Palo Mesa Pizza brings Neapolitan, Roman, traditional pies to California’s Central Coast

Palo Mesa Pizza fuels the pizza needs of California’s Central Coast. The five-unit brand offers traditional pizza, but also Neapolitan and Roman-style.

Michael Stevens runs a series of pizzerias in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it region of California. The award-winning pizzaiolo studied the culinary arts in Michigan before launching Palo Mesa Pizza in 2007. With 34 years in the restaurant business, Stevens has done it all, from washing dishes to delivering pizzas and finally owning his own restaurants. It’s the American dream – and Stevens wouldn’t have it any other way.


Palo Mesa Pizza opened in Arroyo Grande 16 years ago, and Stevens has since opened four more restaurants in San Luis Obispo County. He didn’t start out in pizza; rather he cut his teeth on fine dining after graduating culinary school. “I love the specifics of it, I love the creativity of it, but I wasn’t into the frou frou type situation,” he said.

He worked for both big chains and independents before meeting his wife, Kelly, and the pair honeymooned in California and loved the area. They moved to the Central Coast of California in 2006, and Stevens began to chef at an upscale barbecue restaurant while Kelly served as a nurse. Just a year later, their first pizzeria opened with a partner while Stevens still cheffed at the upscale steakhouse.

In 2008, they took over the steakhouse and six months later took over complete control of Palo Mesa Pizza.

“I ate pizza all over this town and it was horrible,” Stevens said. “I said ‘you know what? There needs to be a pizzeria here.’ I know pizza fairly well.”

Despite a failing economy in 2008-2009, Stevens opened his second restaurant in a shopping center just three to four miles from their first restaurant. “We live on the Central Coast, he said. “We’re kind of secluded a little bit from the rest of the world. When other people were going out of business, we were going into business. … Were kind of looking for more exposure and more foot traffic. Things were vacating, and that’s a cheaper time to get in.”

A third pizzeria followed in San Luis Obispo. Meanwhile, Stevens won several competition awards for his pizza and even went to Italy to compete.


Stevens’ first three pizzerias focused on Americanized Midwest pizza, but it was while he was in Italy that he fell in love with Neapolitan pizza and “the simplicity of crushed tomatoes straight from the can that’s fresher than any tomato that you can get in a store, and the simplicity of the fresh mozzarella and the basil and the sea salt.”

When he can home from Italy, he bought a trailer to make Neapolitan pizza, and it has an oven that can bake up to 120 pizzas an hour. His fourth pizzeria was built in the village of Arroyo Grande and sells Neapolitan pizza and it looks like it came out of Italy with just 600 square feet and a wood-fired oven.

“Now we make California Neapolitan pizza,” Stevens said.

The pandemic hit and a nearby mall asked Stevens to open a unit, but this time he opted for Roman style. “Basically it’s turnkey,” he said. “We just had to make the pizza.”

Now, Stevens has five units – two traditional-style pizzerias, a Neapolitan place and a Roman-style pizzeria. “I think it’s a community situation,” Stevens said. “I take care of the people who take care of us. I took me a long time to understand that I don’t pay my employees – the community does. It’s really customer driven. It’s really community oriented.”

The brand has been head-hunted by a developer to open another location in San Luis Obispo in an open-air market that’s being built right now and will be company’s sixth store. A few years ago, a franchise lawyer reached out to Stevens with the idea of franchising, but Stevens said he thinks the brand is done with six locations. He wants to spend more time with his familt.

In house

Much is done in-house, from grinding sausage and pickling fresh jalapenos to brining chicken and making ranch dressing.

The newest pizzeria under construction will have a plot of land where Stevens will be able to grow produce for the pizzerias. “Not only do we make our own stuff, but we’ll also be able to grow our own vegetables,” Stevens said. “I would say there’s nothing that we don’t make. We don’t even buy frozen bacon. We cook breakfast bacon, chop it up and put it on our pizzas.”

Meatballs are made in house and while Palo Mesa doesn’t make its own pasta, the brand makes lasagna fresh. Why is doing so much in-house so important?

“How many pizzerias are there in the world?” Stevens asked. “I think that we differentiate ourselves from other pizzerias when we’re doing it ourselves. I would say 90% of pizzerias in my vicinity use the same sausage or use the same pepperoni or use the same hamburger or bacon. So what’s setting them apart other than service? I would say that we’re able to create a product that nobody else on the Central Coast can create, or nobody else in the world can create, for that matter.

“There’s no better feeling than standing in one of your own establishments and getting the feedback that you get and the love that you feel for what you do and the passion that you put in it.”

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for and She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living. 

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