2012 February: Il Pizzaiolo: Mangia Italiana

When Tony and Dana Constantino were looking to increase family cash flow so their kids could attend top-flight schools in Omaha in 2003, they did what any reasonable person would do in that situation: they started a food truck business. All joking aside, the Constantinos either didn’t know or didn’t care that food truck operations typically don’t lead to riches. And it’s a good thing, too, because their ignorance (or was it courage?) has turned to something bordering on bliss at their pizza restaurant, Mangia Italiana, in Nebraska.

“We started by catering events,” Dana says. “In the beginning, we just wanted to be able to send our kids to private schools. If the business could pay for that, that’s all we expected out of it.”

Mangia Italiana’s recipes resonated with customers, however, and it wasn’t long before people were looking to get more of a good thing.

“People would ask us if we had a restaurant, where they could find us,” Tony says. “That was definitely a dream, but we didn’t really know where the catering would take us, like Dana said.”

Eventually, it took them into an Omaha neighborhood that could use a facelift — and a good restaurant. The Constantinos moved into an old home that had been converted to serve commercial purposes and began serving Old World recipes that had been in Tony’s family for decades.

“We don’t take short cuts,” he explains of his foodservice methods and philosophies. “If we can make it ourselves, we do. We prepare our foods from scratch every day. People notice that. It makes a huge difference.”

Tony spent several years in the pizza business before opening Mangia Italiana, and that time certainly would have influenced the way he does things with regards to working with pizza. However, as he points out, he falls back on heritage more than experience when it comes right down to it.

“Just about all of the recipes we use have come from my grandparents and their parents,” he says. “We do it the way they did it over in Italy.”

Tony admits he has made slight modifications and has even developed some of his own recipes, but that any changes to family recipes have been modest and have been done out of necessity to accommodate large batches.

While the economy has been brutal for the past six years, Omaha hasn’t felt the effects of it as harshly as other cities, says Tony. As a result, Mangia has managed to enjoy steady year-over-year sales growth. In fact, says Tony, “we’ve grown every single year since we’ve opened, sometimes in the double digits.” 2011, in fact, was Mangia’s best year to date, and the Constantinos expect 2012 to be even stronger thanks to some new growth plans.Still, there are always challenges.

“Sometimes it seems hard to keep up,” admits Dana. “The list of things you have to do each day grows and grows. There’s just so much to it. People don’t always think about the finanacial side, about the amount of time and work it takes just doing paperwork, or inventory.”

Then there’s the issue of managing human resources and deterring customer or employee theft. Dana recounts the time that Tony found lipstick on a bottle of liquor and later found out that one of the female employees was helping herself to swigs of alcohol during downtime. Lesson learned? “We lock it up in the basement now,” Dana says.

The aformentioned basement may soon be one of Omaha’s hotspots. The Constantinos are in the process of finishing it out to accommodate a bar and a private banquet room. It’s the next step in the growth process.

“We’ll be able to do a lot out of here,” Tony says. “It’ll make a great room for parties. And the bar might become a place to watch a Nebraska football or basketball game. People are getting pretty pumped up about Nebraska joining the Big Ten, and it’s already a big deal to watch their football games anyway.”

As Mangia Italiana moves from a small pizza joint to a $1 million operation, the Constantinos realize their original plan to cater their kids through school has turned into a rewarding long-term career. And it’s a great way to keep the family centered on a common purpose. Whether calling their older children in for help or turning to Tony’s father for house-made biscotti and guidance, Mangia, true to Italian form, has always been about family.

Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.