Pi Pizza Truck owner Anthony Calleo could scarcely believe what he was reading. Stuck in traffic on Monday night, he pulled out his phone to glance at Facebook. When he saw a Thrillist headline that made him angry: "Prepare Your Munchies for Papa John's Fritos Chili Pizza."
"I had to read it twice. I was like, 'What?! What?!? Motherfucker.'"
Since 2011, every Pi menu has featured the pie topped with chili-cheese Fritos over housemade Grizzly barbecue sauce and a lot of cheese.
The article explains that pizza mega chain Papa John's has a new item called the "Frito Chili Pizza" that "features a base of chili sauce, along with ground beef, Roma tomatoes, cheddar, mozzarella, onions, and a generous helping of Fritos on top." Author Adam Lapetina ends with the following tag: "Adam Lapetina is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and can't believe he didn't think to put chips on top of pizza before."
While Lapetina may not be much of a creative force when it comes to pizza toppings, any Houston pizza fan knows that Calleo did think of that exact thing. The signature item on his popular food truck is the 420 slice. Since 2011, every Pi menu has featured the pie topped with chili-cheese Fritos over housemade Grizzly barbecue sauce and a lot of cheese.
Calleo admits that he regularly reads menus to find inspiration for pizzas and knows that he can't trademark a recipe. Still, seeing a national chain serving one of his signature items and getting credit for it as though it's an original idea upsets him.
"If any of the (pizzas) on the truck is mine, it’s probably the drunken peach and the 420 slice. It was a snack I used to make myself when I was working at Late Nite Pie and was still a vegetarian," Calleo explains. "I put it on the menu as a joke. After the third day of service, it stopped being a joke. People bought the shit out of it."
Displaying the intelligence he cultivated as a philosophy/theology double major at the University of St. Thomas, Calleo gets a little philosophical about finding one of his menu items at a national chain.
It’s my baby. It bums me out that people like it so much, because we make some really thoughtful, culinarily interesting, fucking fancy food and what we’re most known for is that chili cheese frito grizzly sauce pizza. It is delicious, though. I ate it for years . . . . Seeing some giant, soulless corporate pizza place put that out gets my goat a little bit. I know you can’t trademark a recipe. I’m under no illusions about the riffing that goes on in the food world. I do it myself. But that’s a straight ripoff.
Of course, Calleo has considered the possibility that maybe Papa John's developed the recipe on its own. After all, surely a company that large has a couple of wacky folks in R&D who could have gotten the idea from somewhere other than the consistently positive media attention Pi has received.
"It’s possible I don’t have a right to be upset. I’d listen to an argument about that. I’d take that criticism and chew on it, but, currently, I’m a little pissed off," he says. "Then again, maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with me. Maybe they figured it out on their own. I don’t think so, but I’m open to the possibility. I find it improbable, but possible."
Papa John's did not immediately return a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Calleo is working to find a brick and mortar location. He has a space that he's negotiating on but doesn't want to say where until a lease is signed. "I really like the space. My partners like the space. It’s just a matter of coming to terms on a few issues," he explains.
Any final thoughts?
"If you’re gonna steal something, don’t steal from the mom and pop store, steal from Walmart. I feel like that’s better honor amongst thieves. That’s better sidewalk ethics. Steal from people who can afford it."
Pi Pizza truck is "throwing stones at thrones" on the streets. Follow the truck on Twitter for times and locations.