Vincent Chianese drove west from Rankin in 1949 with his wife Edith, a head of lettuce, $7 cash and a dream: Learn to make pizza.
They trekked cross-country to San Francisco to learn from Chianese’s uncle, also named Vincent, about the art of pizza-making and bring it back home.
After months of studying the tricks of the trade and turning their $7 into $30, they drove back to Pittsburgh, got a loan for $80 and opened Vincent’s Pizza Park in 1952 on Ardmore Boulevard in North Braddock where it still stands to this day.
Vincent’s quickly gained popularity in the area as one of the neighborhood’s first pizza shops. Vincent himself became a beloved larger-than-life character remembered as the man in the kitchen with flour-covered hair and a cigarette hanging from his mouth spinning dough into the air, greeting every customer as “babe.”
Lisa Zollner is now running the shop — home of The Vinnie Pie — for her late grandfather.
“I go home like him now, covered in flour,” she said. “He wasn’t gray until he was very old. It was just the flour covering his hair.”
Running the business is a homecoming for Zollner, who moved with her family at 4-years-old to California. Her Mom, the Chianeses’ only child, and Dad lived in Monroeville, but when they watched the Steelers play in the 1980 Super Bowl in Pasadena, they were wowed by the warm weather and decided to move.
Without Chianese at the helm and with turnover of other staff, the family considered shuttering the business. But it just so happened that Zollner, who works in marketing, was between jobs, and she decided she’d run the business temporarily to maintain her grandfather’s legacy, despite the pressure.
“I realized how important it is to these people,” she said. “On the weekends, we have lines of people standing outside to get in. We call them window lickers.”
With just five days notice, Zollner learned the business, drawing on her experience managing an In-N-Out Burger after college and on her heritage.
“It was just in my blood. It was kind of natural to me,” she said. “It takes a very long time to be able to toss a pie the right way and manage that. He’d send his people home with a tea towel … to practice.”
Zollner said she’s even started calling everybody “babe.”
“People will tell me they can taste a difference when I make it. It’s made with love. I think our pizza — it’s made with love,” she said.
But there’s just no replacement for Vincent Chianese, of course.
“So many people are like, ‘It’s not the same. Where are the cigarette ashes?’” she said, and though none ever actually fell into the pizza, it became a joke over the years. “We joke about putting the cigarette ashes in a shaker on the table.”
In addition to the cigarette portion of his uniform, there were a few other pieces that made Vincent iconically Vincent (or Vinnie or Vince), like …
“He would always wear his shirt wide open and have this giant gold medallion with Jesus and ruby eyes. He was this old-school Italian,” who cursed quite a bit, his granddaughter said. “Here, the people loved it.”
Vinnie’s work ethic
Vincent hustled, working seven days a week for many, many years.
Over the years, the business tried franchising, she said, but it was too hard to teach people to make the pizza exactly the way he did it.
The shop never delivered.
“He said, ‘If it’s not good enough to pick up, it’s not good enough to eat,’” she said.
And if you do take it to-go, the pizza will be wrapped in paper, not packaged in a box. It’s cash only to this day, and the staff still takes orders by hand on sheets of computer paper.
Vinnie’s commitment to quality
“We make the dough fresh every day. Nothing’s frozen. The sausage is our own recipe. It was my grandfather’s recipe,” Zollner said.
To keep a laser focus on pizza, they only serve two things: Pizza and salad.
“He literally just cared about the pizza and getting people the best pizza possible,” she said.
Vincent made a few tweaks to the recipe he learned from his Uncle in California at his pizza shop, Vincent’s Happy Landing, which no longer exists. The recipe is from Naples, the Chianese family’s ancestral homeland.
“It’s a hefty, tons-of-toppings, thick crust, full-of-flavor kind of pizza,” Zollner said. “People will drive from all over the country just to get a Vinnie Pie.”
Vincent’s has meant a whole lot to everybody — from kids pressing their noses up against the windows to steel mill workers grabbing a bite and an Iron City to young couples dropping by for a first date.
“There weren’t many restaurants in the area at that time, so people would come here for date night,” Zollner said about the shop’s early days. “We have so many stories of people who had their first date there or got engaged here.”
Zollner hopes to head back to her home in Los Angeles, but she first needs to be sure she can pass the dough to a successor who can “understand and value the history” of the place.
“It has such a distinctive taste. Once you have it once, you’re going to crave it. You’ll just have a craving for a Vinnie Pie after that,” Zollner said. “I think it’s that authentic Pittsburgh taste.”
Vote for the champion
Pittsburgh heaps love onto Vincent’s like Vincent’s heaps toppings onto pizza, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the Vinnie Pie is in the Top Two of our battle for the Ultimate Pittsburgh Pizza. It’s facing off against Fiori’s, though Fiori’s declined to be interviewed for a feature article like this one.
You’ve got a few days left: Vote here or in the form below by 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8. Yes, that’s the day after Election Day. Remember to vote then, too.