When you visit Gusano's Chicago-style Pizzeria, be sure to bring along an open mind.

Upon close review of the menu, it's apparent this new Tyler restaurant, 7278 Old Jacksonville Highway, is not your usual fare.

Yes, you can order gooey cheese pizzas and seasoned hot wings here, but there is much more to try, if you dare.

"We are a little different," said Kara Johnston, general manager. "People seem to like it. We are getting wonderful feedback on our Chicago pizzas. We've had people who have been in here five times since we opened."

Not bad, it seems, considering the doors just opened May 18.

The family-friendly sports restaurant specializes in all types of pizza, but there's a growing fan base for its Chicago-style varieties, built backward, starting with a buttery flaky crust.

"First comes the cheese, then the toppings and then the marinara," Ms. Johnston said. "It comes out looking like a pie, a pizza pie."

Gusano's is a franchise operation with sites in Arkansas and Missouri.

Its new presence in Tyler is the second restaurant in Texas, the first located in Texarkana, records show.

Some of the featured recipes come from the food-loving heart of founder Ben Biesenthal, a native of Chicago who attended college in Arkansas, but never forgot his roots.

The first Gusano's opened in 2004, with additional locations in the works.

There are plenty of specialty pizzas from which to choose, plus the opportunity to select and customize your own.

It's rumored the restaurant uses Fritos in some of its dishes.

"That's correct," Ms. Johnston said. "We have an amazing pizza dip, which has cheese, marinara, green peppers, onions and pepperoni, and a really good spinach dip, both served with Fritos."

The spinach dip, coincidently, also features tomatoes and fries, but enough about appetizers.

Gusano's also serves sandwiches, wraps, calzones, salads and oodles of dessert options, if you leave room.

Staffers are noticing mounting enthusiasm for what the restaurant describes as its red sauce pies, especially one called the "dirty bird."

"It's a honey Habanera based pizza sauce," Johnston aid. "It's a little hot, but it's been a popular sauce. In Texas, people like it hot anyway."

The Tyler eatery features seating for 120 with an outdoor patio, a full bar with 12 beers on tap and 14 big-screen televisions tuned to sports channels.

An open kitchen lets customers watch as their meal is crafted by culinary experts, using fresh ingredients prepared each day.

On a recent visit, prep cook Matt Brown was found in the hot zone, mixing and kneading buckets of dough, while oven master Alonzo Moya was working on pies and watch-dogging cook times.

Kitchen manager Chris Peirce was seen buzzing around, tending to small details to keep the operation flowing smoothly.

"It's fun," he said. "I like making food, I'm a food guy. Actually, I cook so much up here, I don't cook at home. I do like to experiment with different things, putting things together."

There's no particular secret to cooking pizza, he said, but it all boils down to temperature and time. Pies are baked in a 550 degree oven.

"It requires continuous supervision," Peirce said. "You have to know what's going in and what's coming out. You can't mess up."

Gusano's is open seven days a week. Take-out orders are available. Details about special offers, such as $2 Chicago hot dog night and $5 hot wing events can be found by visiting www.gusanospizza.com or calling 903-630-7274.

Reporter

Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.

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