Delicio opening new restaurant near XU Thursday

Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 08, 2015
and last updated 2016-05-20 13:10:50-04

Like a chef who tweaks a good recipe to improve it, Randy Key says Delicio is still a work in progress. One that’s ready to grow.

The pizza restaurant in Montgomery opened in November 2013 and has since become an area favorite. Now, a second Delicio is opening at University Station, the multiphase residential and retail development straddling the Evanston-Norwood border on Montgomery Road, just east of Xavier University.

Delicio will hold a grand opening for the University Station restaurant Thursday.

Delicio remains the only Tri-State pizzeria to cook its pies in a coal-fired oven. That’s not just a gimmick, Key said.

The first 19th-century pizza restaurants around Naples, at Italy’s southern tip, used coal ovens, he said, and that’s the tradition immigrants brought with them when they came to the United States. Indeed, several of the legendary names of New York City pizza — Grimaldi’s, John’s and Lombardi’s — have thrived for more than a century using the method.

Compared to wood-fired ovens, coal ovens burn more than 200 degrees hotter, usually between 900 and 1,100 degrees. That means pizzas cook really fast, and they come out with a unique flavor profile that no other ovens can replicate. The heat has a similar effect on toppings.

“It’s charred around the edge and still chewy in the middle,” Key said.

Think of searing a steak, but with dough. As Delicio’s website declares, “It will forever alter your expectation of pizza.”

Coal can conjure unappetizing images of smoke and pollution, but Key said that doesn’t apply for oven coal. Pizza ovens use anthracite coal, he said, the highest grade available. That means it generates the most heat for the weight and contains virtually no sulfur, the contaminant which can make lesser coal a pollutant.

“It burns cleaner than wood. It’s actually more environmentally friendly,” Key said.

Key’s decades of restaurant experience includes stints with Bob Evans, Morrison’s and Wendy’s. Delicio isn’t his only current venture: He’s the owner of Greater Cincinnati’s six Qdoba Mexican Grill franchises.

Key’s extensive business travels and perhaps Qdoba’s influence led to a key ingredient at Delicio — an influence from the American southwest. “I saw the similarities,” he said. “They’re both hot, dry climates, and the tastes complement each other.”

With pizza, that manifests itself in such toppings as avocado, black beans, braised pork, chorizo, green chilies and jalapenos. Combinations on the menu include carnitas, fajita and Santa Fe pizzas.

In opening a second location, Key said he’s moving into what he perceives to be an underserved area of the city. While he expects to draw customers from neighboring Hyde Park and Norwood — “People don’t like all the traffic around Rookwood,” he said — he’s also making a conscious effort to target a different demographic.

“This [Montgomery] is residential,” he said, “and that [University Station] is a college location.” The new restaurant, then, will be tailored to that clientele. Expect more TVs (there’s a large TV-free zone in the Montgomery dining room) and more craft-beer taps, for example. The University Station location also will be about 20 percent larger, he said, with seating for 110 inside and 50 more on an outdoor patio when weather permits.

Carried-over design cues will include the coal-fired oven in the middle of the dining room and the copper border, “like a big copper kettle,” Key said, of the cooking area.

Key said he wants to gauge the flexibility of the Delicio concept because he sees great growth potential for the brand. He also hopes to franchise the concept.

At University Station, Delicio will join Gold Star, Graeter’s and Starbucks outlets. Betta’s Italian Oven, which makes wood-fired pizza, stands across Montgomery Road.

That doesn’t worry Key. He sees his toughest competitors not within specific categories — Qdoba versus Chipotle, for example — but in the brands that hold customers’ mindshare.

If those diners choose University Station (and hopefully Delicio, of course) over a fast-food drive-through, that’s a victory, he said. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Key has another weapon to draw people, this one sweet. “We weren’t quite happy with our desserts,” he said of Delicio’s first days. Then he got a call to check out a gourmet popsicle stand in Texas. He did.

“I told the owner I was going to be there for a while, taste some of the pops and see who was stopping by,” he said. He was impressed with what he saw: students, professionals and tourists, all making special trips to get a fix of these frozen treats.

“It was amazing,” he said of the place’s broad appeal. He had his dessert answer.

What had been planned as a private dining room at Delicio instead became the Pop Shop. Like Delicio, its popsicles reflect a southwest influence, this time the paleta.

“I have employees from Mexico, and I talk to them periodically about food,” Key said. “When I asked about paletas, they always get this big smile and dreamy look. It’s a family thing, making paletas at home with their own recipes.”

It’s also big business for small shops, kiosks and food carts called paleterias across western Mexico and Latin-influenced U.S. cities like Los Angeles.

A key difference between paletas and traditional popsicles is that paletas are often cream-based. For a restaurant that bridges the food cultures of Italy and the southwest, it’s perfect. “It’s basically gelato on a stick,” Key said.

The Pop Shop offers three basic categories of the treats: gourmet pops, with such flavors as spicy pineapple, hibiscus pomegranate and key lime pie; gelato pops, including pistachio, carmelatte or cake batter; and “boozy pops,” alcohol-infused flavors including strawberry margarita, maple bacon with bourbon and blue Hennessy. For an extra layer of decadence, the pops can be dipped like soft-serve cones in caramel or white or milk chocolate, and then even coated with extras like coal-fired bacon (from the Delicio oven, naturally), crushed waffle cone or peanuts.

Banana milkshake pop dipped in white chocolate? Key recommends it highly.

The Pop Shop is attached to Delicio in Montgomery and will be at University Station, too. Delicio diners can even have servers bring pops to their table. Key says they’re more often bought on the way out, though.

Though attached to Delicio for now, Key said he believes the Pop Shop has strong potential for expansion on its own.

Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.

Delicio and the Pop Shop

  • What: Coal-fired pizza and gourmet popsicles.
  • Where: 9321 Montgomery Road, Montgomery and 3701 Montgomery Road, Cincinnati.
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
  • More information: 513-834-5460 (Delicio), 513-954-5106 (Pop Shop); on Facebook at and