Meet the mastermind behind the original wood fired pizza Knoxville loves!
Hard Knox Pizza’s story began years ago when founder, Dean Bastian’s, father brought the idea of this thing called pizza back from overseas, while fighting in World War Two. His father’s pizza became a weekly weekend tradition for the family. Dean carried this tradition into his own family once he had his own children. Pizza was more than just a dinner- it brought families together.
In 1998, Dean traveled to Naples, Italy, where he was introduced to the wood fire oven. After returning from Italy, Dean continued making pizza for his family. While the pizzas were good, they weren’t exceptional yet. This brought Dean to the realization that what his pizza was missing, was the wood fire oven. In 2003 Dean bought plans from Australia for a wood fire oven. And within 6 months, Dean had built himself a wood fire oven in his own backyard, literally!
In 2010 Dean and his wife, Jill, found themselves in Knoxville with a knack for making delicious pizza and a dream of opening a pizzeria. One thing after another unfolded, and Dean and Jill were taking the steps to make Dean’s dream a reality. With Dean creating the food and Jill managing all the details to keep the restaurant running, the couple worked their way toward a restaurant that would become a local sensation.
I had a chance to meet with Dean recently. I asked Dean how he came up with the name “Hard Knox” and he said ultimately he wanted a name that associated the restaurant to the city and the community. As someone new to Knoxville, he wanted to tie the restaurant to something people would relate to. Here’s an unknown Fun Fact! The first name Dean had come up with was “Godzilla Pizza”. But after doing some research, he found that there was a pizzeria in Vegas with this name who had actually been sued by the rights of the movie Godzilla. After 8 years, we can’t imagine the restaurant as any name other than Hard Knox!
Dean knew that using a would fire oven would separate Hard Knox from other pizza restaurants in the area. People like pizza as it is, so Dean felt no need to “reinvent” pizza, but to just make it better. By mixing fresh mozzarella, other fresh ingredients, and cooking every pizza in the wood fire oven, the unique taste of a Hard Knox Pizza became unforgettable. Dean, of course, used traditional recipes but also mixed in some of his own inspirations to create unique recipes as well. Dean always wanted to display a little of the Hard Knox “food chops” into Pizza. One of Dean’s favorite specials is the Christmas pizza, called The Festivus in honor of the Seinfeld famous episode. That pizza has become such a hit, that we celebrate Christmas in July as well and just wrapped up a month of the Festivus pie at Hard Knox!
Paul and Alexa Sponcia came into Dean and Jill’s life at the perfect time. After having tried to find ways to grow and expand, nothing had fallen into place. Paul and Alexa were regulars at Hard Knox and came to Dean interested in buying a franchise. Alexa had a different idea, “Why don’t we buy them out”. In 2014 the Sponcia’s, alongside their friend Dimpal Patel, purchased 95% of Hard Knox, leaving Dean and Jill as partners in the concept. . While Dean and Jill may not be the sole owner’s anymore, they can’t stray too far away. They eat at the restaurant at least once a month and keep in contact with the Sponcia’s regularly on what’s happening over at Hard Knox. As a matter of fact, Dean has participated in multiple aspects of the Hardin Valley location assisting the team in the oven, some design elements and various advertising ideas. Dean is also a “foodie” and is always bouncing new pizza ideas off the team.
With all the excitement of the second location opening up next week, we want to thank Dean and Jill for the vision, inspiration and for taking the risk to launch Hard Knox Pizza. Without folks like them who are willing to sacrifice, and literally risk it all, and that wood fire oven in Dean’s backyard Hard Knox wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t be pushing towards location number two in Hardin Valley. So thank you Dean and Jill for Hard Knox Pizza and your continued support!