by Len Lear
According to the National Restaurant Association, pizza is a $30 billion per year industry. There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the U.S., which represent 17% of all restaurants in the country. And since pizzas are routinely topped with pepperoni, ham, sausage, etc., I would not be surprised if Tony Iaquinto is the only vegetarian pizzeria owner in the U.S. (Of course, there is no way to verify this with the other 61,268 pizzeria owners.)
Tony, 59, is the owner of Tony’s Pizza City at 901 A E. Willow Grove Ave. in Wyndmoor, which is currently celebrating 55 years in business. “Our family moved to Wyndmoor in 1962 to the 600 block of Willow Grove Avenue,” said Tony, whose parents, Tony and Guilia, purchased Pizza City from his dad’s cousin. The elder Tony had previously been a refrigeration mechanic for Thomas Jefferson Hospital.
The younger Tony went to Springfield High School and then a trade school for air conditioning repair, but he never worked in that field. “I hung around here (the pizza shop) all my life, from elementary school on.”
Tony’s parents continued to run the business until 1989, when his dad retired. His retirement didn’t last long, as he missed being with people. He then worked as a school bus driver until he suddenly passed away in 1992.
The younger Tony and his mom, who came here from Vietri de Potenza, Italy 67 years ago (his parents were married in Italy), continued to run the business until 2002, when Tony and his wife purchased it. His mom, Guilia, 89, still works in the restaurant (you might say her big smile is a great extra topping on a pizza) when additional help is needed.
Although Tony makes dozens of pizzas every day with meat, he himself has not eaten any meat for six years. Why? “My wife, Marianne, has been a vegetarian for 16 years, and she would always be on my case to give up meat. I’d say, ‘Maybe next month, next year, etc.’
“Marianne said to me, ‘Did you ever go to a funeral home and take a bite out of a corpse? That’s what you are doing when you eat meat.’ It (meat) turns you off after a while. At first I went cold turkey, so to speak. I drink no wine, but I do drink good beer. I do not eat imported cheese because most of them have rennet from a cow’s stomach. It hardens the cheese.” (Marianne, a passionate animal lover, is the founder of Sam’s Hope, a nonprofit that provides pet food to pet owners who can no longer afford to buy it. Tony and Marianne, an “Air Force brat,” have been married for 38 years. “You’ll never find a more honest, dedicated, energetic person than Marianne.” said Tony.)
“It was very difficult at first (to eat no meat). I think about it all the time, but I do it both for health and for animal rights. We have had dogs and cats off and on for years. My son, Christopher, 37, is also a vegetarian, and his kids, Anthony, 8, and daughter, Althea, 14, have never eaten meat. Chris’ wife, Jennie, is also a vegetarian. I know a lot of people who have eaten no meat, like my grandchildren. I’ve never known another pizza guy who was a vegetarian, though. It’s not like we have a union.”
When Tony’s parents took over the shop 55 years ago, there were days when they would only make a few dollars, but when they started using some of their own recipes, things picked up. “The dough is a family recipe. My mom learned to make bread in Italy with her mom and said she would try to make some dough,” Tony said, “so she would make the dough and knead it on the table. We still use that recipe.”
Despite the ubiquitous competition, Tony rarely gets a break, making pizzas from scratch almost every day non-stop. I spent a Friday with him, and he made pizzas from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. At times he winds up with pinched nerve and shoulder issues.
A whole buffet of local institutions order multiple pizzas and other items regularly from Tony. He delivers 30 halves of meatball sandwiches and 15 turkey hoagies every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday to Our Mother of Consolation Elementary School, and the kids are only charged $4 apiece. And the Bocce Club gets hoagies every week. Growing Tree Nursery School on Papermill Road gets nine pizzas every Thursday. Springside/Chestnut Hill Academy orders lots of pizzas, as do Cuddles & Care, a Chestnut Hill day care, and Springfield High School. “I’ve done 100 pizzas at one time for Springside,” said Tony. It takes me three hours. On an average Friday night, we do about 75 pizzas. I still like doing it very much. What else would I do? It keeps me sane sometimes and insane at other times. We don’t do as much delivery as we used to because it’s hard to find reliable people to do the deliveries.”
Restaurant websites are full of raves from customers for Tony’s Pizza City, but my favorite is from Arie M., of Northwest Philly, who wrote on yelp.com: “Tony’s Pizza City is the Capital of Pizzatropolis. It’s an independent nation. You probably never heard of it. Getting good pizza in the suburbs can sometimes be a discouraging undertaking. Hard-working Americans are subjected to ordering from the likes of Papa John’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut or even (gasp) Little Caesars.
“Pizza City is family-owned, though, and they treat every customer like a family friend. They get excited to meet & feed their new friends. Sometimes you’ll see Tony’s very Italian mother puttering around, looking like Sophie from ‘Golden Girls,’ just as cute as she wants to be.
“I haven’t even talked about the pizza and the rest of the food. It’s wonderful. It goes with your mouth like teenagers and snapchat. Like college students and cheap beer…If someone you know lives locally, and they pick up their phone to call a chain pizza place, immediately slap their phone out of their hand! Even if their screen cracks, they will thank you once they’ve tasted Pizza City.”