Perhaps the easier thing would have been to close Observation Pizza (816-772-9818). When Nick Vella, the chef and visionary behind the burgeoning pop-up business, died tragically in a motorcycle accident in August, there wasn’t exactly a blueprint in place for how to move forward.
But Observation Pizza continues on, with big plans for what comes next. The project started when Vella was furloughed from his chef de cuisine position at the Savoy at 21c, with Vella taking orders via Instagram and cooking the pies at his house. Folks fell hard for his pies, with their chewy crust and cheeky flavor combinations (see: the Bobby Shazam featuring mortadella and American cheese and finished with ranch and bacon fat). As demand grew, Vella moved operations to a commercial kitchen while he worked with investor Chris Harrington on the next iteration.
“We kind of had to gather ourselves after Nick passed,” Harrington says. “There was a lot of unknown on the front-end because Nick wore a lot of different hats. He wasn’t just the chef—he created Observation Pizza from the ground up. He was running the Instagram and creating the hype, and you can’t replace that.”
The Observation team included Liz Mehrman, Vella’s girlfriend. She’d seen the evolution of Observation Pizza, starting with the first pizza night Vella did at his apartment. She designed the original logo, and following Vella’s death, she has taken up the social media reigns and has been instrumental in the redesign of the website and online ordering system.
“Nick talked constantly about Observation Pizza,” Mehrman says. “After he died, I had the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks for everyone because he talked with me about ideas he had that weren’t in the kitchen. I understand his vision and what he was going for, and I want to see it keep growing because I think that’s something we can do for Nick to help finish his dream.”
As the Observation Pizza team—which includes Harrington, Mehrman and, in the kitchen, Melissa Dodd and Austin Suedmeyer—launches a rebrand and a new website, Vella’s voice is ever present.
“Nick’s name is on this, but the kitchen is a living, breathing thing,” Mehrman says. “Nick already trusted the team in his kitchen, and they are making decisions about the menu. There are exciting things coming up.”
Part of that growth: The dine-in restaurant that Vella was planning. By spring, Harrington and Mehrman hope fans will have a place to pay homage to Vella and get nasty with his original pizza.
“It’s a strange thing—this is a restaurant that didn’t even exist yet and people are trying to keep it alive,” Mehrman says. “I think that’s a testament to the community Nick built. They knew he had great ideas.”