Tacconelli's put time, care into each pie
BY MANDY WOLF DETWILER
PHOTOS BY RICK DAUGHERTY
Blink, and you might miss it –– at least, if you’re a tourist. Tucked away in Philadelphia’s working class Port Richmond neighborhood, diehard Philly pizza purists know Tacconelli’s Pizzeria is one of only a handful of places in the city where charred crusts and fresh toppings reign. And if that sounds like lip service, we agree. This is a one-man pizzeria that seemingly gets it right, the kind where cash is king, history is as thick as the accent and waiting for a pizza is, well, worth it.
“I’m fourth generation,” says owner John Tacconelli, leaning heavily on a ledge of his 18-foot by 18-foot oil-fired oven. It’s just after 4 p.m. on a weekday and the oven has been officially turned off. Wife Roseann mans the telephone as she furiously jots down names and telephone numbers in a dog-eared yellow legal pad –– at Tacconelli’s, customers are required to call and reserve their pizza. Why? John makes a batch of dough daily, and when it’s gone ... well, it’s gone.
In 1920, Tacconelli’s Italian-born great-grandfather built a 20-foot by 20-foot oven and opened a bread business in Philadelphia. When his sons were drafted to serve in World War II, he converted his business to a pizzeria in 1946 and started serving the tomato pies his mother had taught him in Italy. Decades later, the oven, which had begun to deteriorate, has been rebuilt and John Tacconelli, who took over fully in 2005, and his family still operate the pizzeria using the original recipes.
John grew up in the neighbor-hood, and says the pizzeria gained local notoriety and garnered press in the 1980s, taking it from a local joint to a destination shop. “Most of our business is from outside the neighborhood,” he says, adding that word-of-mouth is the best advertising.
“We never advertise,” he says. “I refuse to. People call up all the time. We don’t need it. I can only do so much, and that’s it.”
Tacconelli’s relies on just a handful of people –– mostly family members –– from the dining room to the kitchen, with John himself manning the oven. After more than 50 years, they’ve ironed out the kinks. “I tried to hire people, but they didn’t work out,” John says. “I don’t mind working (and) I’m very particular in what I put out there.”
At Tacconelli’s, the 16-inch pizzas are light, thin and crispy. And don’t expect big, loaded pies –– toppings are added to enhance the overall flavor profile of the sauce and dough, not overwhelm them. (They encourage more than three toppings on a pizza.) The restaurant offers just a few pizzas: a tomato pie (no cheese and plenty of sauce); the regular pie (cheese and sauce), a white pie (salt, black pepper, cheese and garlic) and a margarita pie (fresh mozzarella and fresh basil).
“The most I can put out is 30 pizzas an hour,” John says. “You can’t have quality and quantity with this kind of oven.” He makes the dough –– and uses it –– daily. As a result of knowing how many pies are reserved, they’re able to cut enough ingredients for the day, resulting in very little waste. “He’s got it down to a science,” Roseann says. “I guess he’s been doing it so long now he can figure out how many he’s going to sell.”
John turns on the oven –– heating it to about 950 F –– and lets it warm throughout the day. There’s no lunch part “because I can’t cook when it’s on,” he says. “The oven takes six hours to heat up.”
He moves pizzas around various hotspots in the oven throughout the night, working deeper and deeper toward the back. “Every time I put a pizza in a spot, it takes a little heat out of that spot,” he says.
He estimates it costs $350 to $400 a week to run the oven, saying that “it’s not cheap,” but it gives the pizzas a flavor profile not found elsewhere. What starts as a three- to four-minute bake lengthens to 10 to 15 minutes by the end of the night.
Philly residents and critics seem to love the place. Tacconelli’s has won several awards, including “Best of” accolades from Philadelphia Magazine. It’s also Zagat-rated.
The white pie used to be the best seller, but customers these days prefer the red pizza better. “When I took over from my father, I tweaked it a little bit, I changed the sauce that I use, and it seems like I sell so many more red pies,” John says. Tastes have “changed over the last five or six years. I’d say 75 percent (of sales) are red pies.”
Why such a simple menu? “It’s easy,” John says. “It’s easy, and it works.”
Laughs wife Roseann, who says she snips basil by hand while watching television: “We don’t want to work any harder than we have to!”
“We could have salads in here, but we don’t,” John says. “You can bring your own salad. Basically, you can bring in whatever you want. It’s not abused. Basically, anything but hard liquor.”
They used to offer delivery back in the 1980s, “but we couldn’t satisfy both delivery and eat-in and we had to stop it,” John says.
Carryout is big, especially on weekends when there’s a long wait for tables.
Want a beer or glass of wine? It’s BYOB at Tacconelli’s since John’s grandfather sold the business’s liquor license in the 1960s. “I’m glad he did,” John admits. “I thought about getting a new one, but it’s not worth it, with the insurance and all the aggravation.”
Roseann says they are able to handle a small amount of walk-in diners in the 115-seat restaurant, but for the most part, people call, reserve their pizzas and show up on time. “We have a lot of regular people who come in every single week,” she says. “Some people don’t have to even call –– I just automatically put them down, and they call me if they’re not coming.”
This is an all-cash business, but they installed an ATM machine for customer convenience. “I refuse to go into business with the credit card companies,” John says. “They want three percent of your business for doing nothing. They make money off the customers. Why do they have to make money off me, too?
“If people can’t afford $15 for a pizza, they shouldn’t be eating pizza.”
The Tacconellis have been approached to franchise in the past, “ but they usually back out,” John says, “because we want quality control. A lot of people want to use your name to sell another product. … It comes down to just saying no.” (Tacconelli’s brother opened his own shop in New Jersey, but John says the product and concept are different. Only the name is shared.)
Their son Giovanni is headed to college and the Tacconellis hope he’ll carry on the family business in the future. Until then, it’s one man, one oven with a lot of love for the craft.
“We don’t get rich here,” John says. “We make a nice living, and we’re happy. I could probably do some more if I wanted to, but we’re happy.”
Tacconelli’s huge 18-foot by 18-foot oven is heated during the day and then extinguished before the first dinner customer arrives. As the evening progresses, and the heat dissipates, the pies are pushed progressively farther toward the rear of the oven with a long peel.
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.
| Keep up with the latest trends, profit making ideas, delicious recipes and more. Delivered hot
and fresh to your email every Wednesday.