Meet the guitar-strumming ex-New Yorker whose name is on the sign at Pete's Pizza Joint.
The sounds of Citizens Bank Park float out of the television, harmonizing with the steady hum of the air conditioner in the window. Neither of the two men in the small pizzeria on Chestnut Street is impressed; the Phils lost badly to the Atlanta Braves the night before, and they aren’t looking too hot today, either.
One of the men, a regular customer, has brought the guy behind the counter—that’s Pete, the owner—today’s Inquirer, and he drops it on a table that’s slightly different than the others there in the humble dining area. This table boasts a large swiveling office chair, a laptop computer and bowl of cherry pits. That’s the man’s desk. Beside it sits a guitar.
At the counter, flour explodes outward with each thrust of Pete’s fist. He refuses to interrupt his kneading as he chats up the customer across the Formica archipelago. He is determined to make that pie.
Pete Caceci is of average stature, with dark eyebrows and white hair. He peers at the customer through the rectangular spectacles that hang low on his nose. “The air conditioner is still working—so far,” he muses. After a few more words, the customer leaves, and Pete is alone again. Outside Pete’s Pizza Joint, cars and pedestrians pass by. As he works, the Phillies lose.
He continues kneading.
It’s 11 years now since the 53-year-old Queens native visited Philadelphia and stumbled across the unexpected opportunity to buy this unassuming little storefront on Chestnut between Second and Third streets in Old City. It wasn’t fancy, but it was a chance to live his dream.
“I could see it would be a one-man store, a real mom-and-pop,” he says, “an original underdog, blue-collar type pizzeria, a-hole-in-the-wall.” He pauses thoughtfully and adds: “With good food.”
And it is. Oh, the mushroom slices have hills of canned mushrooms spread across them haphazardly, but there’s something charming about the no-frills nature of it. If you need something to put down your gullet that will satisfy you, and you’re tired of the “wood-fired flatbread” bullshit rife in bourgeois America, Pete’s slices are an oasis of simplicity.
As Pete puts it: “I’m always here. They know what I got: I’m consistent, regular, old-school New York-style pizza. Nothing fancy.”
The joint seems to have one primary objective, and ambiance isn’t it, unless the aura you’re looking for conveys something cheap, satisfying and totally Philly. That’s the ironic part, given that Pete’s a New Yorker—or, rather, he was. “When I left New York, I burned the bridge,” he says. “I invested in Philly. I own a house here. My business is here. I’ve been here a while.”
Indeed: In the decade since he came to town, Vince Fumo was indicted and sent to prison, the Phillies won the World Series, the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, Barack Obama was elected President twice, the economy collapsed, and Jimmy Rollins eclipsed Mike Schmidt’s hitting record. Meanwhile, Pete kept on making pizzas—and learned the ways of the locals: “I go downthashore to Sea Isle City” when it’s vacation time, he says.
Vacations for a self-employed pizza man, though, are few and far between. Pete works every day from 10:30 a.m. to closing time, circa 2 a.m. The only help he’s got is late-night, part-time, on the weekends; other than that, it’s all him, which helps keeps costs down. It takes a physical toll, though.
“You have to maintain your health!” he says. “You have to have good wheels; your back and legs are imperative; you gotta watch your weight.” His hale-and-hearty stoutness carries a whiff of drill sergeant about it—earthy and well-worked, not plump. He’s like a congenial, happy warrior on a mission to feed the kids who are out on the town.
And oh, are they.
“It gets crazy here,” he insists. “On a regular basis, late-night, there’s a couple garbage pails in the middle of the floor, and if the kids gotta puke, there they go. They better do it in the pails, though, and not on the floor, because that’s what the garbage pails are there for.” He chuckles, his eyes shining. “The place will be packed, and everyone is sitting around, and the most beautiful girl in the world is sitting there wrenching her guts out, and nobody cares; we’re all having a good time! Eating. Place is full.”
Pete doesn’t get distracted by the revelry himself. “I already did my carrying on when I was younger,” he says. “I’m the sober one—now I’m the guy who keeps an eye on everybody and shuts off the lights when it’s over. This is a place for them to hang out [safely].”
It’s not just drunk kids that Pete’s keeping an eye on. It’s also service workers—and artists.
“There’s a lot of people who are in the arts [who eat here],” he says. “There’s a lot of artists and musicians who can afford to live in Philly. It’s a through-and-through blue-collar town, and I thought that if I served honest food and I’m open all the time, then I’d get all those workers: the restaurant and bar workers, the entertainment workers, the bus drivers, the shift workers, the cab drivers.”
Abruptly, Pete reaches for the guitar sitting over by his desk. He starts strumming a soft Spanish melody: “I’m also a musician! People drop in who play! And anything can happen on the off nights during the work week!” His enthusiasm mellows slightly as he reflects on his musician customers: “When it’s dead in the winter, when it’s midweek—this is their local place. They sustain me.”
And Pete sustains them. Without his steadfast devotion to entrepreneurship, his dogged sense of duty to slinging slices, where would the neighborhood be? Without fucking cheap pizza, that’s where.
And that matters.
Philadelphia still has one of the lowest costs of living of all major cities in America. Reasonably low real-estate prices have had ripple effects across the city’s culture, allowing for artists, writers, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs to eke out their own modest incarnations of the American dream. Just like Pete has.
“There’s tons of opportunities here in Philadelphia for young people,” the pizza man says. “We have property everywhere! Put your own money down, no mortgage, fix it up. If you’re handy, you don’t have to get involved with the bank.” Pete pauses as he puts down the guitar. “I think small is the business model for this country. Everything is going to have to become local… You just have to be willing to homestead and change the neighborhood. It takes time.”
But a pizza isn’t just about the character of the man making it. Here’s what Pete says goes into a worthwhile pie: authentic, consistent, crunchy crust and delicious sauce. Good ovens that keep the temperature steady, too, are vital to consistently good dough. And it’s lucky that Pete has good ovens, because that’s the only heat there is in the shop during the cold winter months. It’s a tightrope walk, he says, vacillating between four months of snowstorms and sweltering Philly summers. He does it, though, and he’s just grateful the air conditioner is working this year.
“I talk a good game about retiring,” he frowns. “But you have to feather your own nest nowadays. Nobody gives you a pension in any business.” He shakes his head at himself. “Plus, I’m a musician. I bought myself a gig with this place because I can play here. I’ll never retire.”
Eat up at South Philly Review’s Pizza Olympics!
For six years now, PW’s sister paper, the South Philly Review, has been serving up the tasty concept known as the Pizza Olympics: a three-hour sampling event of some of the city’s most satisfying slices at the biggest pizza party South Philly has ever seen.
For just $15 admission—hey, that’s less than one pie costs at some places!—you’ll get to spend 6- 9pm on Thurs., July 17 savoring a lineup that includes a combination of returning favorites and newcomers. Cacia’s Bakery, Chickie’s and Pete’s, Downey’s Restaurant, Gennaro’s Tomato Pie, Lanci Bakery, Paulie’s Pizza, Powelton Pizza, Rosario’s Pizzeria and Restaurant and Pete’s Famous Pizza have all signed on; more will be announced as the event gets closer. Attendees are encouraged to vote for their favorites in a variety of pizza disciplines.
Unlike those Olympic Games that come around every four years, the Pizza Olympics won’t waste your time with a parade of pizza vendors or speeches; when there’s a crowd of several hundred hungry patrons lining up at the door, there is only one phrase that matters: Let the sampling begin!
Tickets to the standing-room-only event are available for purchase at southphillyreview.com. A limited number of tickets will also be available at the door. // BILL GELMAN
PW's Summer Guide 2015