Carol Biel was back home from San Francisco over the weekend, enjoying a Sunday afternoon of visiting with family, watching sports on TV and looking forward to seeing her Giants try to win the World Series.
When the topic turned to food, she was only too happy to volunteer to drive over to North Bailey Avenue in Eggertsville so that her taste buds could get reacquainted with an old friend: Bocce’s pizza.
“I have been a pizza lover forever, and I keep trying to find a pizza in San Francisco that matches any pizza in Buffalo, and there is no place like Buffalo for pizza,” she said. “And Bocce’s is the best.”
It’s a commonly held view. But even if you don’t believe that the pizza served at Dino’s Bocce Club from the stucco building on Bailey is the best, you would have to concede that it’s in the conversation. What’s difficult to dispute is the place it holds in the hearts of Western New Yorkers and its stature as an institution that both transcends age and unites generations.
“We used to get Bocce’s pizza as kids, as my dad who grew up in the area did,” Eric Spahr, of Amherst, said on his way in to pick up his order. “It’s the best pizza around.”
It used to be said of the Beatles that when they were rising to fame and someone said, “I love the Beatles,” the uninformed would think they were saying they loved bugs. Eventually, when people saw the bug and said, “Eek! A beetle!” someone would respond, “Is it Ringo?”
Something similar happened to the word “bocce,” which for most Buffalonians brings to mind pizza before lawn bowling.
According to one version of family history – more on that in a moment – the credit for that goes to Dino Pacciotti and his older sister, Malvina Sacco, who opened the first Bocce Club on Hickory Street in Buffalo in 1946 with visions of making it a successful sit-down Italian restaurant. The place had been a bar where Dino worked part time and was known as Bocce’s for the bocce court on the property where older guys from the neighborhood played. According to his son and current owner Jim Pacciotti, Dino found an old pizza oven in the basement after he and his sister took over and started to experiment.
Twelve years later, the business moved to a larger location on Clinton Street before expanding in 1959 to a second location on Bailey, which remains a mecca for pizza lovers today.
Unlike some family restaurant chains, in which each location operates under one central office, the Bocce organizational chart is not so tidy.
Jim Pacciotti is the owner of the Bailey location and a second on Hopkins Road in East Amherst that opened in 1988. The Clinton Street location was operated by Dino’s cousin, Rudy Sacco, until his death in 2011.
A fourth Bocce’s, on Transit Road in Amherst, is operated by Malvina’s son and Jim’s cousin, Frank Sacco, but is connected with the remaining two locations in name only. Sort of.
Pacciotti’s locations are called “Dino’s Bocce Club.” Sacco’s is “Original Bocce’s Pizza.” The history on the website for the Bailey location mentions Dino, but not Malvina. The website for the Transit location mentions Malvina and her husband, Michael, but not Dino. The year Bocce’s was founded also differ.
So the story is like the pizza: a little messy. And chances are if you say you like Bocce’s pizza, you could be talking about either incarnation. But for the purposes of this story, the focus is on Bailey Avenue, because it’s the oldest still in operation and it’s where the legend of Bocce’s was secured.
You wouldn’t know it to look at it. The location is not great. The parking lot is much too small to accommodate customers and employees, not to mention the poor souls who deliver the food and have to find their way in and out.
And the line! Some Friday nights, when there is no obvious reason like a sporting event to draw a crowd, it starts inside, snakes out the door, down the covered sidewalk and back into the parking lot. It’s not because they can’t keep up with the demand; this is a place that can handle 144 pizzas per hour in a kitchen where workers seem to be in perpetual motion. The problem seems to be that people are told when their pizza will be ready show up early because they can’t wait to get their hands on their food.
“It’s a killer,” Pacciotti said.
But it’s well-organized chaos compared to the old days.
“Everybody used to jam in here and we’d shout out names,” he said. “The problem was people would get frustrated and just say yes to any name. We’d yell ‘Joe!’ someone would say ‘I’m here’ and then he’d grab the pizza. Five minutes later, Joe would come in.”
All things considered, there are worse problems than being too popular.
Like other local institutions, Bocce’s stature is carried far and wide by expatriates. CNN anchor and Kenmore West grad Wolf Blitzer mentioned Bocce’s in an interview when he was asked about the food he liked growing up. But unlike other places that cause former residents’ hearts to race and mouths to water, Bocce’s can do something about it. It delivers. Anywhere. Mark Daniels, general manager of the shop on Bailey, said dozens of pizzas are shipped outside the region every week. Pacciotti said he has regular customers in South Florida who pay $70 in shipping fees to have a $25 pizza sent to them.
“A big week is the week of Father’s Day for these transplanted Buffalonians,” he said. “I have wives calling me saying, ‘I gotta get my husband a Bocce’s pizza. It’s all he talks about.’ ”
How do you explain this? Part of it is nostalgia, the feeling you get when you open that box and your senses take you back to a time when ordering a Bocce’s pizza was an event to be shared. Part of it – a big part of it – is the taste, the sauce that’s a little sweeter, the pepperoni that’s a little crunchier.
Or maybe it’s more simple than that. Andrea Bainbridge, of West Amherst, didn’t hesitate when she was asked why, of all the places she could get pizza in Western New York, she chose to come to that little building on Bailey Avenue. Her answer: “It’s the best.”