A local slice

BY BEN VERHILLE | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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John and Katrina Pagliai left their native home in northern Italy for greener pastures, bringing with them the secret recipe for authentic pizza.

The family recipe was kept exclusively to those who shared the last name — Pagliai — and their children were able to sell the original pizzas in Iowa. Ames was the first place to have access to the family recipe, in 1953.

The original “Tomato Tarts” took some time for locals to accept, before the tarts’ fame allowed the establishment to start making pizzas and function as a restaurant.

Operating on the Golden Rule treat others as you wish to be treated, which was targeted at the customers, the restaurant quickly gained traction because of customer service and quality pizzas.

Tony Pagliai, the third generation of the family, operates the Iowa City branch, Pagliai's Pizza, 302 E. Bloomington St.

“Grandpa wanted to come to a college town, and we found Iowa City,” he said.

But even with the success of this family recipe, many Iowa City residents wondered why the pizzeria refused to serve Parmesan cheese.

“We don’t think it pairs well with our cheese on the pizza,” Pagliai said. "[Our cheese] is a special blend of mozzarella — the cheese itself is made special for us.”

Also operating on the idea of freshness, Pagliai estimated there are between four and five hours of preparation time each day before opening. The sausage, dough, and sauces are all prepared daily, he said.

With quality ingredients a priority, he said, there isn't enough time in a day to complete all the work and preparations to open before 4 p.m.

Fresh ingredients make a good pizza, but not without the help of the experienced pizza makers.
At any point in time, five to eight of the pizzaiole can be seen making pizza from the front window.
One of these is Tucker Tholen, a pizza maker of two years at Pagliai’s.

“It’s nice working for a smaller family,” Tholen said. “When the owner is here every day, it makes you want to work hard.”

He said how busy the establishment is determines how the pizzas are created.

“When there is time, you can work on a pizza by yourself,” Tholen said. “But when it gets busy, it turns into an assembly line.”

With a restaurant filled with regulars and a very visible kitchen, Tholen said, it keeps the restaurant honest, and the cleanliness of the kitchen is a point of pride.

Tholen gets to know the customers by name, he said, bringing the family aspect to the restaurant.

This is what brings regular customers such as Carolyn Kochuyt back time after time. She said she is treated very well as a continual patron.

“I can walk in and have my pizza being prepared before I sit down with my drink on the way,” she said.

The atmosphere is very friendly, she said, and she feels comfortable socializing with other patrons, servers, and the people at the counter.

But her connection to the restaurant is more than just the high level of customer service.

“My daughter worked here but quit to move to Minnesota,” Kochuyt said. “My granddaughter worked here as well, and my son-in-law worked at the Pagliai’s in Grinnell,”

While Kochuyt said she prefers eating at restaurants that know her personally, it's the pizza at Pagliai's that keeps bringing her back for more.

“I stick with the pepperoni,” Kochuyt said. “Easy on the sauce, so I can eat the whole thing.”

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