The Spot: Tacconelli's in Port Richmond

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Owner John Tacconelli and helper Richie Jones at Tacconelli's.

We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.

 

The story of Tacconelli’s Pizzeria stretches back to 1946, when Italian-born Giovanni Tacconelli decided to repurpose the 20' x 20' bread oven at his Port Richmond bakery and start using it to make tomato pies. The idea was a success, and his business prospered. By the time current co-owner Roseann Tacconelli was born, just a few doors down the block, the pizzeria was being run by Giovanni’s grandson, Vince.

When Roseann was 15 or 16 years old, she met Vince’s son, John, and the two became high school sweethearts. John Tacconelli had already been working in the family restaurant for a few years at that point, learning the secrets of the giant brick oven and the thin, crackling pies it turned out. Roseann would eventually marry him, and the pair worked on and off at Tacconelli’s part time until they finally took over as fourth-generation owners seven or eight years ago. 

A few days after a late afternoon visit featuring more signature spinach-and-garlic white slices than I probably should have eaten, I caught up with Roseann via telephone to hear more about the 68-year-old iconic pizzeria and find out why you have to preorder your dough if you want to get a taste of one of the famous pies.

When you married John, did you know that you would be running the pizzeria one day?

No, not really. I mean, we both had other full time jobs. But we were always here anyway, working on weekends, spending time with the family. When John’s parents were ready to retire, it just happened. Now it’s my son’s turn. Giovanni, he just graduated from college. He’ll be the fifth-generation owner.

Have things changed much in five generations?

Not really. In the dining room, the booths are the same as when I first saw them, anyway. And in the kitchen, nothing has changed since my husband’s great-grandfather ran it. We did have to rebuild the oven in 1992, because the old one was cracking, but it’s still a one-man, one-oven operation. John is back there 70 hours a week, he does all the baking himself. 

How does the oven work? It cooks with residual heat?

Yes, the oven is actually turned off when we cook the pizzas. We fire it up in the morning and turn it off after five hours or so, around 2 p.m.. Then the oven cools throughout the night. So if you come in early, you’re going to get your pizza faster, and it might be a little crispier. At the end of the night, it takes each pie longer to cook, but I think they’re better, then.

Why do guests have to call in advance to reserve their dough?

Actually, during the week, if you were to just walk in and ask for a pizza, I could probably give you one. But on the weekends, you definitely need to reserve. It’s because we only have so much space in the oven, and only so much heat to work with. We can only cook so many pies each night. I try to spread it out so we’re only committed to a certain amount each half hour.

There’s a Tacconelli’s Pizzeria in Maple Shade, NJ — is that connected to yours?

It’s not officially connected, but it is run by my brother-in-law. John’s younger brother, Vince, Jr. He used to work in the Port Richmond shop with John and his father; they all worked together. Then he decided he wanted to go and open in New Jersey. Which, no hard feelings. There’s enough Tacconelli’s to go around. 

What’s your most popular pizza in Port Richmond?

It used to be the white pie with spinach and tomato. Now it’s just a regular cheese and sauce pizza.

When did that change?

Only in the past few years. I think it’s because the sauce got better. John started buying better tomatoes, from California. Top notch, it really made a difference. He blends the sauce fresh each day (it’s not cooked beforehand; it cooks on the pies), and he can hardly keep up with demand. 

Have you ever considered expanding your menu?

No. We like to keep it small and simple. It would just get too crazy, with all the orders flowing into the kitchen. Once the dough is tossed and stretched and placed on the pizza peel to be topped, it can’t sit there too long, or it would stick. If we started getting complicated, it would mess up our system. There is a method to the madness.

On a busy weekend night, how many pizzas do you sell?

I don’t think it’s as many as people think. Nowhere near 500, anyway. Because we only take orders from 4 to 9 p.m. But we do several hundred, and we only have 75 seats. We’re small, but we pack them in, somehow. Sometimes at the end of the night, I look up and wonder how we did it.

To do what we do, you have to love it, because it’s a lot of work. But we do. We built an apartment right above the restaurants, so on weekends we just stay here. That was one of the best things we ever did, makes it so much easier. 

Do you ever cook at home?

No, not really. We eat our pizza every day. Not sick of it yet!

 

Tacconelli’s Pizzeria 

2604 E. Somerset St., 215-425-4983

www.tacconellispizzeria.com

Hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m., Sunday (cash only)