Patrick Cuezze used to be a lawyer. Now he sells pizza. He couldn't be happier.
"You never hear any jokes about pizza makers, do you?" he says. "I liked being in the courtroom, but that part was overshadowed by everything else connected with the practice of law."
Last February, Cuezze and his wife, Joy, opened a storefront pizzeria in Lee's Summit. Five months later, Next Door Pizza had been successful enough that they expanded into an adjoining storefront, doubling the size of their dining space.
Next Door Pizza is definitely the right concept for its location — the restaurant is close to a college and to residential neighborhoods — but the secret of this pizza joint's popularity is the Cuezzes' culinary concept. The thin- and thick-crust versions of the Neapolitan-style flatbread pizzas aren't too upscale and innovative (like Spin) or too lowbrow (like, say, Pizza Hut) for the locals. The place doesn't pretend to be more than what it is: a family-friendly neighborhood pizzeria and bar with a solid — I'd even say superior — product, attentive service and an accessible price point. You won't leave this joint hungry or broke.
A friend of mine (a fussy pizza aficionado who doesn't live anywhere near Lee's Summit) sent me to the place because he'd heard good things about it, even from people who don't particularly like pizza. I had also heard about the place from friends. "It's a sports bar," one said. "I go there to watch football games and eat fried meatballs."
Now that I've been to Next Door a couple of times, I can say that it's not really a sports bar, though a lot of screens are mounted on almost every wall, all tuned to ESPN. It's not raucous, at least during the dinner hours, and it's comfortable enough to sit down and have an adult conversation at one of the tables in the main dining room.
The newer dining area, with its bank of video games and cardboard cutouts of the two male stars of the Twilight movies, is a lot noisier because it's favored by big groups of adolescents. The bar, at the rear of the original dining room, now looks like a bit of an afterthought. It's not very big. You might call it cozy — or cramped. It gets much more lively later in the evening, when the kids and the couples are gone and the beer drinkers occupy every stool. (The "pub" stays open long after the kitchen closes.)
I had my first meal there with newlyweds William and Erin. They're expecting a baby next year, so she was ravenous. In her first trimester, Erin told me that she's hungry all the time, and pizza is one of the things she loves most. I had some serious cravings of my own. Patrick Cuezze uses only a first-rate (and expensive) brand of cow's-milk mozzarella, so I figured that a deep-dish pizza covered with fresh vegetables — like the Hippy Chick specialty pie that we ordered (topped with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, red pepper, tomatoes and red onion) — would be ideal for an expectant mother. It was ideal for me, and I'm currently fatter than Erin.
The Hippy Chick — an homage of sorts to a vegetarian neighbor of the Cuezzes — is one of the top-selling pies here. So is the other meatless creation: a mixture of creamy ricotta cheese and fresh spinach called the Unhinged. "Sales of my meatless pizzas are growing every day," Patrick says. (He also makes pies with gluten-free crusts.) "But my biggest sellers are still the Butcher of Longview (an orgy of meat toppings, including Mendolia Italian sausage, pepperoni, meatballs and bacon) and the N9ne, named for the local rapper Tech N9ne and smothered with all of the meats on the Butcher of Longview plus chicken, red onion, red peppers and lots of bubbly mozzarella.