Grab a Slice

In Providence, pizza is more than just a food - it’s a way of life

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“What is the best pizza?” muses Tommy Sacco. “Now, I like thick pizza. I don’t like thin pizza. I would rather cut my hand off than put pineapple on my pizza. But how can anyone determine the best? There are so many different kinds of pizza. Everyone has different tastes. It’s like saying the best beer or the best wine. How can you?”

He’s right, of course. Providence is a pizza town. Our metro is home to scores of pizza places – and every one is different. Some do New York-style. Some do brick oven. Others do deep-dish, flatbread, thin-crust, stuffed-crust, Sicilian, Greek, and Californian. Pies come in circles, rectangles, and slices. Think of a topping, and somebody uses it. And pretty much all of it’s delicious.

Sacco is perched on a stool in Tommy’s Pizza, his Cranston restaurant. Behind him, there’s a wall covered in pine tiles; look close, and you’ll see that the tiles have been carefully extracted from wine crates, a mosaic of inked labels. Sacco is nursing a cup of coffee, waving to employees as they come through the door. With each new face, he says something like: “That’s Monica. Monica’s been here 27 years.”

Sacco is the portrait of the old-school pizza maker. He started working in his grandfather’s pizzeria when he was 14 years old. He mopped the floors and filled the soda cooler, then advanced to running the oven and managing the kitchen. The day after he became a legal adult, in 1982, Sacco took over the whole operation. At 54, he runs two popular locations. He loves his employees, looks after them, and refers to them as “Tommy’s Army.”

“That’s the cool thing about being in the business so long,” says Sacco. “Not only have they seen me grow up, but I get to see them – and their kids – grow up.” Tommy’s Pizza dates back half a century, and its founding predates Sacco’s birth. His grandfather (also Tommy Sacco) opened his pizzeria on Chalkstone Avenue in 1955. The original Tommy learned pizza-making from a neighborhood friend, and he set up a shop in the basement of his house. There was a deli counter out front and an oven in the back. As pizza became more popular, the elder Sacco started delivering. Tommy’s attracted regulars, then fans.

Their biggest client: Frank Sinatra. Every time the crooner performed in town, he would have Tommy’s pizza sent to his green room. Not long ago, Bill Clinton stopped in, and he took a photo with the entire Tommy’s staff.

One regular was Joseph Conte, who served as concert master for the Rhode Island Philharmonic for 21 years. He came in one night with some fellow musicians, but Tommy stared him down. “You don’t get anything,” he said, “until you play a song.” Everybody laughed, music was played, and food was eaten. Years later, as Conte was dying, he requested Tommy’s pizza as one of his final meals.

“We’re built on regulars,” says Sacco. “There are certain nights of the week, I can tell you where people are going to be sitting. The biggest compliment is when people walk into the [original] place on Chalkstone, and they say, ‘This pizza has not changed. The place is just like I remember it.’ It takes them back in time.”

A CULTURAL TRADITION

In a city like Providence, pizza isn’t just pizza. Pizza is a story of family, migration, and first loves. It’s recipes, experiments, and breakthroughs. Everything you can do with dough – knead it, toss it, grill it, make it gluten-free – someone in Providence is actively doing. Lots of us see pizza as a fun treat on a Friday night; but whole generations have subsisted on its profits. Families have bonded in the narrow space between chopping block and oven. Through the craft of pizza-making, children have become adults, immigrants citizens, and rookies maestros.

American pizza is relatively new: Lombardi’s opened in New York City in 1905, and succeeding pizzerias remained grounded in Italian neighborhoods for decades. Yet as fast food restaurants started serving pizza, its popularity expanded. Pizza was a boon for Italian-Americans, who were often unwelcome in other professions; it was also a boon for mainstream Americans, who had finally discovered the nation’s most universal entree.

Just ask Frankie Cecchinelli. A celebrated pizzaiolo, Cecchinelli owns Figidini in downtown Providence. His father, Joe Cecchinelli, used to run a masonry business in Waltham, Massachusetts. One year, Joe was commissioned to build a woodfired pizza oven. Joe was so impressed, he decided to open his own pizza place with his wife, Franca. “Brick-oven pizza” wasn’t yet fashionable, but Franca’s Pizzeria made a killing; they eventually opened a second location on Cape Cod.

Unlike Sacco, Cecchinelli felt little pressure to take over the family business. He spent some years in Vermont, worked for movie studios in Los Angeles, and played drums with various musicians. But pizza drew Cecchinelli back; he loved the Neapolitan tradition, and he was fascinated by oven-maker Stefano Ferrara. Crafting dough excited Cecchinelli’s intensely mathematical mind, and he’s spent years experimenting with flour and water, temperature and time, building thousands of fires with split logs and bare hands.

“I get enthralled in stuff,” says Cecchinelli, gesturing to the dining he owns with his wife Kara. “I set this all up for me. Everything I’ve been doing my whole life was leading to this moment.”

Figidini is a far cry from those old-fashioned pizza joints. The granite bar is stocked with fine wine and top-shelf spirits. Patrons are encouraged to tear apart pizzas with their hands, or use kitchen scissors to sever their own slices. Cecchinelli treats pizza-making as a fine art; he speaks passionately about the history of baking, the varieties of flour, and the precise hydration of dough. And as a testament to his passion, Cecchinelli mans the oven himself.

“I’ve made every single pizza,” Cecchinelli says. “I think a lot of people don’t understand I’m the only one doing it. But people can taste the difference. I’m getting better at my craft. I’m dealing with a thing that’s alive.”

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

“Pizza is one of those foods,” says David Dadekian, president of Eat Drink RI. “It’s easy. It’s versatile. You think of the New York slice – you can walk around with it. And there’s such a range. You can put meat on it. Vegetarians can eat it. There’s that joke: even bad pizza’s not bad.”

Dadekian lived in New York City for 14 years, and he used to feel a disconnect between the cutting-edge food fashions of Manhattan and the down-home feel of Rhode Island restaurants. But all that has changed; the Providence dining scene is feistier than ever, and pizza places quickly catch up with big-city innovations.

“People are becoming more aware of trends outside of the area,” says Dadekian. “I think the growth of social media, and communication in general, changed things a lot. Our best restaurants are on the same level as these tasting counters in New York and LA.”

David Bertolini, operating partner of Providence Coal Fired Pizza, puts it this way: “Rhode Islanders like their pizza. And Providence has become a destination for those who crave it. Our city really provides a worldly offering, from bakery-style pizza, to Neapolitan style, to wood grilled, to coal-fired. The pizza scene in Providence has a little something for everyone.”

One of Providence’s early success stories was Al Forno Restaurant, founded by Johanne Killeen and her late husband George Germon. When Killeen was growing up in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, her mother was a physician who made house calls. Killeen would sometimes come along to patients’ households, many of which were Italian-American. When families couldn’t pay for care, they often cooked meals instead – and in this way, Killeen fell in love with Italian cooking.

Before they met, Killeen and Germon each spent time living in Italy. They learned to appreciate traditional Italian cuisine – pizza in particular – and discussions of food fueled their early courtship. They loved the careful, centuries-old Neapolitan style, they established Al Forno with these backbreaking traditions in mind.

And yet, one night in 1980, Germon tried something reckless: He threw his pizza dough on a regular grill. “I thought he was insane,” Killeen recalls. “I thought the dough would fall right through. But that night, we had grilled pizza on the menu. The pizza was a bit of an obsession with us. I guess our attitude was always ‘Why not?’ We always wanted to bring what we loved from Italy to Providence. But we came into the kitchen with the eyes of an artist, not with the eyes of a trained chef.”

Al Forno is legendary in the culinary world, and Germon and Killeen received a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast in 1993. Many credit Al Forno with shaking up the possibilities of pizza, inspiring other Providence pizzaioli to explore new possibilities. The Al Forno legacy has found its way into cookbooks and kitchens across the country; during a recent visit to New York, Dadekian spotted a sign for a new restaurant. The sign read: “Al Forno-Style Providence Pizza.”

A GOOD KIND OF COMPETITION

When Christie Flanagan first visited Rhode Island, she was shocked to discover that she couldn’t order pizza by the slice. “They said, ‘No, you gotta buy the whole thing,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’”

A New York native, Flanagan graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in all kinds of high-end restaurants. She liked Rhode Island, but she struggled to find authentic New York-style pizza. She met other New Yorkers who felt the same way. So in 2011, Flanagan opened her own restaurant, Napolitano’s Brooklyn Pizza, in Cranston. Three successful years later, she opened a second on Federal Hill.

Napolitano’s is the first restaurant that Flanagan ever owned, and it’s a departure from her background in haute cuisine. But she loves the spirit of the pizza kitchen, where the workspace is exposed and full of banter.

“There’s always a bit of rivalry between the Rhode Island people and the New York people,” says Flanagan. “New York people always tell them how to fold their pizza and eat it right. Lots of sports talk. Do you say barbecue or do you say cookout? Water fountain or bubbler? But they all come to the same place and eat the same pizza. When you’re the customer in a pizza place, you’re in the kitchen. You can see the people. They’re standing right there.”

Like the earliest pizzerias, Napolitano’s is more than a restaurant; it’s a training ground for young people entering the workforce. “I’ve had employees who have been with me for years, who started as kids,” says Flanagan. “They were a delivery driver. They answered the phone. The next thing, they’re making chicken wings. They can go to college, and if they ever need to jump into a pizza place and make a little extra cash, they’ve got that skill.”

“The overall food community in Providence is pretty tight,” she adds. “It’s been very welcoming for me. It’s competitive, but it’s a but it’s a good kind of competitiveness. It pushes us to do better.”

PLACES TO GRAB BY THE SLICE

ANTONIO'S PIZZA 

Grab a slice and run, or sit down and enjoy a full meal at this super-friendly local chain. You can even grab a few drinks at Antonio's well-stocked bar.

NICE SLICE PIZZA 

This casual Downcity location offers four types of slices, and it's also a destination for vegan and gluten-free pies.

SAJO'S GOURMET PIZZERIA

Find a nice range of slices, from Veggie Lover's to Buffalo Chicken, along with sandwiches and Mediterranean pitas, about one block from Johnson & Wales campus.

FELLINI PIZZERIA 

Wickenden's go-to pizza place offers New York-style pies and slices. The BYOB policy may entice you to stay, and the "Arugulicious" pizza is to die for.

PIZZERIA GUSTO 

Some of the most inventive pizzas in Providence can be found here, including the Breakfast Specialty Pizza (scrambled eggs, potatoes) and the Breaded Chicken Specialty Pizza.

PIZZA J

Hip, health-conscious, and fun, Pizza J is a great spot to grab a gluten-free pizza and knock back a craft beer. Slices available, but you may want to stick around for the arcade games.

WISE GUYS DELI AND PIZZA

Grab any type of pizza you can imagine, or build your own. With its "Godfather"-style logo and Sicilian style crust, Wise Guys is a hallmark of Federal Hill.