Issaquah chef prepares pizza for president to eat aboard Air Force One
February 28, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
The unusual delivery order originated far from the Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria restaurants in Issaquah and Seattle — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
The call from the White House to restaurant founder Joe Fugere occurred late Feb. 15, days before President Barack Obama left the capital for a fundraising jaunt to the West Coast. The tight deadline left Fugere and the Tutta Bella team less than 72 hours to overcome culinary, logistical and security challenges to deliver 40 pizzas to Air Force One.
North Bend resident Michael Cisneros, a chef at the Issaquah restaurant, and other Tutta Bella chefs prepared the pizzas for Obama in a loaned outdoor oven beneath a tent on the Paine Field tarmac.
“‘The president won’t be able to stop at Tutta Bella, but if you can bring Tutta Bella to the president, we’ll make it happen,’” Fugere recalled from the White House call.
The team decided to use a 4,000-pound oven at Paine Field to ensure the pizzas reached the president as crisp as possible — rather than after a 30-minute trip from Seattle to Everett.
The setup to cook for the customer-in-chief posed hurdles to Fugere, Cisneros and the other chefs.
“We’ve been making pizzas for years now, and when it comes to the execution of the pizzas, so long as you’ve got your dough right and the oven temperature right and you’ve got all your ingredients there, we all have the skills to make pizzas quickly,” Cisneros said. “Whether it be inside or outside, it’s the same technique.”
The plans for the special delivery started to coalesce Feb. 16. Fugere set up a command post at the original Tutta Bella in Columbia City to create a menu and address the logistics.
Joyce Morinaka, director of operations for Tutta Bella, did some research and learned Obama is keen on spicy foods.
Executive Chef Brian Gojdics created a pizza using local ingredients — pickled peppers from Seattle-based Mama Lil’s and sausage from Seattle-based Isernio’s — plus Calabrian chilies, roasted peppers, basil mozzarella, Grana Padano and extra-virgin olive oil. (The chilies nod to Fugere’s family roots in Calabria, a region in southern Italy.)
“This is it,” Fugere recalled. “This is a home run.”
The team named the pizza Il Presidente.
“You could eat that pizza cold, and it would still be delicious,” Cisneros said.
Next, Fugere needed to determine the optimum setup to prepare and deliver the pizzas to Air Force One as the jumbo set sat on the Paine Field tarmac behind a fortresslike security cordon.
Bellingham-based Wood Stone lent a portable oven for the Tutta Bella team to use. Fugere, in search of a spot to set up the behemoth, called the Paine Field office.
“Here I call them and say, ‘Hey, by the way, can you think of a place — whether it be someone’s home or a hotel or a parking lot or just anywhere — that would let us park a 4,000-pound oven close to the airport so that we can make these pizzas a little bit fresher?’” he said.
Fugere received clearance moments later to set up the oven on the tarmac — outside the gate but not far from Air Force One. The airport also loaned a forklift to unload the oven.
‘Just like on TV’
The next day, after Obama delivered a speech about U.S. manufacturing to Boeing employees inside the cavernous aircraft assembly facility next to the airport, Fugere and the chefs reached Paine Field. Then, as Obama headed to Eastside fundraisers in Bellevue and Medina, chefs started sliding pizzas into the 800-degree oven.
Gathered beneath a tent on a rain-soaked afternoon as wind swept across the pavement, Cisneros and the others prepared Il Presidente, Margherita and other pizzas for Obama and White House staffers.
“When we pulled the pizza out of the oven and cut it up and tasted it — because it was the first thing we’d eaten all day — it was like, ‘Oh my God, these pizzas are so delicious. They’re so good fresh out of the oven,’” Cisneros said. “I just wish that we could get that product to the president.”
The team loaded the 40 pizzas, salad and tiramisu into fire-engine-red Mini Coopers borrowed from Seattle Mini and headed to the gate. Fugere initially planned to do a delivery to Secret Service personnel at the gate, but after some calls and a security check, agents allowed the Mini Cooper caravan to proceed to the plane.
“I’m looking at them thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is just like on TV,’” Cisneros said after seeing earpiece-outfitted Secret Service agents emerged from a black vehicle.
The delivery culminated beneath the polished fuselage, as Fugere and the chefs handed boxes to U.S. Air Force flight crew members to tote into the cabin.
“Every time we thought we were as close as we were going to get, we got closer,” Fugere said.
Then, the crew asked if the Fugere and others wanted to pose for photographs on the Air Force One steps.
“You ask yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’ These are the stairs to Air Force One,” he said. “We were all kind of thinking, ‘Really? Really? We can climb the stairs? Or are you just teasing us here?’”
Fugere said a White House official described the Tutta Bella pizzas as a hit aboard the plane.
The idea to deliver pizza to the president started percolating in August 2010, after restaurant owner Fugere met Obama at a Seattle roundtable discussion for small business owners.
The president later mentioned the struggle to open a Tutta Bella — albeit not by name — in Issaquah during a Seattle speech. (The speech also included a reference to the former Issaquah Community Bank, the institution behind the loan needed to open the restaurant.)
The president and the pizzaiolo met again the next month as Obama signed a small business assistance package at the White House.
“I still haven’t tasted the pizza, but he promises I’m going to get some at some point,” Obama told Fugere and the East Room audience.
Fugere remained alert for opportunities to serve the president a Neapolitan-style slice, and reached out to the White House after officials announced the Feb. 17 fundraising trip.
Following the delivery to Air Force One, Cisneros and the other chefs prepared about 20 more pizzas for law enforcement officers at Paine Field. Then, the Tutta Bella team lingered at the airport until Obama returned from a Bellevue fundraiser and Air Force One departed for Washington, D.C., in the late afternoon.
“I would have liked to have met Obama, but I started to think to myself, ‘A lot of people met Obama that day, but very, very few were actually on the steps of Air Force One,’” Cisneros said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.