For most 21-year-olds, life’s main objectives include trying not to sleep through your early class, hoping your roommate doesn’t eat that last Hot Pocket and wondering whether or not you will be able to scrounge up enough change from under the cushions of the frat house couch to hit the bar for dollar beer night.
But Remi Karpuzi has bigger things to worry about … like running his own restaurant.
That’s right, Karpuzi is the owner of Karpuzi’s Pizza, a new shop located on the corner of Ventnor and North Harrisburg avenues in the south end of Atlantic City. Karpuzi’s occupies the former site of Chico & Son’s, which closed its Atlantic City doors last year and remains open in Northfield.
Though this young businessman may not look the part of your typical pizza shop owner, he has a lifetime of experience on his side.
“I have been cooking since I was a baby,” Karpuzi says with a laugh. “Ever since I started speaking, I started cooking. All of the recipes that we do at Karpuzi’s came from me … the sauce … everything. I’ve always had a passion for cooking.”
Karpuzi’s recipes may be his own, but his father and business partner, Mentor Karpuzi, laid the groundwork for his passion both as a cook and a business owner. A true “mentor” indeed.
“My father came here from Albania in 1988 and he had pizzerias all over the place,” Karpuzi says. “He owned Uncle Gino’s in Ventnor and another one in Atlantic City, but as he got older he didn’t want to keep running the day-to-day business of a pizza shop. But I did. So we talked and he said, ‘Are you sure? It’s very hard. Cooking is one thing, running a business is another. It’s no joke.’ And I said, ‘I know. I’m into it.’ So he went in 50/50 with me on Karpuzi’s and gave me a shot.”
While most pizza shops offer near identical menus, Karpuzi’s breaks a bit from the pack. While you can get your standard pies and a few pasta dishes, the menu doesn’t read like an old-school Italian pizza joint. And that’s just the way Karpuzi wants it.
“Everybody else is very old school with menus full of stuff like fried calamari and all kinds of things that have been done a thousand times,” he says. “So I try to do some different things. I go up to North Jersey and New York (to find inspiration).”
While the menu itself is a large one, Karpuzi’s keeps each subsection with only a few options so as not to overwhelm the customers with choices.
“For our appetizers, we have fries, garlic knots, wings and tenders. We don’t have clams, calamari and a ton of other things. We want you to be able to easily grab an app and maybe a burger or a pizza. We don’t want anyone getting stuck on one section for too long (trying to decide).”
Of course the star of the show at any pizzeria is the pizza, and Karpuzi’s is no different. Again they stand out a bit from your average pizza shop in that they use a garlic crust for all of their pizzas, which adds flavor to the dough and elevates each pie. Standard pies include plain and white options ($10 each), along with Sicilian ($18.50) and gluten-free ($12.50) options. But the gourmet pies are where the real fun starts, with such tasty creations as the Soprano Pizza ($14.50) with chicken cutlet, portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, broccoli rabe and garlic; or the Mexicano ($14.50) with chorizo, jalapenos, onion, tomatoes, cotija cheese and dried cilantro.
One of the most popular of all their pizzas is the grandma pie, a square, thin-crust pie topped with mozzarella, basil and chunky tomato sauce that falls somewhere between a standard slice and a Sicilian. Grandma pies are catching on in South Jersey at the moment, “but they have been really popular in New York for a while,” Karpuzi says.
A whole section of white pies is also offered for those anti-tomato folks, as well as an array of strombolis and rolls.
Between two buns
Karpuzi’s trips to North Jersey have resulted in a whole list of Fat Sandwiches showing up on the menu. For those unfamiliar with this concept, a Fat Sandwich is a sub stacked with all varieties of indulgent meats, appetizers and sauces. In fact, a typical sandwich might have chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, cheesesteak and french fries all on one roll. The concept was invented at Rutgers University decades ago, back when they used to have a parking lot filled with food trucks — lovingly nicknamed “The Grease Trucks” — that would serve these type of sandwiches to college students with little concern for their waistlines.
“Fat sandwiches are a big college town thing, and with Stockton just down the street, I saw that as a big opportunity,” Karpuzi says.
Some of the Fat Sandwich options include the Fat Osprey ($12.50), which has cheesesteak, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, bacon, fries and honey mustard; the Fat Italian ($12.50) with breaded chicken, meatballs, mozzarella sticks and fries topped with provolone cheese and marinara; the Fat Drunk Guy ($12.50) with hamburger, cheesesteak, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, fries ketchup and mayo; and there is even a breakfast version called the Fat Morning Bird ($12.50) which comes with eggs, bacon, fries, American cheese, ketchup and mayo.
And though it can be tough to pass up one of those incredibly Instagram-worthy Fat Sandwiches, don’t sleep on classics like the chicken parm sub, available in classic or spicy varieties.
“It’s probably our most popular sandwich,” Karpuzi says. “Everyone loves it. I think it’s the fresh basil that makes it stand out. And, of course, the chicken itself. We only use fresh cutlets.”
Another favorite is their cheesesteak, a classic made the right way with Cheez Whiz topped with fried onions on a fresh- baked Rando roll.
In fact, all sandwiches at Karpuzi’s are made with fresh-baked rolls from Rando Bakery. But Karpuzi’s doesn’t offer the standard A.C. sub roll. That would be too old-school.
“We get them specially made from Rando, and we don’t use the hard roll, we use a hoagie roll,” he says. “Everybody uses the hard roll. Not us. Our rolls are different and not as dry as the usual A.C. rolls — they are really good.”
A list of burgers fills its own subsection, and they surpass any expectations you might have for what a burger from a pizza shop might be like. Served on perfect brioche buns, you can build your own or pick from fun options like the Texas Burger ($12.50) with pepper jack cheese, BBQ sauce and caramelized onions; or the Cali Burger ($12.50) with white cheddar, avocado, fried egg, bacon, lettuce and tomato.
A smidgen of tradition
Not everything on the menu at Karpuzi’s skews tradition. The entrees featured on the menu all come with a pair of garlic knots and your choice of soup or salad. Selections include favorites like spaghetti and meatballs ($20) and other legendary old-school dishes such as shrimp Francaise ($20), chicken alfredo ($20) and chicken marsala ($20) among others.
Keeping it in the family
While Remi Karpuzi is the co-owner and face of the business, he manages to surround himself with the best help possible — his family. His sister Elmedina does a bit of everything, helping out with anything that needs to get done.
“A lot of people have trouble being in a family business. But for us, we grew up very close and we get along perfectly. We almost never butt heads,” Karpuzi says.
Although his skills are obvious in both the kitchen and with the customers, as a young man running a business, it can only help to have an experienced pizzeria owner as your father.
“My dad … he helps me with everything,” Karpuzi says emphatically. “When I started, I only knew how to cook. I didn’t know anything else, so I was like the chess piece and my dad was the player. If a grill goes out I don’t know who to call, but he does. He is the brains behind everything, I’m just the muscle.”