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Despite a changing pizza marketplace, Donald “Buddy” LaRosa remains the king of Cincinnati pizza. After 57 years in the business, he still wears his crown with confidence and that iconic grin.
When you started in the local pizza business in 1954, there really wasn’t one. What made you think a restaurant would work? I grew up in Fairmount, St. Antonio’s parish. I went to the parish festival where my grandma worked the pizza booth, and I saw people lining up for it. When people are really enjoying what they’re consuming you can see it. I said, I think I might try to be an entrepreneur. I had no capital, no business plan, no marketing plan, but I had good recipes from my grandmother and my aunts. Armed with recipes and a passion to work hard, I went into business. A lot of people told me I was crazy. They said, “Americans will never buy that product.” But I believed in what I saw at the festival. Why do you think it worked? Initially, our business was about teenagers who were coming from high school. You share pizza, so you and I have to agree on what we’re going to order. Teenagers thought that was cool. How has the pizza business changed since then? Product-wise, in the early days, it was very basic in terms of the meats and vegetables applied to the sauce and cheese and crust. Today, the list of ingredients that can be put on pizzas is almost endless. We’re still relatively mainstream. What decision are you glad you made? I always tried to hire and work with people who were smarter than me. I wasn’t threatened by the talents that others could bring to the business. I knew the only way I could have a life is by surrounding myself with people who were more talented and brought more to the table than me. I think I was wise to do that. What decision do you regret? I don’t think like that. Every day is about doing your best. Bring a smile to someone. You make mistakes and you learn from them. There’s nothing I would do differently. I wake up at 81 years of age with just as much passion and enthusiasm as ever. What do you see as your legacy? I enjoy serving people. If I can make a difference in the lives of the people working with me or who enjoy my products, then that’s what I try to do. How is pizza like life? Well, everybody loves pizza. And they eventually come to understand that life is to be treasured. Every precious moment is to be lived and treasured. Pizza is like that—it’s fun and enjoyable. Savor every bit of it.
Illustration by Tim Tomkinson
Originally published in the November 2011 Issue.