If you just want pizza, you don't have to look very far in Berks County. If you want a slice of authentic New York-style pizza, with its thin, gentle crust — the kind you fold as you eat — you might check out Romeo's Pizza & Pasta in Mohnton.
Romeo's is the latest pizzeria venture by Queens-born-and-raised Mike Hambartsoumian, his fourth such establishment and third in Berks. The West Lawn resident previously owned the defunct New York New York Pizza in Spring Township and, most recently, co-founded Georgio's Pizzeria in West Reading.
A family emergency forced Hambartsoumian to sell his stake in Georgio's and return to New York temporarily. Anybody who knows this "pizzaiola" knew he wouldn't be able to stay out of the kitchen for too long, though.
"My friends are always like, 'Why do you want to work all those crazy hours,'" Hambartsoumian said of returning to the restaurant industry, where he boasts over two decades of experience. "I love cooking."
Hambartsoumian describes it as his calling, and the dedication to his craft once again is on full display at Romeo's — from the pizza, sandwiches and Italian dinners all the way down to the restaurant itself, which resides in a structure rebuilt from the ground up along West Wyomissing Avenue.
What makes Romeo's Pizza different?
Romeo's isn't the only place in Berks that claims to serve New York-style pizza, but Hambartsoumian's whole deal is going the extra mile to stand out.
"Even the littlest thing, I want it perfect," Hambartsoumian said.
He shows up two hours before opening to start making pizza for the lunch crowd. Everything is impeccably prepared, like Romeo's specialty pizzas, with toppings sprinkled liberally yet distributed evenly over the surface for maximum flavor from each bite, and baked on slightly thicker dough (to handle the added weight) that still manages to feel light and airy.
Buffalo chicken pizza isn't just chicken and wing sauce, but a true specialty experience. There are combinations you don't ordinarily see, like penne alla vodka pizza or pesto potato and chicken pizza. And Grandma Pizza — Romeo's best seller — doesn't even use the same red sauce that goes on the rest of the pies or in Italian entrees.
New York-style or not, Hambartsoumian says you don't come across many pizza shops going to these lengths "because it takes time."
"Everybody is looking to make a quick buck, but then the food doesn't have that wow' factor," Hambartsoumian said. "It's a process, but it's well worth it."
The same level of detail goes into Romeo's pastas, which is why some higher-end dishes such as chicken piccata or veal marsala wound up left off the menu. Some dinners will be weekend-only specials instead, because Hambartsoumian realized he can't always be at the restaurant to prepare them himself.
"If it's not good enough for me, why would it be good enough for anybody else," Hambartsoumian said.
From New York City to Berks County
While Hambartsoumian admits he isn't Italian, he learned to cook from Sicilian chefs in the Big Apple, eventually opening his first pizzeria in Manhattan's Financial District, across from the New York Stock Exchange.
But as he began getting acquainted with Berks, visiting often with a friend who had family in the area, Hambartsoumian grew fond of the more laid-back lifestyle.
"It was like a getaway for me," Hambartsoumian said. "You live in New York your whole life, the hustle, the bustle, it's like, OK, you want to take it easy. That's how I ended up staying here."
While New York New York Pizza didn't work out, Hambartsoumian was happy with what he built at Georgio's, maintaining he never would've sold the place had he not been needed back home.
Now, he's back in the game with Romeo's, and doing it in his typical grand style. Hambartsoumian's latest pizzeria — which opened at the end of August — was two years in the making. He purchased then completely gutted and reconstructed a former veterinarian's office.
"This building was condemned," Hambartsoumian said. "It was falling apart. We went through blueprints after blueprints. If you pulled up pictures, you wouldn't even recognize the front of the building."
As you step inside, a large photo of Hambartsoumian's youngest son, Romeo, hangs on the wall. It's become something of a tradition to name the shops for his children, so he laughs when asked if there are any more pizzerias on the way.
"This is the last one," Hambartsoumian said.