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Kid pizza maestro offers slice of life

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
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Pizza prodigy tosses pies
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boy, 9, has been tossing pie, making pizza and guarding secrets since he was 4
  • Father-son duo opens Atlanta, Georgia, restaurant reflecting Naples, Italy, roots
  • Son, who comes in after school, charms -- and sometimes terrorizes -- customers
RELATED TOPICS
  • Atlanta
  • Pizza
  • Naples

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- No pizza maestro worth his sauce will reveal his secrets.

Not even if he's 9 and hoisting up his apron so he doesn't trip on it.

"I'm going to have to know you better," Johnny Di Palma says with a smile, as he sprinkles ingredients onto freshly tossed dough. "And if I tell you, I'll have to kill you."

It's a Wednesday evening and the third-grader is where he usually comes after school -- Antico Pizza, the dream-come-true business established by his father, Giovanni Di Palma. The father/son duo moved from New York two years ago to start a unique pizza place, one that would reflect their family's Italian roots. Four months ago, the restaurant on the west side of Atlanta, Georgia, opened its doors.

In the large open kitchen, where patrons crowd to eat over large metal worktables, Johnny is at home. He does his schoolwork -- math is his favorite subject -- in the restaurant office. But otherwise he's working the crowd in his signature newsboy-style hat, tossing and stretching dough (a skill he began developing at age 4) and making grown women swoon.

Gallery: Authentic Italian pizza in Atlanta

"He wanted to know if this was my first time here," a 32-year-old woman gushes, her hand over her heart. "Oh, he's so cute."

Asked where he was born, Johnny, sporting a red kerchief around his neck, is quick to say Italy. But his father, standing within earshot, shakes his head and laughs.

"He thinks he was," Di Palma, 45, mutters. "Little Italy," in New York, "is more like it."

Along one wall are the imported mixers and sacks of San Felice flour from Naples, where Giovanni Di Palma's grandparents came from and where the family pizza-making tradition began. On the opposite side of the kitchen are three handcrafted ovens -- weighing in at 30,000 pounds -- that heat up to more than 1,000 degrees and bake a pizza to perfection in 60 seconds.

Combining ancient Santa Maria brick with beds of volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvio and Sorrento stone, only seven of these Acunto Napoli ovens exist in the United States, Di Palma says. He has three of them.

Propped atop each one is a patron saint, including above the center oven San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples -- which is also the name of Di Palma's signature pizza, one that includes sweet and spicy peppers from a location he refuses to name -- or rather, confirm.

Johnny says they come from Sicily. His father counters with South Africa. Later, one of them says Morocco. The game of guarding a family recipe secret is one the boy knows how to play.

If he had his way, Johnny might be hanging out to the sound of Green Day. But the songs that fill the Antico Pizza kitchen include Dean Martin's "In Napoli," Frank Sinatra's "Isle of Capri" and Enrico Caruso's "O Sole Mio." The maestros at the ovens get especially worked up during Gigi D'Alessio's "Napule" -- the song, about a guy making pizza, that's used to pump up the Naples soccer team before games.

Wearing a team jersey emblazoned on the back with his nickname "Giggotto" (usually shortened to "Gigi" or "Gigo"), Johnny grabs a 12-foot-long wooden paddle and maneuvers one of his pizzas into an oven.

"Maestro, bravo! Gigo!" his father calls out, while standing beside the woman he recently asked to marry him.

Aleesha Hurd was studying to get her MBA at nearby Georgia Institute of Technology when she was introduced to this place. She walked into the under-construction kitchen for an interview, wanting to do some bookkeeping for Di Palma.

"I came in all Tahari-suited up," she says, laughing at the memory. "He asked me, 'You like pizza?' I said, 'No.'" With that, she says, the interview stopped. Di Palma got to work in front of the ovens, then placed one of his creations before her. "I ate the whole damn pizza myself," she says, shaking her head.

She was sold on the business, and even before the engagement she put school on hold to help make Di Palma's dream happen. Telling her father she was dropping out to work at a pizza place didn't go over well at first, she says, but one trip down from his Ohio home and her dad understood.

"I thought I made a pretty mean pizza," Albert Hurd said by phone. "Then I go and see the place. ... I'm watching these people come in. I just couldn't believe how they kept coming. They came until they ran out of dough."

On Saturday nights, Di Palma says, they usually have to lock the door to new customers at around 7:30 p.m.

It's not just any pizza, and Johnny knows this, too. He'd like to start a class to teach other kids how to make a proper pizza, and he grimaces and gives a thumbs-down at the mere mention of places like Domino's and Papa John's. But he also munches on prepackaged convenience store beef jerky while strolling past a bin of specialty dried aged beef fit for his father's pizzas, and says of Wendy's, "They rock!"

He absently grabs a handful of fresh basil and pops it in his mouth as he talks about his favorite movies, "a lot of blood and gore," he says, his eyes lighting up. Later, while making a mask out of dough for a 7-year-old boy who's in the restaurant to celebrate his birthday, Johnny blurts out, "You ever hear of Jeffrey Dahmer? That's one of the coolest serial killers."

He rattles off his other hobbies -- skateboarding, soccer and his Xbox 360 included -- and boasts of other skills. Tossing mints in the air, he pumps his fist when he catches three in a row.

"My second-best talent is jumping two chairs in a row, the long way," he says, minutes before grabbing hold of his flour gun.

Yes, Johnny is there in the family restaurant, charming the patrons. But he's also a boy who, frankly, can act like one. Taking -- and wearing -- handfuls of imported flour, he loads his weapon.

Bam! He blasts his uncle Giuseppe, visiting from out of town, in the back of the head.

Poof! He shoots a boy who's dining with his family point-blank in the face.

"Hey Gigo," his father calls out over the crowd and white cloud, "it might be time to put the gun away."

Leaving the laughing boy customer behind, Johnny saunters off -- maybe to chat up several women who are smiling his way or, if he's feeling it, to create the sort of pizza that would make his ancestors proud.