Navigating the food truck roadblocks

It’s been an uphill drive so far for Vito Lucco and their 26-foot long 1996 Chevy Grumman food truck.

Owner Joe Mastrey has been in the restaurant business for 20 years and Italian cooking is his family lineage. Yet, despite his industry experience, getting his pizza truck running has been one of the hardest challenges yet. After months of obstacles, he finally started his wood fire oven this fall and served his first pizzas as the final leaves drifted into the gutters.

“For probably seven years I’ve been scouting for the right spot,” Mastrey said, originally planning for a brick and mortar restaurant. “Every time I see something it’s just leased.”

When he left Brasa in late 2014, he took a vacation to figure out his next move.

“I went to Texas because it was January,” he said. “And I had this pizza on a food truck. It was the best pizza I’ve had in my life.”

His wife, Sarah Mastrey, was on the receiving end of an excited phone call but she recalled those same vivid details.

“He called me late one night and he just had the best idea,” she remembered. “His voice was happy, I could feel his excitement through the phone.”

He returned home to turn idea into reality. In April he bought a truck, ordered an oven and generator, and started putting it together. He planned to open during the summer when food truck business is at its height.

“Everything that could go wrong definitely did,” he said. It started when he brought the truck home, getting a ticket for parking in a residential area. It was a minor ticket, but an omen of things to come. Next, his generator arrived broken and, after waiting for his oven, the company eventually cancelled the order on him.

Meanwhile, Mastrey maxed out his credit cards and worked to perfect his recipes as he worked through the red tape.

Those pizzas are made with family in mind. In the 1950s-1970s his grandfather owned two Italian eateries near Cedar-Riverside: Stefano’s and Mama Rose’s. He never knew his grandfather, but that love of cooking has been passed down the line. While the old recipes were lost to time, Mastrey has tried to piece together details from his family’s memories, connecting the generations.

Vito Lucco sells individual serving 9-inch pizzas made by hand, from scratch, and cooked in the truck over red oak charcoal. Each day he arrives early at his destination, taking about an hour to warm the oven. Typically, he can cook a pizza in 90 seconds. He chose to use wood because of quality and the quick turnaround. Another perk is the aroma of burning wood, which can be its own enticement, especially given the association of a hot fire on a cold winter day.

While there are other wood-fired trucks serving the area, Vito Lucco uses a mix of traditional ingredient pizzas like his best-selling Casanova (sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and bacon), a $5 cheese pizza and more unique concoctions like The Blufallo, a pizza made using a bleu cheese-buffalo sauce, chicken, and jalapeno.

After years working for others, Mastrey is excited to have his own creative space. It allows for experiments like the Shish Kaza, which featured Mediterranean ingredients, or his attempt at featuring tomatillos in a recipe that never made it to the public. Most of all, though, he’s happy in the truck, serving one of his favorite foods to the public. The best part of the truck, he says, is the face to face with customers. “You get to know people by their name right off the bat. You get their name with their order,” he says. In restaurant kitchens he never had those intimate exchanges.

Food trucks also come with unique challenges. There is less foot traffic during Minnesota’s coldest months. Instead downtown workers stick to the skyways and, because he opened late in the season, many breweries already have their food trucks scheduled.

Other learning curves involve the unique work space of a mobile kitchen. Storage and preparation are essential and Mastrey has erred on the side of caution, bringing too much dough, for example, on his first day and having to throw it out when it wasn’t sold.

On a cold November evening, he preheated his oven outside Able Seedhouse + Brewery in Northeast Minneapolis. As it warmed, he awaited a friend’s delivery of extra cheese to get him through the night.

“Every day is something new,” he noted, but after the setbacks in getting his truck licensed and onto the streets, he’s ready for whatever roadblocks are ahead.

In Vito Lucco, Mastrey is honoring a family tradition while embarking on his own journey. “Watching Joey grow his dream is just amazing,” added his wife Sarah. “He was just 21 when we first met — at a pizza joint of all places.”