Food wagon from the high seas

When in 2010 Jeanette DiPiero began searching for a food wagon to call her own, she didn’t plan on selling Sicilian food out of a miniature pirate ship.

After finding Alaska didn’t have anything that suited her fancy, DiPiero scoured Craigslist in several Lower 48 states where she had family.

In Merced, California, local character William “Big Will” Decker had acquired a small skiff-on-wheels dressed up as a pirate ship to run in Merced’s parades, where he served as ribbon cutter.

Decker, who at the time ran Big Will’s Louisiana Po’ Boys, also served barbecue from the pirate ship on occasion.

Decker had purchased the wagon in Crescent City, 500 miles away on the edge of Northern California’s redwood forests. The skiff, a retired Coast Guard vessel, had been mounted to a trailer years earlier, decorated and used in Coast Guard Auxiliary fundraisers.

In 2010, Decker put the ship up for sale on Craigslist, and when DiPiero noticed the posting back in Alaska she took an immediate liking to the idea of owning a “pirate ship food wagon.”

That Thanksgiving in Seward, DiPiero said she told her father about the idea, and that he and his friends all laughed at her.

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But in January, DiPiero flew to San Jose and traveled to Merced to purchase the pirate ship. She towed the ship behind a U-Haul over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to an uncle’s ranch in Oregon.

Returning to Alaska, DiPiero “went crazy trying to find a way to get it up here,” but through networking found a retired man in Idaho willing to haul the ship in exchange for gas money on one of his yearly Alaska Highway road trips.

Once safely delivered to Anchorage, DiPiero custom-built an enclosure over the boat’s hull, added some appliances and obtained the necessary permits. DiPiero gave the outfit the name “Tundra Pirates,” and the wagon embarked on its maiden voyage to the 2011 Cantwell Bluegrass Festival, armed with chili-cheese dogs, nachos and reindeer dogs.

DiPiero, 43, says she has worked in the food industry for over 25 years, and until recently waited tables at Leroy’s diner in Anchorage, where she has worked off and on since 2006.

After her experience selling simpler fare in Cantwell, DiPiero had a desire to bring something unique to the menu to set herself apart from the competition.

Drawing on her Sicilian background, her grandfather emigrating from Sicily during World War II, she revamped the menu to include Sicilian cake and traditional arancini, a rice ball stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried.

The succulent arancini (three for $6) seem to be the only remotely pirate-themed offering, as DiPiero and her boyfriend call out Arrr!-ancini from a window on the ship.

The Sicilian cake ($3) is an exceedingly rich pound cake filled with candied fruit and chocolate topped with chocolate espresso frosting.

But, DiPiero says that the overwhelming bestseller is the Pizza Blunt ($5.50) — a deep fried pizza stick stuffed with cheese, pepperoni or meatball filling. Regardless of how the name is interpreted, one doesn’t have to be stoned to enjoy these homemade treats.

Another featured item is Tundra Pirates’ Italian beef ($10), which though tasty and full of cheese, isn’t a Chicago-style au jus-soaked roll full of roast beef covered in peppers — and DiPiero readily admits that.

“I call mine Italian beef because it what’s we make at home. … All this food is my kids’ choices of what I should sell,” she said. “I don’t know what the fancy pans are named, I don’t know all the fancy lingo. I just cook like I do for my kids.”

Though DiPiero loves what she does and has had recent success as a vendor at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair and Scottish Highland Games, she doesn’t want to stay in the food wagon business for the long term.

“It’s constant work and a headache,” she said. “I think about selling this all the time, but the thought of somebody else having it hurts my feelings.”

Rather than selling, DiPiero says her dream would be to “eventually buy property somewhere, maybe Delta Junction, Tok, Glenallen and I’m gonna park this on the side of the highway until I can build my own restaurant.”

Tundra Pirates will be at the Spectrum Music and Arts Festival in Trapper Creek, July 12-14.