PUNTA GORDA, Fla — There's a small brick-lined path between Marion Ave and Harold Ct in downtown Punta Gorda. It's a quaint alley in a quiet part of the city. It's not the type of place where you expect someone to take the biggest risk of their professional life.
But that's where partners Mike Barone and Bianca Hannigan took their shot.
"I have a son and a serious relationship, and we had to make something happen," Barone says.
The story of how Wildwood Pizza came to be, is part of our SWFL Reinvented series. These are stories about people who lost everything or started with nothing, and created something new. The idea of reinvention has taken on a new meaning this year with the pandemic.
And that's Barone's story.
But lets go back a little further. Restaurants are part of the Barone family business.
"My brother and my dad have successful businesses," he says. "My uncles. Long distance cousins. We're in this business."
They started Pioneers Pizza in Port Charlotte several years ago. Then in 2018, Mike and Bianca went out on their own.
"We were kind of tired of selling the same spaghetti and meatballs to the same clientele over and over, without being able to express ourselves," Barone says. "So that's where the food truck was born."
They called the food truck Trippin on Pizza.
"It's just creative and fun pizza," Hannigan says. "We put in everything from pears to tater tots to pulled pork. Ceviche, hard clams, we do all sorts of stuff."
"Listen, people have been putting French fries on pizza, doing unique stuff for a long time," Barone says. "But no one's really taken it to the level we have, where we try to create this balance of culinary and creative together."
"We took it all over Southwest Florida and everywhere we went, we just tore it up. People went crazy for it."
But then the pandemic came. In a matter of days, events were canceled and no money was coming in. Barone and Hannigan decided they had to park the food truck.
"We have bills, we have obligations and responsibilities, that we had to hustle and make it happen," Barone says.
That search for a new way to make money, led them to that brick-lined alley in downtown Punta Gorda. There was a restaurant space available, and at a time when restaurants were closed down, Barone and Hannigan decided to take a risk and open a pizza place.
"Opening up a business is not an easy thing, I feel like you lose a little bit of yourself doing it. You pour so much blood, sweat, and tears into it," Barone says.
And they had to be creative on top of it. They opened Wildwood Pizza with Covid-19 in mind. Large doors give it an open-air feel. And it's designed so you walk in, order your pizza, then take it outside into a courtyard area. They have live music out there. And yoga on Saturdays. But just like with the food truck, the pizza is the star.
"I wanted to have this feeling of, every time you eat this pizza, you're excited and you're having fun," Barone says. "You're back to being a child again when not everything is so serious."
In their first two months, the business has been better than they expected. Barone says they're selling about 15,000 slices a month. But the weight of their risk is still heavy.
"There's not a vaccine out yet,"Hannigan says. "It still feels like a chance."
"You have to be willing to put it all out there," Barone says. "And I feel like it's worth it in the end, whether you fail or succeed, that you put everything on the line and you tried to make something happen. Life is too short."