Talking Chicago street food with John Scaramuzzi of Muzzi’s Madhouse
1. Tell us about Muzzi's Madhouse.
Muzzi's Madhouse is a food truck serving Italian cuisine which has been inspired by my life in Chicago. I grew up in Chicago and lived there for 30 years. When I moved to Jacksonville with my family one of the things I missed most about Chicago was the food, so that became my inspiration for Muzzi's Madhouse - to provide the people of Jacksonville with a taste of Chicago.
2. What is Chicago style food?
The style I’m doing is Italian-based with a little bit of a Chicago flair. For instance, we have an Italian Beef Sandwich, which is one of the staples of Chicago street food. We import our beef from Vienna Beef, who make the best Italian beef. It’s slow roasted, top round beef that is roasted for about 6 hours before being cooled and then thinly sliced. We serve the Italian beef on a Gonnella Roll, which we import from Chicago as well. We pile up the beef and drench it in warm au jus, which is the juice from the roasted beef. We then add onions, green peppers, and provolone/mozzarella cheese before putting the sandwich, face up, in the broiler and melt the cheese to perfection! Before serving we add our signature Madhouse Magic, which is our version of giardiniera.
3. What’s giardiniera?
It’s a medley of fresh vegetables that are diced into small pieces before being soaked in a brine for a minimum of 48 hours, rinsed off, then placed in an oil and vinegar mix with oregano. Done this way everything ferments together. We use carrots, celery, green peppers, red peppers, garlic, onions and some Serrano peppers for a little heat.
4. What’s a Gonnella Roll?
Gonnella is a famous baking company in Chicago. They’ve been in business for over 125 years. The reason we use their roll is because the au jus we put on the bun requires an especially hearty bun to hold everything together. In Chicago, the style is to dip the whole sandwich into the au jus after it’s been cooked. When it’s pulled out the sandwich is dripping wet. Some people like it that way and some people like it a little drier. Our approach is to offer people an extra cup with au jus in it so they can dunk their sandwich as they’re eating to control the amount of liquid they want.
5. Is all your food inspired by Chicago street fare?
Not all, but the majority of it is. We have the Chicago style hot dog which is served on a poppy seed bun. It’s not a style of bun that's used very often in Jacksonville. The meat is a 100% bull meat natural casing hot dog by Vienna. We add onions, relish, tomatoes, sport peppers, and a pickle before we top it with celery salt and mustard. That’s another one of those Chicago-style street foods.
6. What’s Sunday Gravy?
Sunday Gravy is a 6 hour marinara sauce that we make every week. The sauce is made using the same cooking methods as my family made it when I was growing up, although I use slightly different ingredients. It would start in the morning and cook all day to stew and develop the flavors, creating a delicious red marinara sauce that we called Sunday Gravy. Growing up we’d all get together on Sunday for dinner and have Sunday Gravy with pasta, salad and break bread as a family.
7. Do you have a culinary background?
I just cooked growing up. I was in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother almost every day. It was something I’ve always been passionate about and have dreamed about doing.
8. Why did you decide to open a food truck?
My ultimate dream is to bring Muzzi's Madhouse into a brick and mortar so I can do Chicago style deep dish pizzas. The truck gives me an opportunity to get my feet wet while learning about the restaurant industry. My background is in finance where I've worked in the mortgage industry for the last 15 years. I had started down the path of building out the food truck - I had picked out a builder and had financing approval - when I got notified that I was being laid off from my finance job. When that happened it just seemed like all the signs were telling me to follow my dream and pursue something I'd wanted to do for a long period of time but never had the opportunity to pursue before. I really want to make it work and I’ve put everything into it. I feel like I have a lot of personal experience cooking for my family and friends, and I think the flavors of the foods I grew up eating will be a great fit for Jacksonville.
9. What is it about cooking and the restaurant lifestyle that appeals to you?
I love to provide good food and make people happy. It’s not about becoming a millionaire or creating a huge name for myself. I want to stay true to the flavors I had growing up and I want to be able to offer something different that Jacksonville hasn’t seen or had offered before.
10. Are you offering pizza on the truck?
We’re not cooking Chicago deep dish pizza on the truck. A proper pie takes 45 minutes to cook. We can do a deep dish pizza through our catering, but the pizzas will be cooked and delivered. At this point we offer a style of pizza that’s built on a French bread crust. We slice the bread and top it with our red sauce, vegetables, and cheese before putting it under our broiler. Because of my passion for pizza I don’t want to put out anything that isn’t up to the standards of what I grew up with in Chicago and the logistics on the truck make it very difficult to serve high quality, fresh pizza in a fast service environment.
11. Where did you get your recipes?
Most of my recipes have been created through a process of experimentation over the past 20 years. When I developed the menu I wanted to find things that were Italian, played on my background, and that I ate a lot growing up. I also looked around at the other food trucks in Jacksonville and wanted to offer things that weren’t the same as what others were doing. I wanted to be something completely different. Italian is something you don’t see too often on a food truck.
12. What would you recommend to someone who wanted to get a sense of what Muzzi's Madhouse is all about?
I would definitely recommend the Italian Beef Sandwich to start with - it’s the staple of the truck and was the sandwich I really wanted to bring to Jacksonville. There are only a few places that do Italian Beef in town and, in my opinion, we’ll be the only ones doing it the way it’s traditionally done in Chicago.
The other item I’d suggest is the Madhouse Meatball Sub. Other than the bread, everything is from scratch. We make our own homemade meatballs and Sunday Gravy and top the sub with our Madhouse Magic. Those flavors are something I’m definitely proud of and it’s a sandwich I stand by 100%.
13. Are there any other Chicago classics you’d call out?
For someone from Chicago the Chicken Parm will feel like home. It’s our Fried Chicken Parm with our Sunday Gravy on a hoagie roll and topped with mozzarella and provolone cheese, seasonings and our Madhouse Magic. That’s definitely a slice of Chicago.
14. Is there anything a little different that you’d recommend?
One of the things we do to set ourselves apart is to make homemade potato chips right on the truck. Instead of buying frozen fries we decided to provide a side of homemade chips to all our sandwiches. We thinly slice the potatoes on a slicer and then we fry them. They’re very good, and they’re different from what you’ll see in most places.
Once we get to the place where we can run our specials on a regular basis I want to play around with a lot more recipes and offer things on a rotating basis. I have a homemade Manicotti I make from scratch. I make my own crepes, my own filling and my own sauce. The Baked Manicotti is one of my favorite pasta dishes to make. We’ve run it on a special once so far. There are a couple of items we’re toying around with that may make it to the menu. We’re also working on some lighter items such as salads and a range of options for vegetarians.
15. You also have desserts, don’t you?
Yes, we currently offer our homemade Cannoli’s which feature homemade fillings and homemade ganache toppings. They come in pairs - one dipped in chocolate and one plain.
16. How did you come up with the name Muzzi's Madhouse?
Muzzi's Madhouse started off with a truncation of my name because it’s so long and hard for many people. Madhouse is named after the Chicago Blackhawks United Center Stadium. In Chicago they call it the Madhouse on Madison. I have a very big background in hockey and the name was a silent nod to Chicago. Someone from Chicago, who is a Blackhawks fan, would definitely pick up on the name. I thought it was fitting to marry the two and have a bit of a hidden meaning behind the name.
17. Were there any big surprises in getting Muzzi's Madhouse going?
Not really. I did a ton of research before I purchased the vehicle and selected the builder. We took a really close look at 4 different builders before selecting Food Cart USA out of Miami. It was a very good experience for us and I was very pleased with them. We’ve gotten huge compliments on the graphics, which were done by a local designer who also helped with our logo and website. As far as getting set up with different food vendors, I did a lot of research because the quality of the food was very important to me and I wanted to get set up with the right suppliers before I even got set up with the truck. I read a lot of books, I talked to a lot of owners and people in the industry and I asked a lot of questions too.
18. How do you think the City has handled the food truck legislation?
I was in full support once the process was opened up to allow feedback. It may be a little more stringent in some areas and a little less stringent in other places. There’s definitely a need for health-related regulation in my opinion although I don’t think there's a need to regulate competition. This country was founded on the competitive nature of business so being able to have true competition in the marketplace is what I believe is fair. The argument is made that because food trucks are mobile we have different opportunities, but if someone feels the food truck industry has special advantages they have every right to buy a truck, build it out and operate their business that way. We’ve seen some food truck operators transition to brick and mortar restaurants and now we’re seeing some of the opposite, where brick and mortar restaurants like Bono’s BBQ are launching food trucks, which I think is great. The more food trucks we have, the better it will be for the industry and the better it will be able to grow. I think people want variety when it comes to food and they also enjoy the experience of going out somewhere and seeing 7 or 8 trucks together that allows each person to eat somewhere that appeals to them from amongst a wide selection of food genres.
19. Have you found your locations yet? And do think you’ll try to move around a lot or mostly stay in one, or a few areas?
In my opinion, we’ll be better served by moving around to different locations, rather than staying put in one place. Finding the locations is interesting. Some places are very open to having a truck parked on their property; others, less so. Jacksonville is so big, there’s enough room for trucks to be parked all over the place. I’m looking at office parks and areas around the city for places that aren’t well served today.
Right now our focus is on the Southside area. We’ve been downtown and at a few other places as well. When we were downtown it was through the amazing support of Andrew Ferenc of On The Fly. Andrew allowed us to share his spot with us, which was so helpful because we didn’t have a spot yet and it allowed us to ramp up our services when we were just staring out. It let us get good at what we doing without being instantly thrown into an event where we’d have to produce hundreds of meals in one setting. That, to me, was extremely beneficial. It also let us see what it would be like to be in one place for a few days during the week. So, we’re trying out some different things to see what works for us and our customers.
20. What’s been the response to Muzzi's Madhouse?
I think we’ve had a great response. We always encourage people to provide reviews on Facebook and other places and so far the reviews have been really positive. We’ve had great feedback from people who are familiar with Chicago style food and have complimented us on our style. What’s really my yardstick though, and what’s made me especially happy, is the positive response we’ve had from people who are new to Chicago-style food.