OCEAN CITY, N.J. - They've been taking three simple ingredients - tomato sauce, cheese, and dough - and crafting them into edible memories for so long here that the name Mack & Manco is as iconic on this beach resort's boardwalk as its Ferris wheel and salt water taffy.
So inherent in local culture is this throwback pizza parlor - actually there are now three boardwalk locations and one across the bridge on the mainland in Somers Point - that followers of the crispy tomato pies will tell you they seek a "Mack & Manco's" rather than a simple slice of pizza when headed for the boardwalk.
So when the name "Mack" is officially dropped Jan. 1 from a moniker that has been around since 1956 and the place is called simply Manco & Manco, jaws are likely to drop.
The reasons for the impending change, after all these years, are shrouded in mystery, like the secret recipes for the pies.
"It's just two separate entities that decided among themselves that one would take back their name and we would all go our separate ways. There's nothing else to say about it," said Chuck Bangle, who says he co-owns the institution with his wife, Mary, and her parents, Frank and Kay Manco.
He declined to say whether the split was amicable, but took his lawyer's help in writing a brief news release announcing the change.
"We know that when people really start to notice the change, they are going to be worried," Bangle said. "But they shouldn't be, because nothing else is changing and our customers have no need to be concerned."
He insists that the restaurants will be retained by the same ownership and management and that all the recipes and procedures that have gone into turning a brief list of ingredients into a boardwalk food staple aren't going to change.
"We have customers who tell us that the moment they get to town, without even unpacking their bags, the first thing they do is come here for a slice," Bangle said. "And they've been doing it for generations. We would never mess with that recipe. It's like a bond we have with our customers."
After running a successful pizza operation in Trenton, Frank Manco's father, Vincent Manco, came to the resort 55 years ago to open his first boardwalk pizza parlor with his cousin Anthony Mackrone.
Mackrone, who eventually shortened his name and came to be known as "Tony Mack," had already been operating Mack's Pizza on the Wildwood boardwalk for several years when Mack & Manco formed.
It was a partnership made in pizza heaven, at least for a while.
Almost instantly crowds of vacationers were lining up to watch the "pie man" flip the dough into the air and buy hot, delicious slices for 15 cents.
Then, for reasons that seem to be lost in the mists of antiquity, the Macks and the Mancos went their separate ways, and the Manco family continued to operate the popular Ocean City locations using the Mack & Manco name.
The Macks expanded their operations to two spots in Wildwood, continuing to simply call theirs Mack's Pizza.
Ralph Grassi, 47, of Wildwood Crest, a local historian and longtime friend of the Mack family, said the name change was an "official separation of both parties."
"The Mack family basically wanted the Mack name to remain theirs and no longer be associated with the Manco name," said Grassi, a former Mack's Pizza employee who now works for the Borough of Wildwood Crest and said he was asked to speak on behalf of the Mack family.
Grassi would not comment on the details of any legal or financial settlement, but indicated that Mack's Pizza would remove any reference to Mack & Manco on its pizza boxes and employee uniforms in the agreement. He did say it was an "amicable and mutually agreed-upon decision."
Joanne Moloney, whose family now operates Mackrone Original Mack's Pizza in Stone Harbor, said that her family's enterprise was not involved in the Mack-vs.-Manco situation and that she had no comment on the matter.
Fearing that too much of the wrong type of publicity about the change could hurt his pizza parlor's storied reputation, Bangle, a no-nonsense kind of guy who handles his company's day-to-day operations, admits he has been trying to keep the name change sotto voce.
But by Jan. 1, nothing in the Ocean City and Somers Point locations of the business can bear the name "Mack," including signage, paper cups, pizza boxes, employee uniforms, advertising, or anything else associated with the enterprise.
Employees have already started answering the phone "Manco & Manco," and most of the exterior signs on the locations have been changed.
Among the things that won't change are the employees, the "true secret ingredient," Bangle says.
"These people are the heart and soul of what we do," said Bangle, who manages about 150 employees during the summer and about 30 during the winter. Many of the year-round workers are longtimers who've been with the company more than 20 years.
Tony Polcini, 41, who has worked for the Mancos for nearly 25 years and is now a manager, says he never thought of getting another job, because Bangle and the Mancos are "like family to me."
Nowadays, slices cost $2.25 (whole pies are $17), but a lot of things are still done the old-fashioned way.
They don't use pizza cutters to form those mud-flap-sized slices, only clam knives, which help the servers get a more accurate cut, said Tom Rossi, 31, of Seaville, who has worked at Manco's at its Ninth Street location for 17 years.
Rossi said the parlor had always had a strict hierarchy:
The pie man, seen from the boardwalk, takes center stage behind the counter to flip and twirl the dough into perfect, thin, 18-inch rounds.
The "sinker," usually a veteran crew member, sauces and cheeses the pie.
The "stretcher" has the all-important job of working the oven - a position taken very seriously at Manco's, where customers often look for a "bubble crust," the thinnest spots in the dough that have blossomed into crispy yet gooey crunching perfection.
And when customers place their orders, it is customary for the wait staff not to write any of it down.
"My mother-in-law, who's 72, will sometimes stand in the middle of the place when it's packed in the summer and shake her head and say, 'It's just pizza and soda. . . . They come back again and again just for pizza and soda,' " Bangle said. "A lot of people, including her, have tried to figure out why that is, what's the mystique of it all."
The decidedly low-tech scene at each Manco's boardwalk location - white walls, laminate-covered countertops, green vinyl-covered counter stools, simple wood tables and chairs - has been the site of plenty of engagements, weddings, and wakes over the years.
"I think the appeal of the place is that it never changes," said Toniann Christou, 55, of Newtown, Bucks County, who owns a summer home in Ocean City and has been a customer for 21 years.
"The pizza is always delicious, always the same," said Christou, on a trip for some boardwalk Christmas shopping. "You eat it all summer and dream about it all winter."