During an extended tour of Italy five years ago, Joseph Ozbey ate lunch at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, a pizzeria in Naples, made famous not only because of its legendary pizza, but because it was also featured in the film “Eat, Pray, Love,” starring Julia Roberts. The restaurant serves only two types of pizza Margherita or Marinara. A simple concept, but the restaurant made a big impression on Ozbey. In fact, he was so intrigued by the restaurant’s authenticity and preservation of tradition, Ozbey went back the same day for dinner. Only natural ingredients. No fancy toppings or elaborate menus.
A place where eating pizza is savored and appreciated.
Because of the pizzeria’s popularity, patrons take a number and wait, typically 40-45 minutes. While he waited, Ozbey shopped and explored the streets of old Naples and then returned for what he calls the ideal Neapolitan pizza—a delicious sauce, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella, and a slightly charred crust. Perfection. And it was this authentic dining experience in Naples, the birthplace of pizza, that inspired a restaurant nearly 4,800 miles away: Cugino Forno.
Ozbey and his cousins, Yilmaz Guver and Adam Aksoy, opened Cugino Forno at Revolution Mill in Greensboro in March 2017. Two years later, the cousins recently opened a second location in Winston-Salem. Located in Bailey Power Plant next to Incendiary Brewing Co., Cugino Forno brings authentic Neapolitan pizza to the Innovation Quarter and treats patrons to an Italian experience, but without the hefty price tag that comes with a transatlantic crossing.
When I see people leaving with a smile on their face, it just makes my day.
Why the Twin City? “The answer is actually very simple,” Ozbey says. “Our customers and our friends requested it. We received so many messages, phone calls, text messages and emails saying, ‘You should come to Winston,’ and so here we are.”
The cousins know that a great experience is about so much more than great, authentic Italian pizza (although they have that in spades). To them, inviting people to their restaurant is like inviting them into their homes, and they treat their customers like family.
“We wanted to start something where we could truly serve the best pizza and the best salads with the best customer service,” Ozbey says. “I want people to say ‘wow’ when they leave. ‘Wow’ with the food, ingredients, the customer service, the experience.”
An Italian Experience
Look for the Carolina-blue Vespa and two pastel-colored bicycles near the main entrance of Cugino Forno—a nod to scooter- and bike-friendly Naples.
“We really want people to feel like they’re in Italy when they come here,” Ozbey says. “But you don’t need to bring your passports. You don’t need to get a flight. It’s an escape.”
It’s no coincidence that both Cugino Forno locations are in renovated historic buildings. Ozbey’s vision, restaurants with character and charisma, wouldn’t work well in a modern space. The blemished walls invoke nostalgia, and Italy is after all, “Old Country.”
In Italian, cugino means cousin. Forno? It means oven, named for the focal point inside the 5,800-square-foot restaurant—two 7,000-pound wood-fired ovens, handmade in Naples. Fueled by hickory and oak, the ovens are never extinguished and with heat that reaches up to 1,100 degrees, pizzas are cooked in a remarkable 90 seconds—don’t blink, or you just might miss your dinner being cooked right in front of you.
The pizzeria’s walls are simply adorned with colorful flags and wide-screen TVs for soccer matches, giving the place a very European feel. A colorful row of soccer jerseys hangs from the ceiling while freshly split wood for the ovens sits near pallets of imported flour and an abundance of canned tomatoes.
“Our ingredients, I can confidently say, are the best ingredients money can buy from around the world,” Ozbey proudly states.
Most of those ingredients come directly from Naples and the surrounding area. The flour comes from a third-generation mill founded in 1924, and the San Marzano tomatoes are so delicious you can eat them right out of the can, according to Ozbey.
You’ll find 12 specialty pizzas on the menu, including classic Margeritha and Marinara. Meat lovers will enjoy the Supremo Italiano with pepperoni, Italian sausage and ham, but there’s also a veggie pizza and the Bianca with ricotta, basil, garlic and buffalo mozzarella, the mainstay ingredient for all of Cugino Forno’s pies.
For lighter fare, guests can try one of the salads such as the Verona with a fresh spring mix, a homemade apricot dressing, bleu cheese and blueberries, or the Caprese, a simple Italian salad sans greens with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil.
And for dessert?
“Sometimes people talk more about our cannoli than our pizza,” Ozbey says with a laugh.
The ever-popular cannoli are made in-house, and cakes and cupcakes are made locally as well. And Italian ice cream lovers, will find imported gelato prominently displayed in a rotating freezer with an assortment of flavors.
But there’s more to Cugino Forno than its authentic Neapolitan pizza and desserts. Dining at Cugino Forno is an experience designed to encourage connections.
“Everything tastes better when people are together,” Ozbey says. “We want people to sit together. When I think of my childhood, all the good memories, everything great happened around the dining room table.”
Like the Greensboro location, patrons at Cugino Forno sit at long picnic-style tables designed for up to 10 people instead of more intimate seating. Ozbey says the arrangement works well because it sparks conversation, even friendships. It’s a scenario he sees frequently, especially when two families who don’t know each other sit at the same table or near each other.
“At first, the kids start talking to each other. Then, the moms and dads start talking to each other. I think that’s just amazing.”
Even the food is meant to be shared between families and friends, and the portions are generous.
“People are coming here with their hard-earned money,” Ozbey says. “They are expecting something nice, something good. We’d rather have people take food home or share it instead of wondering why the portions are small.”
In addition to ample seating inside the restaurant, there’s outdoor seating in the Coal Pit of the former power plant, an ideal location for people working and living in the Innovation Quarter and downtown Winston-Salem to each lunch or dinner and spend time with colleagues, friends and family. And with Incendiary Brewing Co. as a next-door neighbor, the location will undoubtedly become a hotspot for meeting new people.
The restaurant is not only a place for customers to make connections, but being a successful entrepreneur means fostering meaningful relationships, too. Ozbey is appreciative of not only the friendships he builds with customers, but also with his staff.
“If you open a business and hire 10 people, automatically, you add another 10 people to your family,” Ozbey says. “You become a family. They bring something different to your life … different cultures and backgrounds, and they are family.”
Owning his own business comes with risks, good days and bad days, but overall, Ozbey can’t imagine doing anything else, and his passion for Cugino Forno is evident. He loves what he does.
“When I see people coming here, having a delicious slice of pizza and leaving with a smile on their face, it just makes my day.”