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June 10, 2013

Cooking Channel features local pizzeria’s unique pies

By Joshua Gordon
C & G Staff Writer

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Cooking Channel features local pizzeria’s unique pies
Jennifer Stark, left, and Maureen McNamara, owners of Amici’s Pizza & Living Room in Berkley, were featured on the Cooking Channel’s “Pizza Cuz” after being selected by the network as one of the best pizzerias in the country. Unique recipes, like the roasted red pepper with feta cheese pizza shown here, have helped make the restaurant a popular dinner destination in Berkley.

BERKLEY — For a former music manager and a massage therapist, the pizza business didn’t look like the perfect fit.

But Jennifer Stark and Maureen McNamara, friends since of the age of 14 when they met in high school in Royal Oak, bought Amici’s Pizza & Living Room in Berkley from Stark’s brother, George, eight years ago after Stark decided to step away from the music business.

When George said he was going to sell his business, Stark went to McNamara and, after she closed up shop as a massage therapist, the two pooled their money to buy the restaurant.

“In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to own a restaurant someday, and then it came to fruition,” Stark, 50, said. “Maureen and I were customers at the time and we knew what it was, what a gem it was. Maureen had a marketing background and I thought we’d make a great partnership.”

On June 3, Amici’s Pizza & Living Room was featured on “Pizza Cuz,” a show on the Cooking Channel on which two cousins go around the country and try the nation’s best pizza. Stark and McNamara were featured in the episode titled “Girl Power,” along with two other female-owned pizzerias.

While it took both ladies four decades to enter the restaurant business as owners, their hard work has paid off. Both women said being on a cooking show was “surreal,” as being restaurant owners has become something they love and enjoy doing every day.

“We do more than pizza here,” McNamara, 51, said. “We don’t have any (televisions) and there is lots of talking in a small space, so people get to know each other. I have two kids who have both worked in the business and this place has become like our second home.”

The two haven’t changed much since they took over operations of the restaurant, but that is why they have been successful, Stark said. From the restaurant’s Caribbean jerk chicken pizza with peanut butter-based sauce, which was featured on the episode, to the always-popular portabella mushroom pizza, Amici’s has something for everyone.

“I think what we do here is unique and I think it is flavors and ingredients that people wouldn’t necessarily think to do at home,” Stark said. “In my mind, a mark of a good restaurant is a place you go to and you have a new experience you wouldn’t be able to do in your own home.

“The same reason we bought the place is the same reason people are still here. We didn’t break it.”

Amici’s was contacted by the Cooking Channel last November via email asking if they would be interested in being part of “Pizza Cuz.” After sending in a one-minute video that showed off the workers and place of business, Stark and McNamara were selected to be part of the show, and the filming took place Feb. 5.

Stark said the preparation for the shoot was the hardest part, and someone could have eaten pizza off of the restaurant’s floor because it was so clean. For McNamara, after the initial butterflies, the shooting went well and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the restaurant on television.

“We watch those shows, but you never think you are going to be on them, and then you see yourself,” McNamara said. “We had family in different parts of the country watching it at the same time — it was great. And the pizza looked great; I wanted to eat it.”

The two put out a notice on their Facebook page letting people know a show would be filming at the restaurant at 4 p.m. Feb. 5 and they were looking for people to fill up the restaurant. A lot of regulars and friends showed up for the shooting, including Berkley Mayor Phil O’Dwyer.

The episode featured the restaurant running as usual, as well as interviews with both Stark and McNamara, and it highlighted Stark preparing two pizzas. Stark said she works in the kitchen quite often, but there isn’t a job in the whole restaurant the two owners don’t know how to do.

“I’m in the kitchen and Maureen is out front more, but she helps with food and I help out here, so there is no defined jobs,” she said. “You learn something new every day, even though we have been doing this for so long. There is not one job at Amici’s we have not done. I’ve waited tables, I’ve bartended, I’ve made pizzas and I’ve done dishes and cleaned the bathroom.”

Stark’s brother started Amici’s as a take-out restaurant in Royal Oak, but his move to Berkley paid dividends for Stark and McNamara. Being part of a small town has been a great experience and they were glad they could highlight Berkley in a positive manner.

“The people in Berkley are really supportive and they take pride in their businesses, and everyone is just a pleasure to talk to,” Stark said. “Maureen and I both recognized what this place was and the room itself is a very warm, comforting place for a lot of people. We are just happy this is a special place for so many people.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Joshua Gordon at jgordon@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1077.