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Saturday, May 18, 2024

"On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing." — William Least Heat-Moon

Blue Highway Pizzeria has been serving pizza, sandwiches and other Italian classics since 2004 in Micanopy and since 2009 in Gainesville's Tioga Town Center. Frank Ruffino, a 60-year-old Micanopy man, is the owner and founder. Sixty is the new 40, he assured.

Ruffino has been cooking professionally for 33 years. He is mostly a self-taught cook; however, he has received some unofficial training from the Culinary Institute of America. He first started cooking as a kid in Chicago, where he was born and raised. One of his first childhood memories is watching his grandmother make ravioli. His Italian heritage influenced his current cooking style.

"Everyone has good food memories," Ruffino said. "The one nice thing about this business is its immediate gratification. I can give someone a good plate of food and see the smile come on their face. You can see it in their eyes."

Before Ruffino and his wife settled in Florida, every five to seven years his family moved to a different city for better jobs.

"This was an opportunity for us to put down roots," he said. "We had roots here when we lived here. We wanted to be part of the community."

The Blue Highway in Micanopy just kind of happened, he said. It used to be an "old redneck bar" called the Wits Inn. When he first bought the property, he ran it as a bar for about five months until he got all the permits to officially open as a pizzeria.

Ruffino originally was going to name the restaurant Pizzettas, which means "small pizzas." His father did not feel it went well with the location, so he chose another name.

Blue Highway came from William Least Heat-Moon's book "Blue Highways: A Journey into America." In the book, Heat-Moon traveled throughout America on back roads, or blue highways. He wrote about mom-and-pop places and good restaurants where he stopped, as long as he stayed off the main roads, Ruffino said.

A few months after the pizzeria opened, a local historian informed him that the restaurant was actually located on an old blue highway, U.S. 441.

"Sometimes things are meant to be," he said.

He based the menu on things he liked to eat.

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"I wanted something casual," he said. "I wanted to do something everyone likes, and I wanted to do it better than most people get. People love pizza."

Ruffino's son taught him how to make pizza because he had worked in pizzerias while he was growing up. The pizza served at Blue Highway was created by their joint effort.

He said a good pizza starts with a good crust.

"I've had people tell us, ‘God, I've never ate crust before, but I love your crust,'" he said. "There's a lot of love and handwork going into our product here."

Every pizza is made to order. On a weekly basis, the restaurant makes more than 1,000 pizzas. On a good week the number can hit 2,000, he said.

Regulars are the core customers at the pizzeria. Some people come four times a week, he said.

Blue Highway does its best to buy local products. It also uses organic products for the salads.

The Micanopy location only sells pizza, sandwiches, salads and desserts, but Tioga has an expanded menu that also serves pasta.

He has two items named after his parents: The "Gino," which has Genoa salami, capicolla, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, banana peppers and oil and vinegar on a roll, is named for his father, and "Mama Josephine Spaghetti and Meatballs" is named after his mother.

"My mother used to make great meatballs," he said.

Ruffino has created a family environment with Blue Highway's employees. Some workers have been there since the beginning.

"I can't do this myself," he said. "If it wasn't for our employees, we wouldn't be here. That's probably one of my driving forces: not only to make people happy, but then to see our employees, who are a part of our family, go and prosper. It's a really good feeling."

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