and celebrations.

It is a known fact that the building you are currently in will be torn down for an apartment complex, what are your plans for relocating? Staying downtown? And are the rumors true you will be working with Church & Market and moving to the building connected to it by the parking garage?
We do plan to stay Downtown. We may or may not be working with some awesome friends on a plan for our next location, but we’ll wait until a little later on before we show our whole hand.

What else is next for Cut Stone? Second fire truck? ambulance? AMC Pacer?
I’ve wanted an ambulance since we started… someday when we reclaim some free time we’ve got a brilliant ambulance idea.

Why do you love Downtown Kenosha?
This could be it’s own blog. The reasons are countless but I’ll keep it simple. The more we travel and the more of the world we get to see, the more we appreciate this city. It’s easy to take our incredible small businesses and spectacular lakefront for granted when you spend your life here, but trust me, some of the most coveted cities on earth don’t have half the charm of Downtown Kenosha. When you see this city through the eyes of a visitor, it’s breathtaking.

What makes your business stand out among the many great businesses in downtown Kenosha?
Standing out has never been a problem for us… we make pizzas in a giant fire truck… Besides that glaring difference, I think our people make us awesome. We’re fortunate enough to work alongside some of the best people in the industry and their personalities make the pizza taste that much better.

What is something about Downtown Kenosha that you would like for new residents to know?
First, despite an illogical lack of signage, the parking garage is free. Second, walk in to every shop downtown, you’ll find something incredible every time.

What are some of the things you personally like to do in downtown Kenosha?
We’re clearly food people, so we love to go out to eat downtown and spend time near the lake.

How do you stay updated on industry trends and changes?
We travel often and eat a lot of pizza. That and of course, Pizza Today magazine.

What is a day in the life like for you?
We get to the shop after bringing our daughter to school and start prep for the day. Between dough and our other time consuming recipes, we work on prep until we open at 4:30 and then spend the night serving awesome food to cool people. If we’re not here working, we’re likely in a hockey rink with our super cool goalie daughter.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as business owner?
Time. There is never enough time.

Where do your recipes come from?
Tons of experimentation. We’re obviously inspired by tradition, but Jandel spends tons of time perfecting our versions of everything. We also like to have fun, so many of our most popular specials are based on wanting to make something delicious that is also a good time, like the “let’s taco ‘bout it” pizza.

What is your favorite podcast?
Ktown Connects, obvi. Seconded by The Modernist Pizza podcast.
Check out Riki’s appearance on the Ktown Connects podcast! Listen on Apple Podcast or Spotify 

Cut Stone is located at 5925 6th Avenue A 53140 262) 358-6484
Also check out their event calender CLICK HERE
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Q&A, Photos & Concept by Donny Stancato • Edited by Meridith Jumisko & Donny Stancato