Stuck in traffic on north 183, I often wonder what goes on in all those sprawling, anonymous storefront office units and warehouses lining the highway. Most of it is probably pretty mundane—insurance companies, bookkeepers, medical supplies—but maybe, my daydreams suggest, there’s an episode of “Breaking Bad” going on somewhere in there. I would never think that tucked behind a custom 4x4 auto parts garage lives the burgeoning frozen pizza empire, Bola Pizza.
The location is fitting, if coincidental—Austin native Jamie Bowers, one half of the husband-and-wife team that created Bola Pizza, spent much of her late teens and 20s learning to tear apart and rebuild Vespa scooters and any number of other Italian automobiles. “I once did the brakes on a Ferrari,” she tells me when I meet her at Bola’s kitchen headquarters. “That was the most glamorous job I had.” What Jamie and her husband, Christian, have sacrificed in glamor, they’ve totally made up for with their product. Fans say that Bola Pizza is easily the best frozen pizza they’ve ever eaten, and stands up next to any artisan, farm-to-table pizza served in our city’s many Italian eateries.
The road to frozen pizza dominance is a circuitous one, and begins with a chance encounter with old-school Austin chef Rino Lanzalotti of Bottega Della Pasta when Jamie was 19. “Rino had a Vespa, so that’s how I met him. He ran his own pasta shop, and he gave me his pizza dough recipe and I started having pizza nights for friends,” she says. “That recipe isn’t anywhere close to the dough recipe we have these days, but my friends loved it.” When Jamie returned to college at the University of Texas in her mid-20s, she rescued her future company’s namesake—a Blue Lacy pup she named Bola. “That’s when the pizza parties as a tradition really got cemented. It was every Wednesday I would make pizza…all my friends would be in the living room. I’d be making pizza, and they’d be spoiling [Bola] rotten feeding him crusts behind my back.”
It was at one of these parties that Christian Bowers showed up as the guest of a friend, and a now-14-year partnership was born. Years later, after they were married and their friends started having kids, the newlyweds’ social life took a dip. Christian suggested they reboot the pizza nights. “But we need to change the dough recipe,” he said.
“He was really interested in the fermentation process,” says Jamie of Christian, who she describes by turns as an artist, a chef and a mad scientist. “We thought the three- and four-day [fermented dough] was the tastiest. It’s still really puffy on the inside, but it’s crunchy on the outside, and it’s just like a good French baguette—you bite into it and it’s got that toothy feel.”
The redux pizza parties turned out to be a hit. “It was just for fun,” Jamie says. “We wanted to meet some new people and expand our social circle. We never really thought we’d be a pizza company.”
Then, in 2008, the financial crisis hit, and work for Christian dried up. Jamie was working for the State, and her salary was barely supporting them. They knew they had to make a change. Christian sold an heirloom watch he had, and they used the cash to buy a pizza oven and have a trailer built. Bola Pizza was conceived as a catering business—debuting in 2010 at The Green Corn Project Fall Festival held at Boggy Creek Farm. “I’m getting nervous just thinking about it—it was so exciting,” Jamie says of that fateful day. “We’re getting the oven fired up…and then I hear this voice, and I turn around, and I’m like, ‘Rino?!’ And it’s Rino Lanzalotti who gave me the dough recipe I started out with! It was absolutely wild. It was totally uncanny. Looking at it in hindsight, it was like all these little pieces fell into place. I was shaking [while handing him] the first piece of pizza. Rino looks at me and goes, ‘Wow! This is better than my dough recipe!’”
The catering business was a fast success, and the couple began to get attention from big guns like Whole Foods Market and Central Market. After some trial and error at home, they landed on their methods and recipes for a whole line of frozen pizzas. “It’s a frozen pizza, but it’s not a frozen pizza,” Jamie says. “Most frozen pizzas are not made by hand. We never use nonorganic tomatoes for our sauce; we never use anything other than King Arthur flour. I continue to look for suppliers who have the same ethos we have. Our mozzarella is Andrew & Everett; it’s all hormone- and antibiotic-free. All of our meats are the same way—humanely raised. That’s something that’s super important to me.”
Bola Pizzas are now in the freezer sections of all nine Central Markets, approximately 60 H-E-B locations in Texas and many locally owned markets all around Austin. Their small kitchen behind the auto parts warehouse produces upwards of 750 handmade pizzas per day, and the company is still growing. “I never thought we would fail,” Jamie says of her nascent empire. “I always thought: This is it. This is what we should be doing. I love pizza. I love to share food with people!”
By Adam Boles • Photography by Alison Narro
Find out more at bolafrozenpizza.com or call 512-453-7223.