A piece of the Windy City is found nearly 2,000 miles away in a small, stand alone building situated on the busy thoroughfare of North Broadway, in Tucson, Arizona. The 50-seat pizzeria is decked out with Chicago paraphernalia from a large city transit map and autographed Bozo the Clown photo to Bears, Cubs and White Sox signs. Fittingly to Wrigley Field, its 28-seat outdoor covered patio is adorned with ivy over its red brick half walls. When owner Rocco DiGrazie and his wife Elizabeth opened Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria in 1998, he says, “I had no idea how many Chicagoans and Midwesterners were out here. They came out of the woodwork to try us out and tell their friends.” It’s not just Midwest transplants who frequent Rocco’s. The shop draws regulars from its neighborhood of business people, retirees, 20-something hipsters, middle class families and University of Arizona (UofA) students.
Owner Rocco DiGrazie
The location is old school by design, DiGrazie says. “I wanted it to be a place I would go—the dive with good food that isn’t too divy.” The narrow dining room has four tall wood booths balancing two- and four-seat tables with red cloth, glass-covered tops across the isle and wall-to-wall windows on two sides.
A small, galley kitchen and prep area has just one conveyor oven, a fryer and a sauté station. “We do a lot of food out of this little spot,” DiGrazie says. Rocco’s records annual sales of $800,000, averaging $1,000-$1,500 at lunch and more than $4,000 on a Friday night. Rocco’s sales derive from a nearly 60/40-percent split between dine in and carryout, with a very small percentage of lunch office deliveries, which is the only time the pizzeria offers delivery.
DiGrazie says the space only allowed for a single conveyor oven. But’s that’s not stopping him from producing his childhood deep-dish pizza. “I’m doing the best I can with my digs,” he adds. Rocco’s churns out three styles of pizza: thin crust, stuffed and deep dish.
Deep dish in a conveyor oven? “It has to be configured for both deep dish and thin,” DiGrazie says. “So we use heat sinks, which put the heat in the center of the deep dish,” He adds that the system works great for each pizza styles with a few modifications on his part. Cooking time for all the styles runs at 14 minutes, which is slower for the thin crust than many quick-serve shops, but much faster for traditional Chicago-style, which can take up to an hour to cook. The stuffed and deep- dish pizzas require more oil than the thin crust, making for a flakier finished crusted. DiGrazie has created an art form out of knowing where each pie needs to be placed on the conveyor for the best results. He says he puts his deep dish up against the best that the Windy City has to offer. His pizza cooks are critical to baking quality control, especially with the timing intricacies. While he enjoys manning the pizza line himself,
DiGrazie is fortunate to have experienced cooks. Out of his 20 employees, 15 have been with Rocco’s for more than five years. The key to his retention rate, DiGrazie says, “I don’t have any magic formula. I just try to be the kind of boss I had.” Employees have flexible schedules and receive free food while they are on duty. “I’m trying to be as good as I can to them within the confines of what I can pay them, which isn’t extremely substantial because I am just a little pizzeria.”
Rocco’s has an open book policy. There are no secret recipes that only DiGrazie knows. In fact, “we have a number of items that are named after or thought up by our employees,” he says. DiGrazie came up with his dough recipe by trial and error. He tried to match the taste to pies that he liked while he worked in pizzerias in Chicago and Champaign, Illinois years prior. He blends three different tomato products, herbs and spices for Rocco’s red sauce. “We tried really hard to get a good balance of sweet and spicy,” he says. “It’s authentic to some of the pizza on the south side of Chicago that I remember sauces tasting like filtered through my modern palate.”
DiGrazie also focused on the sausage used, sourcing it from a local Italian grocery that makes it fresh weekly for Rocco’s. “They already had the recipe and I told them how to doctor it up so we would buy it,” he says. The attention to detail really comes through with the product. Popular pies include the Spin City with spinach, fresh basil, four cheeses, garlic and olive oil and the Kitchen Sink with pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms and red onions. A large deep dish is priced at $21.99. With nearly 10 percent of sales coming from vegetarians, DiGrazie menus both vegetarian and vegan items. A popular veggie pizza, that is also a top seller, is the Fungus Humongous with grilled portabella and white mushrooms, onions and garlic.
A vegan employee came up with one of Rocco’s most popular appetizers, Spicy Hot Sticks, twisted up dough, fried and tossed with the pizzeria’s signature wing sauce (6 for $6.99). Rocco’s is known in Tucson for having some the city’s best chicken wings (12 for $7.99). Wednesday night is Wing Night at Rocco’s—35- cent wings and $2 Old Style beer.
Other hot sellers are giant, house- made chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal cookies ($1.59) and house-made soups ($2.79 a cup). The cookies are Elizabeth’s recipe while the soups are Rocco’s creative outlet. “It’s something I can do in an hour of the day and I can do whatever I want with it,” he says. “That is my one flexible thing.”
DiGrazie prides himself on the pizzeria’s beer list. Beer and wine make up 12 percent of Rocco’s sales. He keeps a rotating inventory of Mexican, microbrews, local and European beers. “We have between 20-30 beers at any given time, plus a half a dozen kinds of wine,” he says.
Word of mouth is the primary marketing vehicle and it shows as Rocco’s ranks as a Top-3 pizza by various “Best Of ” polls through Tucson’s local media. DiGrazie invests approximate $1,500 a month into advertising, consisting of ESPN radio daytime spots with a weekly gift certificate giveaway spot, a small local station morning drive spot, and specialty advertising in Tuscon’s weekly alternative newspaper and UofA student newspaper. Rocco’s is on Facebook and DiGrazie looks to increase social media marketing and add Twitter. Broadway is a high-traffic road. And Rocco’s makes full use of huge sign in front with changeable letters to advertise daily specials. DiGrazie’s and crew also use the sign to simply grab the attention of drivers with funny sayings, like “Make out in our secluded patio” and “Cooks hotter than your sister.” Customer data is hard to come by, especially for an “old school” shop without a POS system. With his small location, a POS system just wasn’t in the cards. His longtime counter staff members are essential to collecting data. They know everything, he says. They often know orders of returning customers before they order. DiGrazie participates in Tuscon Originals, a local restaurant association offering a loyalty program and marketing/ partnership opportunities. It has allowed him to track those customers.
The location has been able to grow organically over the years, DiGrazie says. He sees a time within the next couple of years when he will need to move into a larger building. For now, he continues to optimize his space and produce high- quality Chicago-style pizza.
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.
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