Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Fresh and wholesome slices await at the family-owned Tower Pizza in Solvang
When he was a child growing up in Solvang, Torey Dunn’s mother owned a small gift shop called Mette’s Mill. It was located in a walkway off Alisal in the heart of Solvang, beside the tower that juts out into the skyline from behind the scenic windmill there. Decades later, Dunn and his wife, Monica, now run Tower Pizza, located next to the shop his mother once owned.
During a phone call squeezed in while on a family holiday, Dunn reminisced about his early days working in Solvang.
“It was always very supportive here,” Dunn said. “Everyone [in Solvang] is very close. They are always willing to help.”
Tower Pizza has been in Dunn’s extended family for years. A relative who took over the restaurant in 2004 hired Dunn to help as a pizza delivery boy.
“I just started working my way up from there,” he said.
His wife came aboard later, working alongside him until the owners, who originally hailed from Idaho, decided they wanted to move back home. That’s when the Dunns decided to take the leap as business owners.
By the time the Dunns took over, they had already built a strong relationship with their customer base.
“We kind of knew the clientele, since we already had seen and worked with them for so long,” Dunn explained. “It was a very smooth transition. We knew our customers’ names and they knew ours.”
My fiance and I ventured to Tower Pizza on a cold and gloomy night bundled up in our best California “winter attire” (aka “I refuse to wear socks, I’ll just wear an extra belt or something”). The Christmas lights of Solvang’s main drag were still up, flickering their warm invitations to tourists and wayward locals alike. Weekdays in the Central Coast’s best known business districts always catch you by surprise—either they are empty like forgotten ghost towns or bustling like Disneyland on free kids pass day.
Enter Tower Pizza and the first thing you will notice is the abundance of children and families gathered around big screen TVs airing popular sporting events. The atmosphere inside is relaxed and definitively local. Leave the foodies snapping endless Instagram photos of their entrees for another night. Tower Pizza is here for the regulars and visitors looking to get away from formality without surrendering finesse.
The menu includes a range of the expected options at a typical pizzeria. Wings, garlic bread, jalapeño poppers, and cheese sticks fill out the appetizer menu, while diners looking for non-pizza options can feast on hearty plates of pastas, sandwiches, or stromboli. One particular non-pizza highlight is their fried cheese curds, a distinct reminder of the restaurant’s deep Midwest influences. This is a treat I would highly recommend ordering with a pizza, which is surprisingly light enough to hold up against a deep fried appetizer.
The venue offers diners the opportunity to watch staff prepare pizzas in full view, an added touch that I particularly enjoy. Football fans will find themselves right at home inside. During the season, Tower offers a broad range of game day specials and viewing events. For those not interested in gridiron battles, Tower Pizza has a side room offering old-school pinball and video games. Vintage gaming enthusiasts will probably be more excited about the sit-down Ms. Pacman arcade game than anything else (I had to hold myself back from dropping a hefty sum in the game that night).
But it’s not video games and lightening fast preparation that people come to Tower for. It’s the pizza, and it doesn’t disappoint.
I can’t say that I’m especially “picky” about pizza. I’ve had it all over the world. I’ve watched some of the best artisans in Europe throw pizza dough and serve creations you’d swear were cooked up by cherry-cheeked angels themselves. I’ve devoured slices in dive joints in cities like New York and Chicago that made me seriously consider abandoning my career and loved ones to join a pizza-based cult of some kind. I love it all. But, in all my years, I have to admit one of the best and most comforting bites of pizza I’ve ever had was the first bite of Tower’s Idaho pizza.
The brunch-inspired Idaho pizza, created by the venue’s previous owners, is adorned with a heaping portion of ham, bacon, white sauce, and a surprise topper: hash browns. Before I set foot into Tower, if you had told me you were going to put hash browns on my pizza, I would have had you committed. But it really works, especially if you’re looking to step away from your pepperoni cheese pizza comfort zone and try something novel.
When they took over the business, Dunn said he and his wife tried to learn as much as possible.
“We just started eating out at different places, going to events, and learning different recipes to do different styles of pizza,” he said. “You borrow ideas. You say, ‘What can we do with this?’”
One of the reasons that accounts for Tower’s popularity is their thin crust pizza, which is cornmeal-based and cooked in a brick oven. Not quite cracker thin but far from doughy or soggy, Dunn said it’s what helps make their pizzas standout.
“Our pizza is a thinner crust and that’s unique,” Dunn said.
He told me that the crust was originally dubbed “New York style,” but after studying pizza and different styles, he opted for a different description.
“It’s more like our own special blend,” he said. “People love it, they say it’s delicious and it’s less carbs.”
In addition to the Idaho pizza, we also tried the Italian Tower, another light offering with pesto sauce, sausage, and a generous portion of green olives. This isn’t a bite that will scream “greasy pizza night on the couch watching Netflix,” and that’s a good thing.
As for his own personal favorite, Dunn said he leans toward the Garlic Chicken, a pizza that includes garlic white sauce and artichoke hearts.
“It’s very popular,” he said. “The chicken, sauce, veggies—something about them just all blends well together.”
Customers favor the combination pizza, which includes linguica sausage, an ingredient not often found at big-name pizza joints.
“It’s a Portuguese spicy sausage,” Dunn said. “A lot of people want that kick.”
Don’t go to Tower expecting to pay the suspiciously low prices you would see at local corporate chains. Tower Pizza’s small pizzas start between $10 and $15 and go all the way to $25 or $28 for some of their extra large specialty pies. But what you lose in gratuitous affordability you make up for in quality. They don’t hold back on fresh ingredients, which are typically piled high. At Tower, you won’t have to worry about picking at your pizza wondering where that extra order of sausage or peppers you ponied up for is under some artificial mountain of cardboard cheese and gelatinous sauce. Tower Pizza doesn’t skimp on locally sourced toppings, and because of that, loyal customers keep coming back in droves.
But all the compliments I offered to Dunn about his food didn’t seem to excite him as much as his commitment to giving back. The Dunns lead fundraisers for a variety of youth groups and local school events. Even after taking over a long-running local business, one that has customers flocking back year after year, the family’s biggest joy is giving back to the community that helped them grow.
“My wife and I have made our mission to support youth here,” he said. “They drive our community and they are our future.
“We appreciate our customers very much and what they’ve given us,” Dunn added. “We look forward to the chance to give back to them.”
Rebecca Rose can be reached through Interim Managing Editor Joe Payne at email@example.com.
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