PHILADELPHIA — A button-downed Washington, D.C. couple popped into Tacconelli’s Pizza one busy Friday night, hoping to score a tomato-and-cheese masterpiece without ordering a dough ball days ahead.
A dozen Tacconelli’s faithful, waiting for their tables, watched closely.
The waitress turned the couple away with a single, apologetic shrug.
The man appealed.
He said he had tried to call, but the line was busy.
He had traveled 140 miles for a pizza pie.
Since the mid-80s, anyone who seeks a Tacconelli’s pie must call ahead to the no-frills pizza restaurant at Almond and Somerset Streets and “order a dough.” You can call same-day if you wish, but the most practiced eaters begin phoning Wednesday for a weekend pie.
Tacconelli’s primal pie has been a local favorite in the tidy working-class Port Richmond section of Philadelphia since Giovanni Tacconelli created it 63 years ago. Serious foodies have been dropping in since the mid-‘80s when food reviewers from Philadelphia Magazine and the Philadelphia Daily News crowned the place a gourmet find.
The 150-seat restaurant overflowed with trend-hoppers and neighborhood regulars, all seeking the air-bubbled crust, the sweeter-than-most sauce, and just a few dots of thinly sliced mozzarella.
The unique dough ball reservation system was devised to assure quicker service.
Tacconelli’s reputation spread so far that a family member perusing in-flight magazine on a Southwest Airlines plane found the family business touted in a food column.
When Brian Williams worked in Philadelphia in the late ‘80s, he and his family were regulars.
Academy-Award-winning actor Jack Nicholson didn’t make an appearance at Tac’s last summer (cq: summer of 2009) when he was shooting James L. Brook’s “How Do You Know” in Center City, but he did send a go-fer to pick up five takeout sausage-and-green-pepper pies.
The June issue of GQ pronounced Tac’s white pizza the ninth-best pie in the U.S.
“It’s the ultimate expression of cheese on bread,” critic Alan Richman wrote of the white-on-white pizza that consists of dough, cheese, black pepper, salt and plenty of garlic..
GQ held up Tac’s crust as “an example of how tremendously satisfying an amalgam of thin, chewy and crunchy can be.”
The pizza recipe hasn’t changed since Giovanni Tacconelli created his first pie, but each generation adds to the menu.
John Tacconelli and his wife Roseann, the fifth-generation to enter the family business, added a popular basil-and-fresh-mozzarella margarita pie.
It’s the one Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage ordered when he dropped in during the filming of National Treasure in 2003 with five friends and a few bottles of Chianti. Cage, dressed in snakeskin pants and a black trench coat, didn’t blend.
How loyal are Tacconelli customers? One diehard fan is traveling to all 25 pizza joints mentioned in GQ, on a self-funded fact-checking mission to see how the competing pies compare with his favorite.
He downs the pies, photographs himself in front of each restaurant giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign, then mails the photos to the Tacconelli’s. They have begun placing the photos in small plastic frames and displaying them around the restaurant.
Three pizzerias down, and only Tacconelli’s has rated a thumbs-up.
When Tac’s loyalists move away, they request mail-order pies, but to no avail. The Tacconellis are not interested.
The reason: they are the entire cook line.
Roseann Tacconelli cuts hundreds of basil leaves down to topping size. Ditto other fresh ingredients.
John Tacconelli stretches every dough ball by hand. (“I don’t throw it up,” he says. “And no rolling pin.”) Then he makes room in the circa 1918 oil-fired brick oven that his great-great-grandfather built.
The couple takes a couple weeks vacation every year, and they’re off every Monday and Tuesday.
Tacconelli’s Pizza is located at 2604 East Somerset St. in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Call (215) 425-4983 after 10 a.m. to reserve dough balls. Check www.tacconellispizzeria.com for hours and last seatings.
Weekend reservations open on Wednesday. Patrons are advised to call a minimum of a day ahead.
Tacconelli’s is a B.Y.O.B. restaurant, but patrons should bring beer and wine only.