MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - You may take the boy out of the Ohio Valley, but apparently you'll never get the craving for square, Ohio Valley-style pizza out of the boy.
Or at least, that's what Toronto's own A.J. Hunt will tell you.
Hunt, former model and co-owner of the American Hooligan clothing line, is currently immersing himself in his latest endeavor, Gem City Pizza, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
DRAWING RAVE REVIEWS — Introducing Ohio Valley-style pizza to Myrtle Beach are Gem City Pizza owners Scott Roman, A.J. Hunt and Eric Archey. The trio say their pizza squares have drawn rave reviews. -- Photo courtesy MyrtleBeachRestaurantNews.com
"I thought it'd be cool, so many people come down here from the Ohio Valley," he said. "I've been all over the country, there's nothing like our pizza anywhere else."
So what makes Ohio Valley pizza different? Hunt said it's the crispy crusts, made from fresh-made dough every day. The fresh, homemade sauce and, of course, the shape: Square, sold by the piece or by the pan (as opposed to the traditional slice or whole pie).
Ohio Valley-style pizza "doesn't taste store bought and commercial" like, well, the pizza so many of the nationally known chains serve up, he points out.
"I've been all over the county and there's nothing like our pizza anywhere else," he said. "Anytime I've lived anywhere else, been anywhere else, I've craved that square pizza. I figured instead of having to have my family and friends bring frozen pizza down so I could have it, I'd have a little shop here and make it for everybody."
So Hunt and two of his buddies, Toronto native Scott Roman, 24, and Eric Archey, 30, of Philadelphia, went about finding and remodeling a storefront, no easy feat in Myrtle Beach.
"It was very, very difficult," he said. "I think Myrtle Beach is one of the hardest cities to open a business in, just as something as simple as painting the outside of the building: It used to be teal blue, it was kind of tacky, and I wanted to change it to a neutral beige. We had to go to the city and do a presentation with pictures, show them what it would look like after we were done."
They gave the interior a youthful, urban vibe, complete with an exposed brick wall, crimped tin wainscoting, authentic street signs and lights, graffiti and a pair of Chuck Taylors tossed over a phone line hanging inside. There's also a Big Red "Fathead" football helmet, courtesy of Steubenville transplant Patsy Angelo, who now makes his home in Myrtle Beach. Hunt said they wanted to give it an "old school barbershop feel, the kind of place where you can hang out, talk with friends and get good food at the same time."
After about four months of prep work they were ready to go. "I've got friends in the restaurant business who spent a whole year getting ready," Hunt said. "For us to be open in a few months and getting great reviews, that's exciting."
Gem City opened in January and so far, the buzz has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I kept telling people we were going to sell square pizza and they'd say 'Oh, Sicilian,' but it's not, it's not even close to being Sicilian," he said. "But I'm gradually getting everybody hooked on it."
Not bad for someone who, until fairly recently, had absolutely no idea how to make pizza. For that, he turned to an old friend, Derek Bocek, owner of Bo's Pizza in Toronto.
"Before I moved here I spent a few weeks in his shop, he taught me how to make the dough, everything. I felt like I was back in college. Every single day from open to close I went to Bo's, he taught me everything."
Hunt said he's a hands-on kind of learner, so he filled a notebook with notes to himself - everything from how many spatulas he'd have to buy to ingredients he'd need for the sauce or dough.
"I had 15 to 20 pages of notes, supplies I needed to buy," he said. "It was a ton of work, a ton of stress, but it feels great, now that we're open."
Gem City's menu incorporates the usual suspects - traditional red and veggie (white) pizza - with a healthy dose of the unusual: There's his "Sweet 'n Spicy, a crazy concoction featuring brown sugar and crushed red peppers, or his S'mores, featuring a chocolate base, a layer of marshmallow, a drizzle of chocolate and crumbled graham crackers. His calzones also push the envelope, with a "chicken pot pie" variety that positively oozes gravy; a little something called G Spots - fresh-baked Filone bread from a local bakery, split open and topped with cheese and garlic, or even his "Roni Balls," a golf ball-sized bun filled with pepperoni or whatever else you crave, and served with "Swagger," his own dipping sauce, roughly equivalent to hoagie sauce here in the valley.
Guests also can order true Ohio Valley pizza, with the cheese, pepperoni and other toppings added after it comes out of the oven.
"My buddy did a review on us, he said there are pizza shops and there are pizza labs," Hunt said. "He said we're like mad scientists in a back room, literally trying to make things up. We get bored, and when we do we try to create things.
"Obviously, our staple is Ohio Valley Pizza, but we also like to be creative and do things most people haven't heard of, like our Sweet 'n Spicy Pizza and our S'mores pizza."
For only being open two months, "business is already phenomenal," he said.
"It's going really good, we've been received amazingly well," he said. "I want it to get to the point where you can go anywhere in the country and buy it. There's no reason why Ohio Valley pizza shouldn't be right out there with (the best) of them."
And if that sounds like he's already thinking about a string of Gem Citys, well, he is. Thinking, that is.
"What makes for good ideas, good business ideas, is usually right in front of your face but gets overlooked because (people) assume everybody else is doing it," he said. "But lucky for me, nobody else is."
He even figures to turn the pizza shop's basement into a clothing store he'll call "Gem City Underground," where he'll carry his own American Hooligan brand as well as LD50 and other name brands.
Hunt said for those who know him, his savvy business style shouldn't come as a surprise.
"I've got my entire head down to my fingertips tattooed," he said. "I can't work anywhere and be taken seriously, so entrepreneur was the route I had to go."
But he said he has no regrets about the path his life has taken.
"I'm a firm believer if you try to change one thing, one little thing in your life you regret, you wouldn't be where you are today. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you learn from them and adapt to them, there's no reason to look back and dwell on it."
Gem City Pizza is located at 819 Main St., Myrtle Beach.