How a Former Electrician Pivoted to Full-Time Pizza Making

Rafael Ruiz told his parents they were “nuts” when they first suggested he turn his pizza truck into what is now the successful Emilio’s Wood Fire Pizza in Nutley. 

Rafael Ruiz took his pizza business from pop-up to permanent. Photo: John Emerson

Rafael Ruiz thought the only tools he would ever need were the ones he carried as an electrician. He was midway through his five-year apprenticeship and looking forward to taking the exam that would make him an electrical contractor. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and he was out of a job.

Now his favorite tool is probably the wooden paddle he wields at his Nutley restaurant, Emilio’s Wood Fire Pizza, which he modestly calls “my store.”

Pizza was never the plan. It was the follow-up to a fallback. Ruiz and his father, Edgar, a designer of industrial machinery, “were sitting around, bored, when he looked at me and said, ‘Let’s build a firepit in the backyard.’ Mom said, ‘Why don’t you build a brick oven instead?’” Which, after online research, is what they did.

It took about three months to build the wood-burning dome-shaped oven, but Ruiz, who had once worked part-time in a local pizzeria, calls that “the easy part. The hard part was learning to make good dough and bake well.”

Family and friends were the guinea pigs. They seemed pleased, except for one person who wasn’t. That was Ruiz’s then new girlfriend, Julia ( “who was named for the Beatles song,” he notes.) “She said, ‘Rafe, this is terrible.’ She was the only one who was brutally honest with me. When she said that, I just wanted to make better pizza to impress this girl.” 

Their dates became pizza excursions. “That’s how I was able to figure out what kind of pizza this girl likes,” Ruiz says. “She could never explain it. She just said, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it.’”

Yet a pattern emerged. They were drawn to the classic Neapolitan style—baked in 750-to-900-degree wood-burning ovens for three minutes or less, emerging bubbly, with a light char. 

“They were good,” Ruiz says, “but 90 percent were all the same.” One that clearly stood out was the famous Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan from Jersey native Anthony Mangieri. “He’s my frigging hero in pizza,” Ruiz says.     

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Over time, the couple were drawn to what Ruiz calls “a newer style, canotto, Italian for canoe.” A canotto can also be an inflatable dinghy filled with air. And what distinguishes a canotto pizza are tiny air pockets that lighten the crust but keep it crispy.

The backyard oven became the couple’s laboratory. “I had no culinary experience,” Ruiz admits. “I once worked in a pizzeria spinning pies in the oven, but that’s not culinary experience. It took me a year and a half to properly mimic some of the pizzas we loved. By that time my family was sick of eating pizza.”

What to do? “I thought, You can’t just make them and throw them out.” So, in January 2021, he decided to invite the public. Never mind that he was now back to work full time as an electrician, and “it was freezing out.” 

Ruiz had been posting his backyard pizza progress on Instagram (@r_ruiz14). Now he posted an invite, offering 12-inch pizzas for $10 each. “The whole family would get together in the kitchen to stretch the dough. My dad was stoking the oven; my mom, Lisa, would top the pizzas. We made about 40-50, and they sold out.” 

It became a regular thing. “After a couple weeks, we were doing 150-200 pies on a Sunday.”

Word spread—including to the Bloomfield Department of Health. “They said, ‘We can hit you with a fine—or stop selling them.’ So we made it legit. We built a pizza oven on a trailer, and a friend who has a restaurant made my dough in his restaurant. I registered as an LLC, and we started going to street fairs and booking private parties.”

The feedback was phenomenal. “People were saying, ‘I’d rather go to your pop-up in the street than to a restaurant,” Ruiz marvels. “I’m like, This is crazy. But pretty soon we had booked so many parties and events that my fiancé and my parents sat me down and said, ‘We’ve never seen you so happy.’ 

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never been able to do what I love.’ This was February of 2022. They said, ‘There’s only so much you can do on the road, with the truck. You should open a restaurant.’ I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ The only thing I know how to cook is pizza. I’m keeping the truck.’

“But it sat with me. I was back to work as an electrician and making pizza in the truck. My fiancé said, ‘You can’t do both.’”  

For a while, he kept on. “My friend Chris Gerbino, who owns a media company in Nutley, gave me advice on using Instagram as a tool. He said, ‘Be yourself. Post yourself making pizza, post funny stuff.’”

He did, and still does. In June, he posted a video of himself outside the restaurant, holding a fresh pizza in a pouring rain. “Unfortunately, the outdoor dining is closed today,” he said with a laugh. “But we are still available for indoor dining.”   

Now he has almost 5,300 followers. He credits a favorable notice this year from food writer Pete Genovese. He also credits advice and encouragement from his family and from Nutley native Mike Cosenza of Mike’s Pasta & Sandwich Shoppe.  

“People think chefs are not willing to share knowledge,” he says. “In my short time in the industry, I’ve seen the opposite. Chefs want to grow with each other. They want to know more. But I don’t let anyone in the restaurant call me a chef.  You have to humble yourself in order to grow. I haven’t earned that title yet.” 

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