Major renovations mark Bocce Club Pizza’s 50th Anniversary on Bailey Avenue.
The American dream for the late Dino Pacciotti began in 1946 as a little Italian restaurant on Buffalo’s east side and quickly grew into a Buffalo tradition. In 1959, he opened his Bailey Avenue location in Amherst, and today, Bocce Club Pizza is celebrating 50 years of success at that location with major renovations to its restaurant, website, and menu. 1959 is also important because that’s the year that Dino’s son and current Bocce Club Pizza owner Jim Pacciotti was born.
It all started when Dino stumbled across an old pizza oven in the basement of his newly purchased restaurant – little did he know it was a discovery that would change his life. It was the late 1940s, Dino and his sister Melvina Sacco had recently purchased an establishment called The Bocce Club. At the time, the restaurant featured bocce courts for patrons and offered a simple menu consisting mainly of sandwiches and cocktails. But the discovery in the basement gave Dino an idea.
Fondly remembering the pizza he enjoyed while serving in Italy during World War II, Dino decided that the business should start selling the then-unfamiliar product. It was a bit of a gamble. Today, pizza is a major staple in the American diet. Back then, though, it was a different story. At best, pizza was an up and comer on restaurant menus. But, he decided to risk it anyway.
Dino began by experimenting with a variety of different recipes. Trying to get the flavor as close to the pizza he ate while in Italy, it took many tries before he got it right. But once he did, Bocce Club’s pizza quickly became so popular that it transformed the quiet Italian restaurant into a booming business – and a Buffalo tradition. It was a gamble that truly paid off.
Bocce Club Pizza continued to grow throughout the 1950s as Dino, a natural entrepreneur, saw opportunities to increase the company’s market share. He decided to offer takeout pizza in corrugated cardboard boxes; it’s thought he was the first to do so in the Buffalo area. He also became a pioneer in the idea of “take-and-bake” by offering half-baked pizzas for home preparation.
The family operated Bocce Club on Hickory Street for well over a decade before moving to Clinton Street in 1958 and then opening a second location at 4174 Bailey Avenue in Amherst the following year. During the 1970s, Dino could see that the partnership he had with his sister would be more complicated as their children were reaching adulthood. They decided to divide the business, with the Sacco family taking the Clinton Street location and the Pacciotti family taking Bailey. Dino passed in 1978 leaving the Bailey store in the capable hands of his wife Helen and three children, Margaret, Kathy and Jim, who then ranged in ages from 19 to 24. Helen did the books and the young Pacciotti siblings continued to run the store with their new brothers-in-law, Tom (Kathy) Delaney and Chris (Margaret) Smith – who entered the family despite Dino’s one rule at Bocce Club – no dating employees! (Approximately 30 other couples have met at Bocce Club and subsequently married – and with not a single divorce among them to date.) Reflecting the company’s family values, Jim says about those early years, “I know I could not have done it alone at the time, I thank God I had my mom, sisters and their husbands. All of us together pulled through the difficult years of adjustment after my dad’s death.”
The Pacciotti family then opened a new location at 1614 Hopkins Road in 1988. Several years later Jim bought out his sisters’ shares in the company, at which point Jim’s wife, Marcia Pacciotti, joined him in the family business. “Before that, I always felt like there were enough hands in the pie, so to speak,” said Marcia. “But once Jim bought out his sisters, I knew it was time for me to step in and help.” After taking several classes, she took over all the bookkeeping and marketing aspects of the business.
“Jim is the people person; I deal with profits and losses,” said Marcia. “So we make a good team. We complement each other really well.”
Not withstanding this solid business partnership, Bocce Club Pizza has had its ups and downs. “Just a few years ago, food costs really went up, so we had to adjust our prices,” said Jim. “We lost some business in the process and really decided to look at our bottom line at that point.”
What they soon realized was that they were charging the same for a veggie pizza as they were for a sausage and pepperoni pizza. “The costs for meat are so much higher, so we adjusted our costs for toppings,” said Jim. “The prices are more fair now.”
In dealing with declining sales, the couple also realized that if they showed their customers that they were willing to put their best foot forward, it would come back to help the business. They developed a plan that included an enhanced marketing effort, a brand new website (www.bocceclubpizza.com), and a complete renovation of the store on Bailey Avenue.
The couple’s first step was securing a loan from their bank, which they said they had no problem doing, despite recent reports of stricter lending practices. Staying true to their belief of keeping the money in the community, the Pacciottis were then able to hire 16 local businesses to help them realize their vision, including an architect, a construction company, and an advertising agency.
One such company was Santoro Signs, which Jim called to get a price on a new storefront sign. When owner Rocco Santoro came to their initial meeting, he brought with him the original invoice paid by Dino for the first Bocce Club sign. The invoice even had Dino’s handwritten notes on it. Needless to say, Rocco got the job. “I had no idea that Santoro did the original sign,” said Jim. “But that just goes to show what a small town Buffalo is.”
All aspects of the project are now coming to fruition. “Some of our customers have driven right by us because they don’t recognize the new Bailey store,” said Jim. “We feel really good about where we are,” added Marcia. “Everyone is so scared with this economy, but we actually feel really good.” In fact sales are up at Bocce Club Pizza and they’ve been consistently selling out their specials.
In addition to their building renovations, Bocce Club Pizza has also come out with a variety of new menu items. They’ve added a gluten free pizza for those with celiac disease, as well as whole wheat pizza and wraps for a healthier option. They also now offer tacos and desserts, including funnel fries, brownie bites, and apple sticks.
Despite these new offerings, the Pacciottis understand that pizza is their core business. To stay ahead of the competition, they’ve regularly invented unique pizza varieties. In fact, Bocce Club Pizza employees are encouraged to brainstorm new ideas for pizzas, with Jim serving as the in house food sampler. The results have been some interesting and delicious combinations, including Terry’s Pizza, which features chicken, artichoke, and tomatoes, Lizzie’s Chicken Finger Pie, and Jimmy’s Big Cheesesteak, all named after family, friends, and employees.
According to Marcia, by offering such a wide variety of food items on their menu, Bocce Club Pizza has become a one-stop shop for dinner. “We have something for each member of the family,” she said. “People love it.”
And it’s not just local fans who enjoy Bocce Club Pizza, which won the “Best Thick Crust Pizza” award from Buffalo Spree magazine in 2009. Buffalo transplants from around the nation hold annual Buffalo nights and have Bocce Club Pizza flown into places like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Denver. In addition, many families will send their college kids a half-baked pizza to enjoy while they’re away, including owners Jim and Marcia, who have two college-age daughters. Bocce Club Pizza also counts celebrities from Baby Joe Mesi to Wolf Blitzer as fans. The late Tim Russert was also one.
Jim attributes much of Bocce Club Pizza’s success to the foundation his father Dino laid many years ago: excellent customer relations and a consistently good product. So while Bocce Club Pizza has undergone a major transformation this year, Jim said they will always stay true to their roots – great pizza – adhering as closely as possible to Dino’s original recipe. Jim even uses many of the same suppliers his father used when he began the business. “I am very proud and humbled to carry on the Buffalo tradition my father started so many years ago,” he said.
Bocce Club Pizza is located at 4174 Bailey in Amherst, (833-1344), and 1614 Hopkins in Williamsville, north of Dodge (689-2345).
Bocce Club Pizza, now listed on several of Buffalo’s premier portal websites, is Federal Expressed all over the country. Super Bowl Sundays and Buffalo Nights in other cities continue to be huge – as many as 400 pizzas have been shipped as far away as Denver for a one-night celebration. Bocce Club pizza boxes have appeared on television and in movies thanks to some famous ex-Buffalonians who love to continue the tradition. In fact, whether they live in Buffalo or not, for those who know Bocce Club—pizza just isn’t pizza unless it’s Bocce Club.
Sgt. David Pearson of the Town of Tonawanda had a serious hankering for pizza from home while on duty in Iraq and thanks to a Buffalo pizzeria and his parent’s creative thinking, his wish was fulfilled. Pearson, 30, is a member of the Army’s 2nd Battalion located somewhere in Iraq. (He’s also a graduate of St. Joe’s.)
Communicating with his parents via email, Pearson suggested that he missed his hometown favorite, Bocce Pizza. His father, Norm, decided to order a Bocce pizza, then he and his wife Barb individually wrapped each slice in tin foil, then vaccum sealed each one, and sent the whole thing to Iraq. It arrived ten days later. “They said it tasted like day-old pizza, but they loved it,” said Mr. Pearson. “He said to send more!” Mr. Pearson told Bocce owner Jimmy Pacciotti what he planned to do, and Pacciotti was hit with pangs of patriotism. “I just think they’re over there fighting for us and we have to support them,” Pacciotti told Channel 2’s Carol Kaplan. Pacciotti made five “party pies” free of charge for David Pearson’s unit – and Pearson’s parents shrink-wrapped every single slice for shipment to Iraq!
Pacciotti says he wants the men and women “over there” to have a great Super Bowl party with authentic Buffalo pizza. Now he says he’s wondering how many more calls he’ll get from people wanting to send pizza to Iraq. (He hasn’t decided yet whether to invest in a vacuum-seal machine like the Pearson’s, describing the process as “rather labor-intensive.”)