Cliff Montano: The man behind the pizza

By May Soricelli
The Surveyor

Brick Oven Pizza and Subs owner, Cliff Montano, poses for a photo inside his pizza shop on Mountain Avenue in Berthoud. There's more to Montano than his ability to make great pizza. May Soricelli / The Surveyor

Brick Oven Pizza and Subs owner, Cliff Montano, poses for a photo inside his pizza shop on Mountain Avenue in Berthoud. There’s more to Montano than his ability to make great pizza.
May Soricelli / The Surveyor

When 12-year-old Cliff Montano, from the Bronx, stood scrutinized for constantly and perfectly stirring the sauce in his father’s pizza shop, he envisioned his ideal pizza shop and how he would do it all differently. Now, as he reflects back on that dream, he can say what he’s accomplished is far greater than those oppressive, long work days in the hot New York pizza shop. For Montano it was never about the pizza anyway – it’s always been about the people. And the people of Berthoud would agree with him; Montano’s Brick Oven Pizza is a place for community. “Just to be a guy in the neighborhood, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish,” said Montano.

Montano believes it was a different time growing up in the ‘70s than it is now. He states that back in those days “you worked for room and board,” and now he’s observed kids grow up and often can’t take care of themselves well enough to even leave home. As part of his dream of having a shop built for community, Montano has expanded his mission to mentoring and teaching the youth who work in his shop.

A pizza guy’s path to Berthoud

In the late ‘80s Montano’s family moved to Northern Colorado. As a young father, at the age of 24, Montano decided to move into a business of his own, using his restaurant and management skills to rescue and revive dying pizza shops. Up and down the Front Range he bought and restored half a dozen pizza shops, and for 30 years helped people turn around their floundering businesses. As the front man for several establishments, his motto was: “Get in; clean up; turn it over.” During the years of restaurant operations he managed to save funds and equipment here and there to make his dream of having his own pizza restaurant a reality. He said he sort of “fell into” the pizza place here in Berthoud when he bought the original business with hopes of passing it on to his son Stefano. When it came time, his son had different ambitions and pursued a different path. Despite the disappointment he felt, Montano was grateful for the moment his son thanked him for letting him make his own choices with his life, because that meant he was doing things different than his own father had. His days of “flipping” pizza shops were coming to a close. “I tried to do that here, but this town won’t let me go,” said Montano, “I’m related to this town.”

Since August of 2010 Montano has owned Brick Oven Pizza in Berthoud, and it’s been five successful years in the community. “My success comes because of an outward focus,” said Montano. “Being a small business owner is hard, but fulfilling.” Montano was influenced by his father’s industrious spirit; it taught him to work hard toward a goal and create his own pizza kingdom. “This is still America, you can come from nothing. It’s just harder now because of the cost [of running a small business],” said Montano.

A wake-up call

Three years ago a health crisis dramatically affected the course he took with his business, as Montano walked into a liver specialist’s office to receive help. He recalls the sinking moment that came when the doctor told him to not even bother scheduling another appointment because, in the words of the doctor, “he probably won’t be around for it,” Montano said. An overabundance of alcohol had taken a serious and deadly toll on Montano’s body. Due to what Montano illustrates as an “addictive” and “intense” personality, he found himself caught up in a drinking habit which had caused his liver to operate at only 17 percent capacity. The doctor’s timely words stunned him and opened his eyes to the fact? that he may not get a second chance. The antidote for Montano was to “love life” and to channel that intense personality in a positive way.

“Time to stop drinking and get to working,” said Montano. “Working” for Montano meant making a difference, and making life count. “Obviously, God still has me here,” he said.

Giving back

Now Brick Oven Pizza is more than just a buzzing local pizza parlor, it’s a place Montano models life skills to build up the teenagers who work for him in areas such as self-esteem, work ethic, money management, communication skills and honesty when mistakes are made. “Just like the sun touches everything, the truth comes out,” said Montano. It’s especially important to him that an atmosphere of respect and integrity is established among the students. “Every kid’s my responsibility when on the clock,” said Montano.

One of the difference makers for Montano’s employees is his willingness to work around students’ sports schedules. “If it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Montano. This is an area Montano supports strongly, attending many of the matches, games and events himself. “If they’re playing sports they’re not taking drugs,” said Montano. He particularly enjoys basketball and volleyball and tries to go to most of the games.

Cliff Montano hugs 2015 Berthoud High graduate Tyler Pechin at the commencement ceremony in May. Surveyor file photo

Cliff Montano hugs 2015 Berthoud High graduate Tyler Pechin at the commencement ceremony in May.
Surveyor file photo

In numerous ways Montano has assisted these youth in becoming successful adults. Every year he has a $1,000 scholarship essay contest among his staff. He has even given a couple of students a car with the mindset, “It’s not a gift; it’s a one-up; a challenge to give to others.” said Montano. Several kids have even ventured back to Brick Oven Pizza and thanked him for his impact on their lives. One student, Tyler Pechin, was so grateful for Montano he chose to have Montano hand him his diploma at his graduation ceremony at Berthoud High in 2015.

Community involvement is key for Montano. “I do a lot of work directly with the school,” he says. He does more than give local schools good rates on pizza; he is a part of the Berthoud High School booster club and an athletic sponsor. He is also an active member of the Berthoud Chamber of Commerce.

Montano prides himself on his “kingdom” and the quality of pizza he puts out to customers. Everything is made from scratch and prepared in the New-York-style “brick-oven.” The sauce is made from fresh ingredients and no preservatives. “It was on the vine 14 days ago,” said Montano. He remembers how grueling it was back when it was his job to constantly stir the sauce at his father’s pizza shop. “It was like splitting neutrons, trying to make sauce,” said Montano. He later found out from a successful chef that his father was wrong about the sauce, that cooking it all day isn’t good. “The longer you cook the sauce the more you cook the spices out,” he said.

The man behind the ads

Everyone in town has seen them; those zany, humorous, off-the-wall ads of Montano’s face cut-and-pasted digitally into unusual scenarios. “My ads reflect the fact that I want to be different and stand out,” said Montano. “How many people laugh at those? Great people laugh at themselves.” Montano has received great feedback from running those ads in the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, and people will call or come in just because they saw the ad. For those community members who simply can’t get enough of those kooky advertisements, he puts together a calendar of his favorites and wants to put them all in a book someday.

Last year at this time Montano surprised the town with the gift of 137 Thanksgiving turkeys, free to the community. When asked why he did this generous act he simply said, “I’m related to this town. We’re a family.” He had so many pizza sales in the following weeks it more than made up for the sacrifice. “I do it because I can. I have what I need. It will come back,” said Montano.

“This place is becoming more and more like my dream center every day,” said Montano. It’s not about the pizza, for him it’s about purpose. “Every day I count my blessings [looking around his shop] this is bought and paid for. I’m here because God wants me here.”

For Montano, the pizza shop is his home and his security.

“And no one’s yelling ‘Hey did you stir the sauce?’” he said.