Before the mid 1930s, pizza was all but unknown in Wyoming Valley. In 1932, a story about a trip to Italy in a Wilkes-Barre paper tried to explain it: “an open pastry with cheese, tomatoes, anchovies and sometimes mushrooms, though they are considered heresy.”
On Aug. 31, 1935, the Fox Hill Inn, on Tunkhannock Avenue in Exeter, near the entrance to the golf club, threw a party for its first anniversary with, as seen in an ad in the Pittston Gazette, music by the Varsity Boys, dancing, dinners and “pizza.”
A week later, Manganiello’s Tourist Rest on Sullivan Trail (Rt. 92) in Harding advertised “Special Tonight, Pizza and Corn — 15 cents.”
These two ads are the earliest references to “pizza” found in the Greater Pittston area.
Within a month, the Cat & Canary Cafe on Luzerne Avenue in West Pittston was serving pizza. The following year, Barone’s Restaurant on Main Street in Pittston put pizza on the menu.
What kind of pizza were local places making in the mid 1930s? Well, it’s impossible to know, but we can say for certain it was not the tossed-dough, thin round style, which was not made in Wyoming Valley until 1939. In other words, they weren’t making pizza pies.
The pizza referred to in those old Pittston Gazette ads was very likely something close to what we call Old Forge pizza today, made in rectangle pans with thick bread-like dough and baked in coal stoves.
Those pizza ads in the Pittston Gazette were placed a few years after Nonna Ghigiarelli “invented” Old Forge pizza, not likely a coincidence.
Beginning in 1938, The Gramercy on South Main Street also made pizza in a coal stove in 9-inch pans — round pans. So, the Gramercy was the first restaurant to serve round pizza pies in Pittston. By the way, they still make it the same way, though in a gas oven since 1970.
As the Gramercy was, and is, an authentic Italian specialties restaurant, pizza at the Gramercy is more of a sideline than a main menu item.
The first dedicated pizzeria serving round, tossed-dough, thin-crust pizza pies made in pizza ovens was Mack’s, opened by Mike Mack in a small storefront next to the Roman Theatre on South Main in 1956.
When his shop was taken over by Pete Be in 1958, Mack became the manager/pizza chef at a new startup, Pearl’s Pizza at 160 S. Main St., now Phil’s Clip Joint.
If Mack’s introduced the round, tossed-dough, thin-crust to Pittston, Pearl’s popularized it.
Tina Menn, Pearl’s daughter, said it was her father, Pearl’s husband, Louis Menn, who started Pearl’s Pizza restaurant in Pittston.
“He just named it after her,” Menn said. “My dad was looking for something to do after retiring from the coal business. He hired Mike Mack to make the pizza and they started and operated the pizza business. I was in high school when he started it. He made a lot of pizza in Pittston and really enjoyed it. My mother worked there on Fridays, but it was really my father’s business.”
Pearl’s pizza took off, becoming a hot item with Pittston teenagers and families. Louis Butera opened a Pearl’s pizza restaurant in Avoca and in a kiosk at Sandy Bottom, Harvey’s Lake, a public beach adjacent to Sandy Beach. Mike Mack trained the cooks at Pearl’s.
Mack earned his pizza chops at the Fort Cafe on Wyoming Avenue in Forty Fort. The Fort — the original brick oven, round, thin pizza restaurant in Wyoming Valley — was founded by Dominick Paglianete, a Pittston miner, with his wife, Sadie Desiderio, she from a family of Wilkes-Barre bricklayers. She and Dominick leased the building in Forty Fort from her father. Dominick went to visit cousins and see the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 and came back with the pizza idea.
The Fort was a pizza incubator. Though recipes vary, the concept of thin round pies caught on. Desi’s, short for Desiderio, was a Fort spin off. John Sabatini’s wife, Catherine, was Mike Mack’s sister. They founded Sabatini’s Pizza in Exeter in 1958, the same year Pearl’s opened. Tony’s in the City Line Plaza was founded by Rose and Tony Martorana in 1966, the year after Louis Butera died. Tony and Mike Mack were brothers-in-law.
Joe’s Pizza, a Fort Cafe satellite at Hansen’s Park, was the genesis of the Grotto Pizza empire in the Wyoming Valley and at the Delaware shore. Grotto’s was founded by Dominick’s cousin Joe Paglianete, who had worked at the Fort for a short time.
Pearl’s Pizza died when Louis Butera died. After Pearl’s closed, Mike Mack and his wife, Grace, moved to Ocean City, New Jersey, and opened a shop.
The last descendent of the Fort Cafe was Pagliaente’s son-in-law Andy Sipko. He retired in 2006 and sold the business. It reopened in 2008, the year Sipko died, under new owners. It is now under a third owner. While the owners try to stay as close to the original recipe as they can in a gas pizza oven, it really can’t be reproduced considering the original recipe used hand-packed, locally-grown tomatoes and a brick oven built by the Desiderios in 1939 and fired with anthracite coal.