Joseph Jacobbi spends 60 to 65 hours a week at Casa Di Pizza on Elmwood Avenue handling the purchasing and making soup and sauce for the pizzeria that after six decades has become a Buffalo institution.
In 1953, Jacobbi’s father Jeswald Jacobbi started this “house of pizza” with $2,000 cash and a $1,000 loan. The elder Jacobbi had just quit his job as a window trimmer with Frankfort Distillers when he decided to open a pizza shop.
Today, as pizzerias around the country prepare for the Super Bowl – one of their busiest take-out days of the year – Jacobbi will be overseeing operations of his Casa Di Pizza satellite location in Bradenton, Fla.
People Talk: Is today your busiest of the year?
Joseph Jacobbi: Without a doubt. Right now, we almost have it down to a science. We bring in extra dough. Chicken wings are always tricky. We go through 2,000 pounds. With seven to nine wings in a pound, that’s about 2,500 orders. There are a lot of buckets sold so it’s hard to determine exactly.
PT: When your dad started, how much was a large cheese and pepperoni pizza?
JJ: It cost $1.65 for a large.
PT: Wasn’t the original pizzeria a lot smaller?
JJ: It was one-quarter the size it is today. There are really four buildings here. When we started, we made pizzas in the front window. The kitchen was in the back and a small dining room held 40 to 45 people. Over the years we increased the restaurant space from 1,200 to 4,000 square feet.
PT: How did your father choose the location?
JJ: I think he saw Children’s Hospital here and the business district so he decided to give it a shot. He tried other spots – one on Cleveland Drive, one on Grand Island. They didn’t last.
PT: Wasn’t that a time when pizza was still not that popular?
JJ: It wasn’t very popular. Originally there were only a couple pizzerias here – Bocce and maybe Santora’s. It was nowhere near what it is now, when every corner is dotted with a pizza place. When my father opened it was Italian food and pizzas. No subs or chicken wings. Pizza was the main food, and we made our own rolls.
PT: What do you credit your business longevity to?
JJ: Keeping ahead of the game. We’ve always had to reinvent the way we do business. We went into catering about 15 years ago. Twelve years ago I started frozen home replacement meals in microwavable containers. They became very popular because a lot of people would buy it for their parents who were shut-ins. I stopped them because it was just too much to do. We’ve had a banquet room for 25 years.
PT: What’s been a successful menu addition?
JJ: Besides gluten-free? Probably burgers because they have become a very popular lunch item. Hamburgers have surged the past five years. When the recession hit a few years ago we had to reinvent our menu. Now you can get pasta with a salad for $10. In all the time I’ve been in business, I’ve never seen people look for value more than in the last few years.
PT: Aren’t you sick of pizza?
JJ: I don’t eat it all the time, maybe once every two weeks. I’ve got two places in Florida, too – in the Sarasota-Bradenton area by Siesta Key. If you sat in them, you’d think you were in Buffalo. We’re going on our 10th year down there. My son and his partner run it.
PT: What effect did the business have on you as a family man?
JJ: It was tough. I’ve actually been divorced twice. It does take its toll because I’m here all the time.
PT: Why are you here all the time?
JJ: I probably have to be. If you’re not hands-on, you don’t succeed. I’ve got two brothers, but I’m the full-timer here.
PT: What sells better – pizza or wings?
JJ: Pizza without question. In the early days, chicken wings were a tough sell. They didn’t come in the way they are now. They came with feathers on. They weren’t sized right. A chicken wing was a byproduct. I mean I think they used them more in soup. It took about three years for them to catch on, though I don’t remember when we started serving them.
PT: I notice the price has gone up.
JJ: Well, it used to be 39 cents a pound. Now if you’re lucky you can get them for $1.25 a pound. Last Super Bowl they were at $2.10. Now it’s $1.40.
PT: Describe your pizza crust.
JJ: Buffalo style. It rises a little bit but still has a nice crispy bottom. New York style pizza doesn’t rise at all. It’s foldable. Ours really isn’t foldable because in Buffalo we probably put more ingredients on than anybody in the whole country. Maybe it’s because of the competition, I don’t know.
PT: So you pile on the ingredients?
JJ: Piling on is one thing, but you want to put them on so every bite you taste everything. You just don’t want a ton of cheese and not enough peppers or olives. You want to make sure it’s balanced right. It’s the same when you bite into a sub. We try to make it that there’s enough meat but you want to taste the cheese, lettuce, tomato, the bread. It all needs to blend together and work as one.
PT: What’s the key to your sauce?
JJ: It’s a little bit sweeter. I start with a product out of Modesto, Calif. It’s a product that has not been reconstituted at all. In other words it’s fresh tomatoes that have been put in a can. Whatever is picked that day is put in a can that day. It makes a big difference.
PT: What do you do for fun?
JJ: I go to all the hockey and football games. I used to love coaching baseball for my younger son. Or a couple of friends will come in and we’ll sit at the bar. I can’t drink red wine because I get a headache so we’ll have some beer. That’s what’s great about this place, a lot of neighborhood people come in. People don’t realize the impact of Children’s Hospital leaving. Outpatient services, same-day surgery. There’s always the grandparents – and the employees. We’ll reinvent ourselves again. I’ve got a younger bar staff at night and that works well.
PT: Where do you go out to eat?
JJ: Pano’s. The Place. Cole’s.