by Ashley Lodato
Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
Perhaps more so than any other cuisine, Italian cooking is imbued with the rich and comforting flavors of love, and the pizza and other dishes that come out of the Nonavo Pizza kitchen are a vibrant example of food steeped in this tradition. For chef Joey Chmiko and his partner and wife, Alder Suttles, Nonavo Pizza has been a true labor of love, from its original vision to every last Neapolitan-style pie that comes out of its wood-fired oven.
Located in downtown Vancouver, WA, Nonavo Pizza opened in 2016 but was a potent idea percolating in Chmiko’s and Suttles’s heads for five years before that. Shortly after the couple began dating, Suttles, a visual artist, gave Chmiko a watermelon smencil (a scented pencil) and asked him to draw a picture of the restaurant he would one day love to own and operate. Chmiko drew what would eventually become Nonavo Pizza; that original drawing now hangs on the wall of the restaurant.
Being a pizza chef was not new to Chmiko. His first pizza gig was working with Ria Ramsey at Pizzetta 211 in San Francisco, which he says changed the way he cooked. “Farm direct, best products you can afford, care and love of the food,” he says, “Seeing that in a restaurant setting was the pivot point for me.” Pizzetta, says Chmiko, “was a pizza restaurant, yes, but much more also.” His experience there shaped his philosophy at Nonavo Pizza.
Born in Trenton and raised in Florence (New Jersey, that is), Chmiko grew up with celebrations filled with food. “All the holidays were feasts with food and family,” he says. “Even when someone died, there was a tremendous amount of food. Eat your feelings kind of thing, I suppose. We were never shooed from the kitchen. More like, ‘come help me stretch this strudel dough until we can see the tablecloth through it.'”
Meanwhile, Suttles’s first job was in a burrito shop, and contrary to the cheese-and-sour-cream-laden cholesterol bombs ubiquitous in that genre, these burritos were made with an intentional focus on nutrition and quality. “The food and how it was cooked was very important to the owner,” says Suttles. “It was about transparency and believing that knowledge about where one’s food is from makes for conscious consumers. I respected that.” Suttles prepped and cooked all the food, and had to know about every ingredient. She emerged from that experience a vegan and fought against genetically modified foods. “For me,” she says, “food was political. I felt responsible to make a positive change in the food system of the 1990s.”
Food was and continues to be, social for Suttles as well. “I became an adventuresome home cook, hosting giant dinner parties and feeding all my punk friends. I loved serving people, sharing food, and exploring ideas.”
This dream–Nonavo Pizza–revolves around the enormous tiled wood-fired pizza that is part of the secret sauce in Nonavo’s Neapolitan-style pizza. Although Chmiko doesn’t officially try to be VPN (“Verace Pizza Napoletana“–true Neapolitan-style pizza), it’s “how we naturally go about our shop,” he says, adding “It’s not just Naples, but Italian and just the old way–the proper way–of going about things. Best ingredients, lots of care in the details, and it will yield a great product.”
Oh, and that oven! Chmiko waxes prolific singing the praises of Nonavo’s oven. “The wood oven is a beautiful thing and cooking with wood is beautiful,” he says. “Our oven rocks around 900 degrees and pies cook in just over a minute. Some ovens come with a ‘gas assist’ or are just flat out gas ovens. It’s ok and functional, but still not the same.”
It’s the drying factor, says Chmiko, that makes the difference. “In a gas oven or home oven, it’s very dry and with the temperature being 500-600 degrees there is drying factor in the pie. The dough can get tough and the cheese starts to carmelize or the sauce can get scorched. Grandma-style or pan pies are best for home.” In a wood oven, however, Chmiko explains, “it’s made of materials that hold moisture and the wood is giving off moisture and the pizza is too. On cold days our windows are steamy top to bottom all day! With the short cooking time and other factors, it makes for a pie that is pliable and soft and chewy and still moist in the cornicone, maybe a little crisp on the crust, but not crunchy. Like breaking through the crust on a proper creme brulee, it should be crisp, but yielding.” You should, says Chmiko, be able to fold a pizza in half twice–the classic pizza, which makes the pie compact and easy to eat with one’s hands, and “great for on the-move-consumption,” explains Chmiko. In fact, says Chmiko, for his own lunch he sometimes makes a pie with extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella, and garlic. “When it comes out of the oven,” he says, “I’ll put a green salad on it and roll it up like a burrito and be off with it.”
Chmiko clarifies that wood-fired pizza is not necessarily synonymous with Pizza Napoletana. “You can have a wood oven and run it at 500-600 and get a great pizza out of it, but it’s not that same as what we do,” he says. “You can also get a great pie out of a conventional oven. I’ve done pizza parties with an apartment electric oven, smokes up the whole place, but you can get a good pie.”
Gorgeous as it is, the oven alone is not solely responsible for Nonavo’s superb pizza, however. Chmiko and Suttles both learned early that you can’t make great food without great ingredients, and they’re as committed to quality products for their customers as they are for themselves and their 4-year-old daughter, Frankie. “Food right out of the ground, from the garden, tastes way better,” Chmiko says. “We drive out to farmers markets and farms to pick up produce because we’re too small for most to deliver to us. It would be so much easier to order from a [large food distributor] and get everything delivered, but that’s not how we get down.”
Chmiko admits being “disquieted” by how little many people seem to care about food quality. “There is so much crap in processed foods,” he says. “I shake my head when I try to read ingredient labels. We educate ourselves and our staff and pass that along to customers as much as possible.” When Chmiko and Suttles hear people on the street exclaiming about new restaurants in town–“we love that place, it’s so cheap!”–it stings because while Nonavo is solidly affordable, a pizza costs more than it would in a mainstream pizza joint, due in large part to food quality. Chmiko says he has “gotten away from verbal battles about it,” however; “We [cook with] the best we can afford, and if people can dig it, that’s the best.”
Chmiko and Suttles certainly do “dig it”–quite literally, in the dirt. The restaurant has an edible garden, maintained by Suttles, which supplies the venue and kitchen with flowers and veggies to the tune of about 500# of tomatoes and 8 months of edible flower and herbs each year. “More and more we try to just do what we love to do,” says Chmiko. “If people are picking up what we’re putting down, that’s a great thing.”
Equally versatile are Chmiko and Suttles, whose food interests are not limited to restaurant life. “We donate to local, national, and global non-profits as much as possible–over $6500 in 2017,” says Chmiko. “We attend and speak at food functions frequently like slow food events, Clark College, food hubs, local high schools, and the like.” But the couple is quick to add, “Nonavo Pizza wouldn’t exist without the help of our family and friends. our staff, our customers, the farmers and ranchers and suppliers.”
Still, this busy couple manages to keep things in perspective and prioritize. “Our days are full and sometimes so are our nights, but we still manage to have dinner together, build forts, and have living room dance parties,” says Suttles. “I don’t know if everything is perfectly balanced, but we’re definitely not falling over.”