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Posts Tagged ‘Grandview Pizza’

Panzera’s Pizza: A Story of Persistence and Pluck

Posted by cmh gourmand on January 19, 2020

Panzeras Pizza

The origin of Panzera’s Pizza reads a lot like a Horatio Agler rags to riches tale. The Panzera family immigrated to the Grandview area in 1955 just before Nick Panzera observed his fifth birthday in his new home country. They arrived from the Abruzzo / Abruzzi section of Italy speaking little English and immediately set themselves to work. Nick, started working at Tedeschi Italian Bakery (at Third Ave. and Doten) in Grandview. Initially he was bagging bread but over time he took on many other roles. Nick and some of his brothers would sometimes work at nearby Leonardo’s Pizza as well. When Nick was 12, Tedeschi Bakery closed so he and brothers were out of a job in the case of his brothers, one of their jobs). In late 1964, Nick and brother Phillip with the help of many family members decided to run the bakery space as a pizzeria and called it Panzeras. It was a small operation open seven days per week with one oven and dough mixed by hand….managed and operated by 13 year old Nick Panzera.

One of the keys to making this work was one of Nick’s teachers, George Sotiris Georgas. As Nick was getting ready to open the pizzeria, George kept asking him questions about what items would be on the menu and how much Nick was planning to charge for each specialty offered. Nick was surprised by a stack of menus given to him by George who make the on the schools mimeograph machine as a surprise for opening day! George also knew that Nick was working late nights at the pizzeria so he arranged for Nick to have a “job” in the school book room which allowed Nick to sleep and/or study the first two periods of the day. The first $5 sale at Panzera’s Pizza was from George and it was framed on the wall for years.

In 1966, older brother and business partner Phillip was working at the nearby quarry but it was laying off employees. He came to Nick and said “I’m moving”. Having just moved to a new house, Nick was confused and asked Phillip why he would so move again so soon, to which Phillip explained he was not moving to another house, he was moving to California to find work. At this stage, Nick was 15 and in high school and didn’t feel he could run the business on his own. He considered putting the business up for sale but after a less than desirable offer he decided to figure out how to make it work. He decided he would start advertising but knew before he could start marketing the business he needed to upgrade everything in the pizzeria so he could increase his production volume. Nick worked with Stan Becker a salesman at Wasserstrom to order $10,000 of equipment: another oven, a mixer, slicer, double door refrigerator, pots, pans etc., everything needed to allow a few people to make a more pizzas in less time. The price tag for these upgrades was high so an owner was needed to sign on the bottomline. Nick was 15 so Stan told him he was too young to sign the contract. Nick replied to Becker that his dad would sign it but Stan knew his dad did not speak English. So Nick countered that he would read the contract to his dad. Stan was a bit wary of that. In the end, Nick signed the contract with his dad’s name while Stan looked the other way.

After the new equipment was in place, Nick worked with a customer to print 10,000 menus including coupons. Then Nick loaded up a car to drive his nieces and nephews around the Grandview neighborhoods dropping them off at one end of the block and picking them up at the other side to deliver fliers throughout the area. People started calling in orders and dropping in the first day of flier delivery leading to some very busy days. Phillip came home to visit shortly thereafter and was amazed at the stacks of pizzas waiting to be picked up in the shop.

Nick got married in 1969. He started buying rental properties in the area to expand diversify his income. Many of the pizzeria’s customers were police officers and they would often say “Nick you should be a cop”, so when Nick turned 21 (1972) he applied for the police academy and was accepted. Eventually Nick’s wife told him he had to give up at least one business so he decided to sell the shop to Fred Lombardi and his wife (Nick’s sister) in 1976. Fred had worked at Panzera’s (and Leonardo’s Pizza) for years including managing the shop since Nick started working as a police officer. (Nick was once called Panzera’s Pizza in response to a robbery call items stolen included the frame dollar bill from the first sale at Panzera’s).

Panzera’s Pizza moved a few times since opening in 1964, in 1983, Fred Lombardi moved the shop to the present location at Grandview and Third Avenues. Today, although Fred is “retired”, which seems to mean he is working what most would consider a normal work week Fred remains a fixture in the kitchen. Fred is still at Panzera’s making dough, sauce and preppy pizzas. Many of the extended family have worked at the shop over the decades. The recipes are all Panzera family recipes with no changes since 1964. None of the recipes is written down all are passed along by one person showing and expecting the other person to continue doing. Panzera’s still makes their dough, pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce and many other Italian specilaities from scratch. Fred passed on the pizza peel of day to day operations to his son Carlo many years ago and today guests can often find Fred, Carlo and (grandson) Andy kneading and tossing the dough behind the counter.

A non pizza menu item that has been popular since the 1980’s is the Monster Sub which is a fusion of a Italian sub and meatball sub wedded between two buns. Another thing customers can count on at Panzera’s is Nick dropping in several times per week (when he is not visiting brother Paul at Paul’s Pantry just around the corner). You will find a lot of important things at Panzera’s that are not on the regular menu: three generations of family that are proud of their pizza, connected to their neighborhood and their customers in a way that few businesses can compete against. All of this because a 13 year old needed a job and the extended Panzera/Lombardi family always helped each other out to keep the family business going. That alone, is worth a visit, the pizza is a bonus.

Historical side dish:

Phillip Panzera came home from California to visit the pizzeria shortly after Nick expanded the kitchen operation and started his marketing blitz. While Phillip was walking in, he noticed a man walking out of the nearby insurance agency, which was a new neighbor to Panzera’s. At the same time, the insurance agent in question did a double take noticing Phillip as well. Each sensed they knew each other and after a lot of conversational sleuthing figured out they had met in Italy, during World War II (over twenty years before) when the jeep the insurance agent was riding in picked up a hitchhiking Phillip on a dirt road far from Grandview, Ohio and the United States.

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