April 2, 2006 — As a teenager washing dishes in a pizzeria, Michael Rey knew that he would one day run his own shop. That was 17 years ago, and he has never let anyone tell him differently.
Rey was 18 when he was hired at Pizza Mare in Sunny Isle Shopping Center. Owner Roger Bressi later moved the shop to the Sunny Isle Annex across from Western Auto and then to Estate Welcome near the D.C. Canegata Ballpark.
It is the latter store that made Rey's dream a reality. At 35, he now owns the Pizza Mare near the ballpark and employs a staff of seven.
"I stuck with it even though a lot of people thought I couldn't do it. I had that dream for so long, and I just knew what I wanted and I stayed the course," Rey said recently at his pizzeria, in between stints at the lunch counter serving customers and in the kitchen area where he was shaping mounds of dough into one of his specialty pizzas.
Rey, who said he is sometimes at the shop at 5 a.m. to prep for the lunch crowd (the pizzeria doesn't open until 11 a.m. for business), specializes in a variety of mouth-watering choices that he said is a blend of local cuisine and "Italiano." The pizza assortment includes "anything," Rey said, and he swears by his freshly made pizza with toppings such as whelks, conch, tofu, lobster, shrimp, saltfish and even curry chicken and potato.
There is also pizza with tomatoes and fresh basil or a veggie pizza that features tomatoes, broccoli, mushroom and onions, along with the regular pepperoni, sausage and cheese choices.
Pizza Mare also specializes in calzones, which Rey described as an "Italian paté" because it is crusty bread that he stuffs with either ham and salami or spinach and cheese. He also sells veggie and meat lasagna and the daily specials include shrimp alfredo, eggplant or chicken parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs. Cappuccino, fresh-baked garlic bread, cold drinks, fresh salad and a variety of cakes, including New York-style cheesecake, are also on the menu.
"I love to create something different every day," Rey said of the offerings. "Customers love the fact that they're getting a quality product and it's fresh. The curry chicken and potato is a hit with visitors."
When asked about business, Rey replied positively, "I can't complain."
Nevertheless, getting there wasn't easy, he said. While he was known for his pizza-making skills, he said that wasn't enough to get the capital necessary to put into a new venture.
Rey ran Simple Taste restaurant at Five Corners from 1999 to 2000, where he made famous specialty pizzas with saltfish or lobster toppings. When the store closed, he left the island for New York, where he was a manager at the well-known pizza chain, Sbarro's .
He moved back to the Virgin Islands in 2002 and ran Kokopelli Café on St. Thomas — all the while dreaming of running his own pizzeria.
"It took a lot of determination, and I was lucky to be blessed with an investor – a very nice person who doesn't want to be known. I thank him so much because if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today," Rey said. He would not divulge how much was invested but said that because business has been so swell, he's repaid the loan and is holding his own considering his overhead.
Rey said that Bressi gave him a glowing recommendation, which led to the investor taking a chance on him.
"He told the investor that I was the best pizza maker on the island," Rey said, adding he has a lot of praise for Bressi.
"He was the one who gave me the chance to learn the Italian business," Rey said. "I started doing dishes in the kitchen at Pizza Mare in Sunny Isle and he always motivated me. He would say "Mike, if you want to do good in business you have to love what you do. He was always dangling that carrot in front of me – giving me something to strive for."
Bressi would have pizza-making competitions to see who, among the employees, could make the best and fastest pizza, Rey recalled.
Rey said he understands now what Bressi was trying to teach him all those years ago.
"It's very easy to be in business when you love your job," he said. "I wake up every morning wanting to come to work. Sometimes I come in by 5 a.m. just wanting to get ahead because everything here is made fresh."
Rey also credits his seven-member staff, especially Marilyn Joseph, who assists with many of the specials, including the pizzeria's cheesy lasagna.
"I can't do it all by myself. You have to have good employees," he said.
Rey said he is so grateful for the opportunity that Bressi and the investor made happen that he sees himself emulating them.
"I challenge my employees to look ahead like Roger [Bressi] did and one day, just like that investor did, I hope to give someone a chance like I was given a chance," Rey said.
Pizza Mare is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. To order, call 773-3663.
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