Ring the Bell: Pazzo’s Pizza in Vail turns 30 on Monday
After chatting across the bar at Pazzo’s Pizza in Vail, owner Bryan Hutchinson, affectionately known to all as “Hutch,” rounds up his whole staff — pizza cooks, servers, everybody — and tells them to join him outside for a picture. They pose under the sign as I capture the moment. The story I’m writing is about the restaurant’s 30th anniversary; much bigger than the individuals that make everything happen, day in and day out.
To Hutch, those two things are one and the same.
“I love my employees. I love coming in here and working with everybody. It’s just been a great 30 years,” he said.
Pazzo’s Pizza opened in Vail 30 years ago on Monday, Sept. 21. Since 1990, Hutch has been there the whole time. He started as a pizza cook in the restaurant that was there before Pazzo’s, and he still busses tables, serves drinks and works the line when he needs to today. For him, it’s about the pizza and creating the best possible experience for guests.
“I love Pazzo’s. We created it from the beginning. We made the menu. We make everything from scratch,” he said.
Hutch came to Vail by way of Malibu, where he’s from. He was 17 and had just spent a few months in Hawaii. He worked to save money to come here for the winter on a tip from a snowboarding friend. That was in 1979. He spent some more time in Hawaii and Malibu, and in the early ‘80s moved here for good, working as a lift operator and pizza cook. This year, he’s buying his 40th ski pass. His first snurfer hangs above the register at Pazzo’s, and was in the ski museum for a while.
Pazzo’s connection to the ‘70s and ‘80s goes beyond snowboarding. It is the second longest carrier of Sierra Nevada beer on draft in Colorado – the creator of its flagship pale ale was one of the first players in the American craft beer scene, which saw humble beginnings at the same time. Most days, the restaurant feeds its diners a steady side of classic rock alongside their pizza.
Hutch met his wife Patricia at Pazzo’s. They have two kids, who both work at the restaurant — son Eliot worked over the summer and is back at Colorado State University, and oldest daughter Eva is currently working at Pazzo’s. She started busing tables when she was 13 and has been working for 10 years.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with my dad,” she said.
If Patricia needed to do errands, she dropped off Eva and Eliot at Pazzo’s. While dad was working, they’d eat pizza and color. When they got bored, they’d run around the restaurant, counting the numerous skeletons adorning the walls as decoration. The original two were given by Hutch’s sister, and they’re still hanging by the restrooms.
“The waitresses would get so annoyed with us. Which is funny now because now I’m a waitress, so I understand,” Eva said.
The Hutchinson’s aren’t the only ones who found their soulmates at the restaurant — Eva and Hutch started listing off all their friends who met and married after meeting at Pazzo’s. There are at least five couples.
That camaraderie and togetherness extends to the ownership as well. Pazzo’s has four partners: Hutch, Mike O’Meara “Grateful Mike” and Tom Clinton “Powder Tom” are the original founders. Mark Caldwell joined the group when Pazzo’s Pizza: Avon opened in 1997. Pazzo’s in Eagle opened in 2008. They’re still buds and enjoy golfing together.
“We’re still partners,” Hutch joked.
Like everyone and every restaurant, Pazzo’s has had to face their own share of challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. When Vail Resorts shut the mountain down, Hutch immediately closed Pazzo’s as well. They opened for takeout, and started selling gift certificates.
“I had people call me from Texas, ‘you might not remember me, but I sat at your bar and loved you guys, so I’m going to buy $300 worth of gift certificates.’ We had a few people like that. The Rotary Club came in and bought $1000 of gift certificates to give out to everybody,” Hutch said. “We have definitely had great support, and I appreciate everybody’s help.”
“I love waiting on people who say, ‘oh, I came here 20 years ago, and it hasn’t changed,’” Eva said.
The reason Pazzo’s has been able to keep that support during tough times comes back to its commitment to what a pizza shop should be: great food, drink and service.
“Thanks to all of our customers who have supported us all these years,” Hutch said.
That started from the beginning. In the early days, Hutch, Grateful Mike and Powder Tom were thinking of ways to get more customers to contribute to the tip jar by the register. So they installed a bell with a rubber duck attached to the string. Every time a customer tipped, they’d ring the bell and everyone laughed. After all, Pazzo’s loosely translates as “crazy boys” from Italian. Soon, people were tipping just to see them ring the bell.
Little did they know that a rusty old bell would be the thing that changed their lives. The tip money they received from “generous people” ultimately allowed them to start their own pizza shop.
“We went from making $4-5 dollars in tips to $40, $50, more than we got paid back then,” he said. “All of us worked here, 6, 7 nights a week. We skied during the day. We wanted to work. It was fun. It stayed with us forever.”
Pazzo’s is celebrating from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday with pizza, beer and music from Primal J and the Neanderthals. For more information, visit pazzospizza.com.
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Tons of new and gently used gear can be found at the 51st annual Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Swap this weekend at Dobson Ice Arena in Lionshead.