By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
When Pizza Carrello co-owner Ariane Jimison moved to Gillette from Fallon — a small Montana community of about 200 people — she was in culture shock.
Not because Fallon is so much smaller than Gillette, a community of around 33,000 in northeastern Wyoming, but because on her family’s farm, they grew fresh tomatoes and vegetables, and sold local foods like homemade sausages, and smoked turkeys and hams.
“I didn’t know what to think of it,” she said. “I literally could not believe what was in the store for tomatoes. It just blew my mind. I just thought, ‘This is not a tomato.’ It was all just really foreign, bland and weird.”
Shared Passions: Pottery And Baking
At that time in her life, Jimison was a teenager and far more focused on pottery than food.
“I had some really great art teachers and started a little old pottery studio when I was in high school,” she said.
That effort was successful, but Jimison said her love of food was still simmering in the background.
“I was a pretty avid bread baker by my mid-20s,” Jimison said. “And I just kept at it and kept experimenting and trying things.”
The seemingly separate endeavors converged when Jimison got the bright idea to use her pottery skills to build a wood-fired oven to bake her bread.
The wood-fired oven, which is the central feature of Pizza Carrello’s kitchen and right out in the open where customers can see, is a secret ingredient in all the restaurant’s dishes.
“What it does to the food is just mind-blowing,” Jimison said. “The amount of caramelization we’re able to achieve in such a short period of time, you can really taste it. It is a huge difference.”
The mobile, wood-fired oven on a trailer was perfect to take to art festivals, but bread was the wrong product, Jimison realized. Pizza would do better at a festival because it could be a complete meal all by itself.
For a while, the business model was a series of weekend festivals and a pop-up mobile pizza parlor selling out of parking lots, street corners and even, at one time, a downtown Gillette brewery.
The pizzas were shoved into the oven, which was outside, through a window.
“It was really successful, and we had a really hard time just kind of keeping up with demand,” said Jimison, who co-owns the restaurant with Rachel Kalenberg. “But at the same time, we had very few financial resources.
“I was just living in a little trailer park on the edge of town and storing wood in my yard and renting a commercial kitchen space, and just trying to make it work as a food cart.”
Eventually, she hired her brother-in-law and the transformation to a real restaurant began.
“He knew how restaurants work,” she said. “I haven’t a clue how restaurants work. I just know how good food works. They’re very different things.”
For a time, Pizza Carrello occupied what’s now a Domino’s Pizza in Gillette, but they weren’t able to save enough money to buy that location and rehabilitate it.
At first, it felt like a setback, especially when they could not get any other facilities to give them a chance.
But it ultimately turned to be a blessing in disguise, one that landed the unique pizza outlet in a much larger space and a better location at 601 S. Douglas Highway on the main north-south drag through Gillette.
A Restaurant Is Born
“Finally, somebody gave us a call back on (the building we’re in now) and said, ‘Yeah, you know, we’re just sitting empty,’” Jimison said. “We’d love to have a renter in here.”
It took six months of hard work to redo the restaurant and get it ready for commercial operation. That included a new roof, as well as a jackhammer to bust out concrete and build two entrances into the walls of the building.
“It was really hard to start all over again,” Jimison said.
The restaurant was an instant hit, and a line formed all the way around the building.
“We went through our whole, what we thought was going to be three or four days worth of prep in that one night,” Jimison recalled. “We realized we are not prepared and that our staff of 20 that we thought was going to be big enough, we actually needed more like a staff of 40 or 50.”
Fresh Food Sets Restaurant Apart
One of the first things a diner notices at Pizza Carrello is the freshness and quality of ingredients. Even in winter, a bite of pizza or salad tastes like fresh spring vegetables sourced from a local grower.
Jimison is interested in sourcing vegetables locally, but that’s not how the magic is happening just yet. Instead, it’s a very careful curation between ingredients shipped with great quality and what can be made of them in a restaurant setting.
“Over the course of developing a menu, we tried a lot of things, and a lot of things that didn’t work,” she said. “We wanted really fresh Romaine salads. But the Romaine was so sketchy. We’d get it in, and it’d be half-limp, half-dead, half-brown and bitter — or just white because it didn’t get enough sunlight in the greenhouse. It was just terrible.”
But spinach, Jimison realized, grows well almost anywhere, even in really cold temperatures. So, the Crazy Woman Salad with steak features lots of bright green, fresh spinach leaves.
“My dad, in Gillette, Wyoming, is growing spinach right now,” Jimison said. “And it comes to us really fresh, not wilted. So, we kind of like figured out where the sweet spot was with the produce.”
That includes tomatoes.
“I’m a tomato jerk,” she said. “I just always want a really good one. I don’t want bland ones, and I hate it when they’re cardboard inside.”
Cherry tomatoes, Jimison discovered, will grow well even in a greenhouse and still taste like they’re fresh and homegrown.
“So, we just only use tiny tomatoes because it’s really easy to get them to come to ripeness even in big production facilities, greenhouses and hothouses, where (compared to) a lot of other tomatoes, you can really tell a difference.”
Another difference, Jimison said, is she has trained her workers to reject anything that doesn’t meet the restaurant’s high freshness standards.
“We’re just not afraid to send stuff back,” she said.
Fresh From Italy
Jimison also sources ingredients from other countries, aiming to bring a one-of-a-kind dining experience to Gillette.
She spent three weeks in Italy in 2018, learning all about Italian ingredients, including Parmesan cheese made in Parma, Italy.
“Parmesan cheese just, like, stole my heart,” she said. “I went on a cheese tour, and I met the guy who makes the cheese that we order for the restaurant.”
The craftsman Jimison met told her he was the 17th generation of cheesemakers in his family.
“I can’t even talk about it without stuttering,” Jimison said. “It’s just, it’s mind-blowing. It really is a pursuit of passion, and something that’s dying that we’re losing in the world due to several factors, one being climate change and the other being people realizing that they don’t have to be a slave to their occupation anymore.”
Jimison said the man she met had even begged his son not to become a cheesemaker, so he could have a more normal life.
“That gave me this appreciation for that cheese like nobody’s business,” Jimison said. “And so, I just really wanted to bring that to Gillette.”
Cracking open one of the big cheese wheels from Italy is like Christmas for Jimison. But that cheese has lately been a casualty of inflation and supply chain issues. Jimison plans to resume buying real Parmesan from Italy as soon as the market allows.
Originality Also Key
Another thing diners are likely to notice right away is the originality of Pizza Carrello’s menu. The unique dry rubs are house recipes that Jimison has developed. The restaurant is even making its own limoncello.
“Somebody got me a craft cocktail book for Christmas probably 10 years ago,” she said. “I started with, like, a batch of homemade gin and then some brandies.”
Limoncello is made by simply hanging a lemon up in a cheesecloth over a hard liquor like vodka.
“We use a Wyoming-made vodka from Jackson,” Jimison said. “It’s a really great vodka, and we’ve been told we could do this with a cheaper vodka, but I just really love their vodka a lot. It’s got great character.”
What amazes Jimison about limoncello is that the lemon never physically touches the vodka.
“It’s just the fumes from the vodka,” she said. “They are enough to extract the oils out of that lemon peel into the vodka below.”
Once the vodka turns yellow – after about a month – it’s mixed with simple syrup, and that’s it. That’s the limoncello.
“That’s exactly how it’s been made in Italy,” Jimson added. “I think in my research, I’ve found that it was like a Hungarian immigrant in Italy who made it, so it’s like, I don’t even know if it’s really Italian.
“I just know that when I was in Italy I had it, and it was really, really good. And I just wanted to bring some of those things to Gillette.”
The Hermit Crab Restaurant
With this kind of attitude driving the menu at Carrello’s it’s easy to see why the restaurant continues to do so well.
“We’re the hermit crab restaurant,” Jimison said, quoting what an employee told her. “We just keep needing a bigger shell and having to grow and grow and grow to meet the demand.”
For the next phase, Jimison is working on starting vegetable production on her family’s farm in Fallon to supply fresh produce to the restaurant in Gillette.
“We have enough people going back and forth from Gillette to the family farm, that I think it will be just right,” she said.
Jimison also is considering remodeling and expanding the existing restaurant, as it’s getting too small for a large and growing demand.
“I think there are a lot of people who won’t ever have a chance to go to Italy,” Jimison said. “I felt so lucky to be able go there, but I also want to take the world there. I want to take every person I know, every relative, I just want to take everybody with me.”
The restaurant in Gillette is her way of accomplishing that vision. But the restaurant is still, and always, about art.
“When I started this, I was thinking about well, we only have this one life,” she said. “And what do I really want to do? I just kind of want to make things that go away. I kind of want to make things that disappear.
“And when you make really good pizza, it does just disappear.”