DIY model helps business

She's been cooking American breakfasts for nearly a decade at the Best Western Newport Mesa Inn on Newport Boulevard, but times have been tough these days, so Francesca Gibson-Tucker has decided to branch out — Italian-style.

Every Friday for the past few months, the Costa Mesa chef and 1974 graduate of Newport Harbor High School has been letting the customers build their own pizzas — from rolling the dough to pouring on the marinara sauce to loading up favorite toppings.

So far, the "Build your own Pizza" night at the hotel's restaurant, between the hours of 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., has been a success since it started a few months ago. And the more people who come in the merrier for Gibson-Tucker, a mother of four whose career has been hardscrabble at best.

"We're talking about $7 for a personal pan pizza and a salad," said Gibson-Tucker. "But people are funny; they always end up making the pies a little bit bigger. They start out with a personal pan then pretty soon it becomes a medium, then a large."

But Gibson-Tucker isn't one to quibble over the price of dough.

She's just happy that customers are banging down the door to the restaurant, where she waits for them, then walks them through the whole process of "pizza building" before ferrying the pies to the kitchen, where the oven is ready at 400 degrees.

"The parents are always amazed at how fast everything goes," said Gibson-Tucker, whose customers of late include youth soccer teams. "It's like the speed dating of pizza-making. It only takes about 10 minutes to bake."

And if there were ever a woman who knows how to put together a pizza, it would be Gibson-Tucker, who grew up learning to bake pies. It helps matters, of course, that she's Italian on her father's side and that her great grandparents came from Sicily.

While Naples may be the birth place of the pizza, Sicily's never one to be entirely outdone, she said.

"We were an Italian family," she said, "so all we did was cook or think about cooking. Every night, it was something different. If we didn't feel like getting elaborate, then we'd bake a pie. I don't think I went to a Shakey's until I was in high school. We were always going over to my grandma's or aunty's."

Now everybody's going over to Francesca's, a small restaurant across from the lobby of the hotel at 2642 Newport Blvd., near the Orange County Fairgrounds.

For the most part, the hotel hasn't had a full-fledged restaurant since the days of Choo Choo Charlie's, whose Louisiana-bred owner prepared "mean" catfish, said Jana Lane, a Costa Mesa resident who remembers the model train that traveled around walls near the ceiling.

"I think Ruby's on East 17th Street bought that train set," said Lane. "I remember I'd go there in the late '70s after a couple from the Deep South recommended it to me."

Flash forward to the late '90s, when the owners of the original Le Biarritz on Old Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa established a catering business inside the hotel. And it was there that Francesca got her start in catering.

Most of the time, as a single mom for a number of years and at a loss for money, she said she'd bake wedding cakes and pastries and cookies to make ends meet.

For the last decade, however, she's served regular breakfasts to 100 or so hotel guests.

While Francesca's catering business depends heavily on hotel occupancy, which is doing pretty well these days, she said, serving breakfasts only pays to rent the kitchen and the space, she said.

The rest, whether it's room service or build your own pizza, amounts to her take-home pay.

"I'm reinventing myself," she said. "You have to in these times. All small business owners are … looking in new directions."

And always by her side is Jesus Romero, who's been helping since Day One nearly a decade ago.

"He's Batman to my Robin," she said, "or the other way around."

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