A visitor from the world of branding and hype might believe the whimsical mural splashed across the wall at Pizza Girls, the newest pizza shop in Palm Beach Gardens, is marketing strategy at its most adorable.
Titled “The Pizza Girls Story,” the hand-painted mural tells the tale of two intrepid women who “wanted to bring girl power to a traditional male business” by way of gourmet pizza.
But it’s not baloney, this mural, it’s biographical. And Saturday, nearly 18 years after they opened their first owned-and-operated pizza shop in downtown West Palm Beach, Phoebe Reckseit and Jennifer Morales will open their second Pizza Girls restaurant, this one Palm Beach Gardens.
What an adventure it has been for Reckseit and Morales, partners in life, love and hand-tossed pizza. In some ways, the pizza part is the least of it – neither of them came into the world of pizza-making with any formal pizzaiolo skills or burning desire to finesse dough. Reckseit was a controller, Morales a social worker.
But the pizza also has been everything: It gave them a longstanding business, a more profound partnership and a devoted community.
It was pizza that brought the two northerners to downtown West Palm Beach, where Reckseit’s step-sister had bought a by-the-slice business located in what was then the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training (now Palm Beach Dramaworks). It was 1996, and Reckseit and Morales moved down from northeastern Pennsylvania to run the struggling pizza counter.
The place was a mess, as they recall. The dough changed with every pizza-maker shift. One of the pizza cooks cut his pies into uneven slices. When they tried to correct him, he quit. And, despite the “Etc.” in the name, the menu selection was limited.
The women took the bland menu and noncommittal dough as blank canvases on which to experiment.
“We cried a lot. Our first batch of dough was like soup. We had to pour it out,” Morales recalls on a recent day, taking a break from the pre-opening bustle at the new restaurant, located in the Garden Square Shoppes at PGA Boulevard.
Reckseit chimes in: “It was trial and error with that dough.”
It took time to achieve what would become their go-to recipe, the flour, the yeast the water temperature, the proofing time. It’s a secret, they say. But this is not:
“We change around the recipe in the summer, when it’s hotter outside. We change the recipe for the season,” says Reckseit, who notes the small recipe changes keep the crust quality consistent.
Whatever the reason or recipe, the formula worked. And so did their experimentation with toppings, the fresh veggies, fancy cheeses and saucy combos.
Three years after they arrived in West Palm, they had a following – and a nickname that would inspire a new venture a half-block east of the now defunct Pizza Etc.
“People started asking us, ‘Hey, aren’t you the pizza girls?” says Morales.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Reckseit.
Not because this is what they called themselves or because they embraced some frilly, fragile notion of womanhood. No, these women would vroom to work on motorcycles. They would labor from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. in a district that was just beginning to find itself. Their pizza would sober up leagues of tipsy, wee-hour revelers.
They opened Pizza Girls on the eastern edge of Clematis Street in 1999 and, as the freshly painted mural in their new, swankier restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens attests today, “the rest is herstory.”
That mural – along with the Tuscan-yellow tiles that run beneath it and the red-glass, small-square tiles that line the pizza ovens – reflects the women’s long-held dreams of opening a second restaurant in more ways than may be apparent. All that tile sat in their Palm Beach Gardens garage for nearly 12 years after a previous foray into the PGA Boulevard dining corridor (at Downtown at the Gardens) fell apart.
They kept the tile, vowing to put it to good use in their dream Gardens restaurant. And they did. It sparkles at the newly opened Pizza Girls, which inhabits a combined 2100-square-feet of space once occupied by two defunct businesses, a puppy store and a cigar shop.
“We have a great community of our regular customers up here,” says Morales.
They signed the lease last June for the puppy store location, then the smaller cigar shop space became available. That meant overhauling the spaces, a task that included digging up the pathway out front to install a grease pump and other structural work.
The result is a dine-in restaurant complete with a hand-carved, reclaimed-wood community table and a separate wood bar for sipping locally brewed craft beers, specialty sodas, wine and wine-based cocktails. Unlike the West Palm location, the new pizza shop serves pastas and Parmesan dishes and it will offer Sunday brunch specialty pizzas and cocktails.
A passerby might see a simple pizza joint, but the place is a repository of Reckseit and Morales’ pizza whims and life lessons.
They have been together since 1991, when they struck up a conversation at a bar near the Poconos. Morales was a college student at the time, barely 20. Reckseit, who had returned to college, was 14 years older.
“I told her I was a freshman and she believed me,” says Reckseit, now 59.
“I thought, ‘she’s too young for me,’” says Morales, with a laugh.
Morales says she was as mature as Reckseit was youthful, but more importantly, they shared school life. It was a relationship that only grew stronger with the years, they say. They married in 2013, with ceremonies in Palm Beach Gardens and New York, Reckseit’s native state.
Part of the Pizza Girls mission has involved mentoring younger “pizza girls,” says Morales.
“We teach them to be strong women, assertive, confident. They are going to have to be assertive to do well in this business. They’ve got to use their voice louder. It’s true. It builds confidence,” she says. “I admit, I struggled at first with the term ‘girl.’ But I figured out we could empower the word.”
They have traced the cycle of life in their diverse clientele, as young customers have babies and those babies grow up, noshing on pizza throughout.
Now pizza-making is something the women have come to crave.
“If I don’t touch dough for a while, I get a little antsy,” says Morales.
“We do eat pizza. All the time,” says Reckseit.
In travels throughout Italy, they’ve sought out interesting local pizza. They’ve tried to capture the taste of it in their memory. They may not remember the names of places visited, or even the region, but they do remember the pizza.
“One time we were in this little village in Italy,” Morales says, starting to recount an anecdote.
“Was that the one with the olives?” Reckseit asks.
“I think so. I don’t remember. We were walking along these tiny streets, really out of the way,” Morales goes on. “I just remember how delicious that pizza was.”
And one more thing she remembers:
“This place, it was run by three women.”
“That’s right,” Reckseit recalls.
“Yeah,” says Morales, “Pizza girls.”
PIZZA GIRLS IN THE GARDENS
- Located in the Gardens Square Shoppes, at 10965 N. Military Tr. at PGA Boulevard.
- Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- Phone orders at 561-812-2400, online at PizzaGirls.com