Word on the Street Issue 14, September 2021
Americana Pizza owner Max Lillie is familiar with Boise’s unhoused community. His shop next to Rhodes Skate Park serves anyone who loves good pizza, and the business makes a point to welcome all community members as customers, housed or not.
The building at the corner of 16th and Americana in west downtown was the home of Reel Foods, a popular fresh seafood market formerly located just around the corner from Interfaith Sanctuary, CATCH, and Corpus Christi House. Lillie said the building’s history was in part why he chose to move in. The addition of the skate park next door, a kitchen hood system pre-installed in the building, and the lack of restaurants nearby meant a self-sustaining setup and solid customer base for pizza by the slice.
The location never scared Lillie. Inside the shop, wood floors have been stripped to their original finish. The walls are lined with colorful skateboards and photographs of pizza in its many forms across the United States. It’s a friendly corner in an area where homelessness happens to be visible. “I grew up in San Diego and so I wasn’t afraid when I came and saw this location,” said Lillie in reference to the tent city that was Cooper Court around 2018.
“I was following the civil rights case (Martin v Boise) closely. I wasn’t afraid of having unhoused people around. In a bigger city, you see businesses thrive in that environment. I think these people appreciate getting a hot meal for a cheap price and having a place when it’s raining or when it’s cold to come in and have a hot meal they’ve paid for themselves.”
Lillie and staff enjoy operating Americana at its current location. The business sees itself as a willing low-barrier employer for people trying to reenter the workforce. Like in any community, there are ups and downs, but people simply like good food. “It’s usually a positive experience,” Lillie said.
Before serving pizza, Lillie owned a food truck called Gem Street Kitchen, where he and staff made Baja-style Mexican food. One winter, Lillie became interested in pizza and started playing around with dough recipes. His desire to learn took him on a trip across the United States to visit all the famous pizza spots. “I came back and opened up a pizza shop. I felt like this location was good,” he said.
The first year Americana Pizza was in business, the shop’s end of year report displayed the name of an unhoused man well known in the community as its best customer. “He’d come in here and order like 8 slices, then sit and watch high school football highlights on his phone,” said Lillie. “He moved to Boise from the east coast, said Jesus told him to move here. He was in crazy good shape. He walked everywhere. He never got upset and would just hang out.”
Interfaith Sanctuary began ordering from Americana after donors started a pizza night for shelter guests. The made-from-scratch pies were more popular than those premade by a national franchise, something Lillie and his staff are proud of. Everyone who works in the kitchen at Americana loves to learn about food, and their pizza is a mix of everything Lillie learned on the road.
“We ferment the dough for 48 hours before we serve it. The cornmeal bottom we got from working at a pizza shop in San Francisco for a few days to get some experience,” he said. “We make a very classic pomodoro sauce, similar to New York-style, using good tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, fresh oregano and romano cheese. There’s no sugar added. It’s super simple.”