Prepare to “embark on the most affordable trip your mouth will ever take to Italy.” That’s what Cugino Forno promises, an authentic Italian pizzeria planning to open its fifth location in Wilmington in about two weeks.
Launched in Greensboro in 2017, Cugino Forno was founded by three cousins: Joseph Ozbey, Adam Aksoy and Yilmaz Guver. Each of the business’ following locations – all in North Carolina – was chosen by customers. “We basically follow our customers’ advice,” co-owner Ozbey said. “Our customers will be calling us, emailing us, messaging us and saying, ‘Why don't you open one here? Why don’t you open one here?’”
Cugino Forno’s made-from-scratch menu is intentionally sparse: just 10 pies, three salads, four desserts and drinks. “It is as simple as it gets,” Ozbey said. “We don't even consider ourselves as a restaurant; we consider ourselves as more like a bakery."
More than 80% of Cugino Forno’s ingredients are sourced from Italy. The owners pay a premium for the flour, which costs around eight times more to order from Italy, and source tomatoes from a farm surrounding Mount Vesuvius. “When you when you taste it, you can immediately taste the difference,” Ozbey said.
Italian buffalos, whose milk is sourced for the shop’s buffalo mozzarella, are played music and regularly massaged, Ozbey said. “They're just happy, happy, happy animals,” he said.
Late last month, two wood-fired ovens arrived at the store’s Wilmington location at 1020 Princess St. These ovens require no outside power source – a fact contractors recently overlooked when they installed a gas line hookup for them, Ozbey said – an must be kept warm year-round to prevent cracking.
The dough is prepared 48 hours in advance. This process determines how late the stores remain open: Owners refuse to sell dough that isn’t perfectly ready. Closing time is flexible, depending on when the stores run out of fresh ingredients, Ozbey said, but employees do their best to anticipate demand to prevent too much variation in hours.
Despite the dedicated commitment to authentic Italian ingredients and processes, Ozbey isn’t Italian. He caught the bug for the pizza from a restaurant in Naples famously featured in “Eat Pray Love,” L’antica Pizzeria da Michele, where he ate both lunch and dinner on the same day upon his first visit. Ozbey said he ended up working at the 150-plus-year-old restaurant, which only serves two different pies, and learned the craft.
In February, Cugino Forno was named among the nation’s top 100 pizzerias in a Yelp ranking, based on volume, ratings and reviews. “This is our passion,” Ozbey said.
Located next to Hi-Wire Brewing, the pizzeria will open in a distinctive ‘40s-era building with a rounded corner. This will be the second time the cousins will share space with the brewery; last year, Cugino Forno opened its fourth location in Durham next to Hi-Wire.
Ozbey said his team is awaiting local health department permissions and hopes to be open by the end of the month.
The store’s hours are expected to be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Look out for an official opening day on the pizzeria’s Facebook page.
Emma Dill - Dec 4, 2023
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