1602 21st Ave. S. 329-2757
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.
357 Clofton Dr. & Old Harding Rd., Bellevue. 646-7877
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
On any given day or night, customers at the Pizza Perfect store on 21st Avenue South will find Ali Arab behind the counter, taking orders, sliding a freshly baked pizza into a box, throwing a slice into the oven, or handing a pitcher of beer across the counter. Likewise, at the store's Bellevue location, customers will find his brother Amir Arab performing the same duties. But on this Monday morning, the two hardworking owners, who each typically put in at least 12-hour days six days a week, sit side by side in a booth at the Hillsboro Village location, wearing Pizza Perfect's signature T-shirts ("Looks Good, Tastes Better") and recalling their past 23 years in Nashville.
"We weren't cut out for work," Amir says with a laugh. Ali nods in agreement. Raised in Iran in a wealthy family, they were accustomed to everything money could buy, plenty of household help, chauffeur-driven limousines, and few, if any, cares. In 1978, they came to Middle Tennessee, joining their older brother Reza, and enrolled at Tennessee Tech to study engineering. "Cookeville was a shock," says Amir, who previously had attended boarding school in London. "The only place to have fun was Waffle House."
More of a shock was yet to come. With the overthrow of the Shah in early 1979 and the onset of the hostage crisis later that year, the Arab family assets were seized. Just like that, the flow of money from their father dried up. The Arab brothers, who had never worked a day in their lives, had to find a job. Not trained for anything, and facing some suspicion and prejudice in light of the political situation between the U.S. and Iran, they had no choice but to take on menial, minimum-wage positions. Ali, at 21 years old, went to work at the Bellevue McDonald's as a burger flipper. "I was making $2.85 an hour," he says with a shrug. "About six months later, I was promoted and got a 5-cents-an-hour raise."
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Amir got a job at Carmen's, then located in what is now Finezza at the Hwy. 70/100 split. "Bob Patterson owned it and wanted to hire me as a busboy," he remembers. "I told him no, and he put me to work making pizza. I learned this business from him."
It was at Carmen's, a family restaurant that also served pasta dishes and sandwiches, that the Arab brothers' pizza education began. A few months after Amir was hired, Raouf Mattin, a fellow Iranian whom Amir knew from boarding school in London, joined him there. All of them kept working and continued their schooling, albeit at their own expense. Ali and Raouf moved to David Lipscomb, and Amir, who sported a big Afro hairdo at the time, attended Tennessee State University.
Raouf moved around from restaurant to restaurant more than the Arab brothers, picking up pizza tips along the way, but eventually Ali and Amir ended up at the House of Pizza in the ArcadeAli as manager, Amir as assistant manager. It was then owned by two Sicilians, but when it was sold, the Arab brothers were canned overnight. "We decided we needed to have more control over our lives," Amir says. "If we were going to work that hard, we wanted our own place."
Raouf had heard that the Donut Den across from the Lipscomb campus on Granny White Pike was for sale. In April 1983, the three partners purchased it, invested about $12,000 in equipment, and began selling pizza in addition to the store's regular fare. "The Donut Den had lots of customers from the neighborhood, and we didn't want to lose them, so for about six months, we sold doughnuts and pizza," Amir says. "One day, one of our customers told us our doughnuts smelled like garlic, so we said, &squo;That's it, no more doughnuts.' "
They concentrated on pizza, selling it by the slice as well as whole, with just two sizes and a few toppings: mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage, onions, green peppers, and black olives. At first, it was just the three partners; then they hired one employee, then one more. "We were the pizza men, the busboys, the roadrunners, the clean-up crew, everything," remembers Amir. "We were open seven days a week until 1 in the morning."
The store was so small that they had to keep many of the products in their home refrigerators, bringing them to work in the morning. Most of their first customers were David Lipscomb students, but soon, music people who lived in the area caught on. Struggling songwriters were never denied a slice of pizza just because they were low on dough; Pizza Perfect allowed them to run a tab and pay it off at the end of the month. Word of mouth spread.
"Nashville magazine did a story about [singer-songwriter] Kieran Kane, and in the article, he went on and on about our store and our pizza," says Ali. "That really helped us a lot." A couple years later, the partners found out that they were running against Pizza Hut in a listener's picks contest sponsored by radio station 106 FM. Pizza Perfect beat the national giant, and the Arab brothers realized their hard work was paying off.
In 1985, they expanded the Granny White location, adding burgers and Coney Island hot dogs to the menu. But one thing they never did there was sell beer. "There were no laws against it," Ali explains. "But out of respect for the neighborhood and the college, we just decided not to do it. It was a good decision."
In 1990, the trio heard that the Stage Deli on 21st Avenue in Hillsboro Village was closing, and they took over the lease. "This location was a lot more of an investment than the first," Amir says. They added several new items to the menu, more exotic toppings, pesto sauce, calzones, baked pastasand beerbut adhered to the fresh and homemade policy. After a year of running back and forth between the two stores, the Arab brothers and Mattin agreed to part, with Mattin keeping the Granny White store.
In 1997, the Arabs opened the Bellevue store, tucked away in an industrial area on Old Harding Road; it was an immediate hit. "We ran out of dough the first night we opened," says Amir, who is in charge of that store. "Friday nights at 5 p.m., we get slammed, and it takes about 45 minutes for a pizza. At 7:30, it's over. If you order a pizza at 7, you'll get it at 7:45. If you order a pizza at 7:30, you'll get it at 7:45."
Business is more evenly spread out in the Hillsboro Village store. The lunch crowd, which orders mostly slices or sandwiches, comes from nearby medical facilities and neighborhood businesses. In the evening, it's students from Belmont and Vanderbilt, and loads of families.
Running a pizza parlor may not be the life that the Arab brothers envisioned for themselves growing up wealthy and privileged in Iran, but they are happy here and have a good life, and both are now American citizens. Ali is married to Robyn, a former David Lipscomb student whom he met at the Granny White store; they have a 6-year-old daughter. Amir met his wife Carmen when they were both working at Carmen's (though she wasn't related to the store owner). When it became clear to her family that the couple were serious, her father took Amir out shooting. "I have never held a gun in my life," Amir remembers. "He handed me a .44 Magnum and told me to shoot it. I was scared to death. Then he asked me if I married his daughter, did I plan on going back to Iran? I said, &squo;No, sir!' " He and Carmen, married since 1982, have an 8-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.
These days, Pizza Perfect routinely wins awards for Best Pizza in Nashville polls, but it is not a recognition that the Arabs take for granted. "When we first opened the business, we were sitting around thinking of a name, and Raouf's wife suggested Perfect Pizza," Amir says. "We switched it around to Pizza Perfect. You know, Iranians are not thought of as typical pizza people, so you have to be extra good. We always felt we had to be perfect."
Nick of time
Loyal customers of Nick's Italian Deli on Fifth Avenue South were sad to see the store close about three months ago, but owners Gina and Nick Defilippis say it's only temporary until they can either lease it out or reopen it themselves with some new staff. In the meanwhile, their Franklin store, at 2021 Mallory Lane, is open 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Phone: 771-0434.