“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with local surfers whose love for the ocean fuels their passion, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to the Northeast Florida community and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.
Pizza and surfing make excellent bedfellows. Superficially at least, both are tied to adolescence; nothing makes for a better impression of a juvenile stoner than the phrase “pizza, brah?” queried with a nasally high pitched surfer’s drawl (Or, see: Jeff Spicoli telling the unimpeachably square Mr. Hand, “Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a little pizza on our time,” in the famous scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)
There are similarities, too. Both are simple pleasures. Dough, sauce, and cheese; a hunk of foam sliding over salt water. And both surfing and pizza tend to be indelibly tied to place. Surfing is broadly a pursuit taken up by people in coastal regions, with its practitioners adopting a style, approach, or aesthetic preferences of their region. Santa Cruz brings to mind loud, Ed Roth-style art, HC riffage, and sleeve tats, while Byron Bay conjures images of longhaired, shoeless hippies strumming baby Martins, whilst rocking wide-brimmed fedoras. Meanwhile, a pizza joint done well, adopts the character of its community or neighborhood, bringing folks together over a humble pie.
In rare cases the two come together, even in subtle ways, convening in distinctive community oriented spaces, such as Solana Beach’s funky, low-frills Pizza Port. Or, all the way out in Murray Hill, where, fueled in no small part by his passion for surfing, Dan Bottorff has created more than a North Florida pizza institution. His Edgewood Avenue-based Moon River Pizza has served as an anchor that moored the area’s potential for years prior to its contemporary revival.
In February I linked up with Bottorff at his Murray Hill joint, which with its sticker-collaged fume hood, proletarian menu, and somewhat psychedelic logos remains quirky and hip, with none of the pretension that can often accompany establishments with similar presentations. Over a slice of banana-pepper-topped Maui Wowee he told me about learning to surf in Folly Beach, and his formative business experiences, which included such disparate trips as working his way up to manager at renowned ATL pizza shop Fellini’s and an epic surf safari from Jax to Central America.
After opening Moon River’s original Fernandina spot more than two decades ago, Bottorff sold half the business to his brother and took off in his Isuzu Trooper, chasing waves from Mexico to Panama for nearly two years. He came back rejuvenated, ready to instill some energy into an area that needed it.
“My thing has always been to go into a neighborhood and add some life” Bottorff told me. In recent years, he’s backed off the day-to-day of managing the restaurant. And while he admits he no longer feels like “Dan-Dan the Pizza Man,” as he’s known by many, he’s in a good place—and surfing more than he has in years.
I asked Bottorff about his life in surfing, making pizza, and how he strikes a balance between work and play.
Matthew Shaw: Where and when did you start surfing?
Dan Bottorff: South Carolina, oddly enough. I lived 40 minutes from Folly Beach. Some friends and I would rent boards during the summer. I played high school sports and always worked in the summer, so I got away from surfing for awhile. But then I enrolled at College of Charleston and got heavily into it. Surfing was, when I was growing up, was just something I did sometimes.
So was there a time where you remember surfing got its hooks into you?
After I graduated I moved to Fernandina Beach, where my family is from. That helped a lot. I was in and out of college and that’s when it really kicked in. But the thing is, I was always working, so other than going on cool trips to surf—which I would often do by myself—I probably have more time now to surf than I’ve had, ever, in the past.
After I opened the Moon River in Fernandina 23 years ago, I got in a good flow where I had enough free time to get in the water a bunch and still work. I sold the business some years later to my brother and that’s when I drove from here [Jacksonville] to Panama. I stayed in Mexico, lived in Costa Rica for eight months, and it was all for surf. Just me, an Isuzu Trooper and some boards. After that I moved back to Jacksonville and knew I wanted to open another restaurant. But even when I lived in Murray Hill, it was far, but I’d make time to go to Talbot—dawn patrol, or whatever. I don’t know how I found the energy. But it was needed.
Do you feel like surfing has taught you any lessons that help you navigate business or your personal life?
Yeah. I tell the kids that work for me that I’m grateful that I’ve found a passion or hobby—mine’s surfing—where I can bust my ass at work, maintain a social life, and still find time for my hobby. So I like to tell them that if you work, have a family, and have something you really like to do, that makes every day really good.
It sounds like, at a certain point, you discovered that surfing provided some semblance of balance.
If you really want to get wet, you gotta get up early in the morning. I call it an hour of power. If you can just get wet, it makes it easier to work all day—even all night, which I did for years.
How’d making pizza become the thing that kept you busy when you weren’t surfing?
My dad was in the Navy and I remember everywhere we lived, there was always a place that did the style of brick oven pizza and salads that we do here. In college I worked in food and beverage. Then, I moved to Atlanta with a girlfriend and that’s where I got <the> cool job. I drove by this pizza shop called Fellini’s. The owners happened to be standing outside. They said if you come by tomorrow you can start working. It was one of the coolest jobs you could get as a young person. Even when I left and came back here, I’d go back to Atlanta and work summers for them.
With Moon River, is there a philosophy of approach? Was there something that you wanted to do differently than maybe you’d seen in Atlanta?
Just to keep things simple. I know how to do everything. I tweaked out the recipes a bit. But I just knew I could do it all if I needed to—wait tables, run the register, wash the dishes. I just thought it would work if I led by example. And I’ve found great people to work with that way, like the women who run this place now—they freakin’ rock.
Opening the Murray Hill location, you certainly showed some foresight knowing that Riverside would continue to push west.[Laughs]. I was confident. I said, “This food is good. They’ll come over here.” It’s been a super location since. People come from the neighborhood, Ortega, Avondale, kids from the local schools. It’s been the best.
So what role does surfing play in your life now? Do you have more time for surfing? What’s it do for you now?
I’m at another little crossroads in my life. I haven’t really worked here in two years. I’m no longer Dan-Dan the Pizza Man. I’ve had another little awakening. Thank god I had surfing because I didn’t have a lot else to do [laughs]. But I’ve been spending a lot of time on spiritual stuff—yoga, meditation, reading. I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but I think I have it in me to open up one more shop. I think I could do it.
Sounds like you’re living the dream.
It is the dream. I don’t know where I’d be without surfing. I’m grateful for all of it.