The Pizza King

He took a chance on pies and launched an empire, but Buddy LaRosa’s just a regular working stiff.
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Buddy LaRosa is making lunch. He wears a red tie and a mercilessly pressed white short-sleeve shirt with a LaRosa’s logo. If you’ve lived in Cincinnati for any length of time, you know what he looks like—a lush wave of white hair combed straight back with a bit of a ducktail behind the ears, a toothy smile that is both welcoming and conspiratorial, as if he’s thinking of something funny and you’re in on the joke. He’s got a leprechaun’s build—short, squat, a dervish of arms and legs. I’ve read articles that say he stands five-foot-seven, but he can’t be an inch over five-five. His presence, however, is enormous. This is Buddy’s roost and he clearly rules it.

His lunch: rigatoni à la Buddy, Italian sausage and peppers, ricotta cheese wrapped in eggplant, antipasta, cannoli. The beneficiaries are a group of LaRosa’s franchisees—the chain now boasts 60 restaurants, 45 of them franchises—and the setting is a small, one-story, one-room building on the property of the Boudinot Avenue location, where it all started back in 1954.

Known as the company’s “test kitchen,” the room is equipped with a stainless steel refrigerator, stove, prep counter, and oven, as well as a stocked pantry. The walls are covered with photos of Italy and various LaRosa-ana—photos of Buddy with employees from 50 years ago, restaurant decorations from the past that are now stored here. A long table along the front wall is stacked with boxing trophies and photos of boxers Buddy has taken under his wing through the years. Four or five wooden tables fill the middle of the room, turning it into a mini restaurant.

I ask Pete Buscani, the company’s executive vice president of marketing, about the “test kitchen” and he cracks a smile. “That’s what we call it,” he says, “but this is really Buddy’s place. He likes to hang out here.” The company’s new dishes, Pete says, are developed and tested at the LaRosa’s on Cheviot Road in White Oak. This is more of a clubhouse, where the company’s founder, officially retired, likes to putter around, tell stories, and cook.

For a 77-year-old guy, he moves fast. In fact, he moves fast for a guy half that age. Before arriving to make the elaborate lunch and entertain his guests, he stopped by his gym to peel off 10 miles on a stationary bike. After lunch, he’s agreed to talk to me for an hour. Throughout the success that has made him the area’s undisputed king of pizza, Buddy has retained a generous, genial, even humble demeanor—attributes we on the west side hold in high regard. And given his lifelong love of, and support for, institutions on this side of town, not to mention his growing up and remaining here, I’ve thought of him for some time as the quintessential West Side Guy. But I’d never met him in person to validate my theory, and so I figured it was time to do just that.

MY MOTHER WENT to grade school with Buddy, sharing a classroom with him for eight years at the old St. Bonaventure School on Queen City Avenue. As has been well documented in LaRosa lore, Donald Sebastiano LaRosa was born August 25, 1930, and grew up in Cincinnati’s “Little Italy” neighborhood in Fairmount.

Given that even then the area teemed with German and Irish, it was a very little Italy, only a square mile or so. He went to the tiny Italian-America church San Antonio’s on Queen City Avenue, but the parish was too small to have its own school, so the kids headed down the street to St. Bonaventure.

In preparing for the meeting with Buddy, I asked my mom what she remembered about him from her childhood. Her response: “He was a nice boy.” Eight years in class together for the nine-month school year, and that was it? No anecdotes or recollections of a spelling bee or fire drill or anything? I can’t say I’d pass a quiz on my own grade school years, but I’d hoped for something I could use. Nope. Nothing. Nada.

So I was hesitant to bring up such a flimsy connection when I sat down with Buddy. Over the years, he’s had to have met tens of thousands of people. Still, it seemed like a way to break the ice.

“What’s your mother’s name?” he responded.

“It was Foegle then. Mary Foegle.”

“Oh sure,” he said. “Mary Alice. Pretty girl. Very quiet. Shy. And always late for school. I remember thinking, ‘Why is she always late? She lives right across the street from the school.’ But she was. And she had brothers too.”

“My uncles Ed and Jack.”

“Oh sure. I can see some Foegle in your face.”

My first question was going to be something about the secret to his great success, but he’d already answered it. This guy obviously pays attention. The famous Henry James dictum about the importance of being someone “on whom nothing is lost” had not been lost on Buddy. If I set out to learn what makes him tick, I quickly learned that he’s always ticking. He has the ability some well-known people possess of simultaneously being the center of attention and yet observing everything going on around him.

IF BUDDY REMEMBERS my mom so well, it’s a sure bet he remembers a lot more about his childhood, a hunch that proves correct as he launches into a good half hour of memories about life in Little Italy. He speaks with great fondness of backyard gardens, of how much the life and culture echoed Italy, of huge feasts attended by even huger families, of working for various uncles and neighbors at their bakeries, fruit-and-vegetable stands, butcher shops, and markets. Through that experience, he says he learned what he needed to know when the time came to open his own place.

His keen memory also includes the divorce of his parents. Though he was only 2 or 3 years old at the time, the split certainly changed his life. His mother, Mary, was born in America; his father, Tony, eight years older, was born in Sicily and grew up in the tough West End. Tony was a successful amateur boxer, which no doubt inspired Buddy’s love for the sport. Buddy tried it for a little while but soon moved on to other interests. In his later years he managed a number of boxers, most famously Cincinnati’s Aaron Pryor, a junior welterweight World Champion.

“My father taught me you can hit a guy four times fast before he can hit you back,” he says. Then he demonstrates, his fist flying out quickly while he says, “Ba-ba-ba-bam.” Buddy and his mother moved in with his grandparents in Little Italy. He says his grandmother took on the role of mother while his mother, only 18 years older than him, was like a sister. A divorce in the tight-knit Catholic Italian-American community in the early 1930s was very unusual, and Buddy has spoken elsewhere about the scars of the split. If he already felt isolated from mainstream America, the divorce probably made him feel outside the norm even in his own neighborhood. Today he is in a jaunty mood, and he makes clear that he doesn’t want to walk that particular stretch of memory lane. But then his eyes well up a bit, and he looks off at the wall beyond the kitchen.

“He was Sicilian and her family was from the mainland,” he says. “Her family, my grandparents, they never gave him a chance. They didn’t like the fact that he was a boxer. He was a good guy but they didn’t give him a chance. I would go to stay sometimes with my grandparents in the West End, but he was a truck driver and a boxer and so he was busy. I didn’t see him too much.” Then he waves off the memory, saying, “Anyway, that was all. Beside the point.”

It’s not hard to sense that it may be the point of his life, the thing that made him perpetually the go-getter, the glad-handing man of the people who is also on the outside looking in, watching, observing. At St. Bonnie’s he says he always felt apart from the German-Irish majority.

“You felt kind of inferior,” he says. “They made you feel that way, the nuns. They’d always call us ‘you people from San Antonio.’ You felt that.” Years later he wrote about that feeling in an unpublished manuscript titled “The Joy of Growing Up Italian.”

For me, as I am sure for most second-generation Italian-American children who grew up in the ’30s or ’40s, there was a definite distinction drawn between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else…they were called the “MED-E-GONES” (Americans.)

Perhaps, too, the desire to build a strong and secure foundation for his family sparked the idea to open a place of his own. A key scene in the Buddy LaRosa Legend is set at a parish festival at San Antonio’s in the early 1950s. His grandmother asked him to work a pizza booth, and as he describes it, “We blew the oven doors off.” Metaphorically speaking, of course. Though the festival drew mostly members of the parish, it also drew German-Irish neighbors, who couldn’t get enough of what was then a somewhat exotic dish—pizza.

THE FIRST PIZZERIA opened in the U.S. in 1905—Lombardi’s in New York—and a few others followed, but it wasn’t until soldiers returned from World War II with tales of a delicious dish served to them in Italy that most Americans even heard of pizza. A few places began opening on the East Coast in the late ’40s, and Buddy saw first-hand, during a visit to Philadelphia, that Americans had taken a shine to it.

Here in Cincinnati, Capri Pizza opened for business in Hartwell in 1949, and Buddy recalls seeing a commercial on television for Capri sometime in 1953. “That’s when I said I have to get off my can and get moving,” he recalls. “I went over and checked them out, and people were waiting in line.”

A couple of his cousins—Pasquale (Pat) and Vincent Gramaglia—opened the first Pasquale’s on Queen City Avenue near Little Italy in the early ’50s. Buddy, ever the keen observer, watched them get started, though he wanted to do things his way—or rather his aunt’s way. Her pizza was known throughout the neighborhood as the best. “Pat’s product was different,” he says. “He had a pre-made shell, he used tomato paste, he made a cheap pizza.”

While working at the main post office, Buddy put together $400 and along with a couple of partners found a spot on Boudinot Avenue in Westwood and opened Papa Gino’s in March 1954. He kept his job at the post office, running the restaurant from 4 in the afternoon until 10 at night, then heading for the late shift beginning at 11. He tried to interest friends and family in investing in the place, but no one thought he had a chance for success. Pizza was still too new—too foreign—to Americans, especially west-siders, even then known for being slow to embrace the unknown. They thought he was crazy. To get a clearer sense of that view, I asked Jeff Ruby—no, not that one; the food writer for Chicago magazine and co-author of the book Everybody Loves Pizza (Emmis Books)—for some perspective.

“I think it’s safe to say that opening a pizzeria in 1954 in a predominantly German/Irish town borders on lunacy,” Ruby says. “Pizza just wasn’t that common yet in America. Granted, there were pizzerias popping up here and there by 1954, but the dish was still a novelty—or completely alien—to the average American. And the places that existed were, for the most part, in Italian neighborhoods. Buddy LaRosa was either ahead of his time, or he was nuts. Or, like many of history’s best restaurateurs, some of both.”

Ignoring the naysayers, Buddy believed his timing was right. “I opened in a rising market,” he says. Pizza was ready to boom, fueled by the appetites of teenagers. To them, pizza was cool. It was new. It was the food of teen rebellion, an exotic dish as spicy as they wanted their lives to be. Their meat-and-potatoes parents rejected it as they soon would reject Elvis Presley. Which, of course, made the kids love it all the more. After football and basketball games at Elder and West High, the pizza joint on Boudinot was the place to be. Teens lined up out the door. “The kids were the ones that made us click,” Buddy says. “It wasn’t easy, but if you love what you’re doing you stick with it.”

In 1957, he split with his partner, keeping the Boudinot location, giving it his own name. “I only wanted enough to make a living,” he says. “I thought, hey, it’s enough for me. I live on the west side. I can eat spaghetti every day. It’s my favorite anyway. I don’t eat steak.” By that time he and his wife, JoAnn, had four kids. The responsibilities of family, perhaps, along with the fighter in his blood, led him to open more locations. In 1967 he began selling franchises.

That same fighting spirit took on all challengers as the business grew. Sitting at a table in “Buddy’s place,” he lists each fallen contender in a matter-of-fact tone: Shakey’s, Pizza Inn, Little Caesar’s, Godfather’s. Even giants like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, which dominate most major markets, have not been able to overtake LaRosa’s share of Cincinnati.

Buddy has whipped them all. By way of explanation, he says, “Look, my dad was a boxer. Did I mention that?”

THROUGH THE YEARS Buddy has stayed close to home, another reason he seems our quintessential guy. He has lived in Fairmount, Cheviot, Westwood, and Price Hill.

“I’ve only moved four times,” he says. “People ask me if I live in Indian Hill, I say, no, I live in Price Hill.” He says his popularity on the west side may stem from shared values. He attends Mass regularly and supports the local high schools. He believes strongly in thrift and the value of hard work. People often tell him his pizza even tastes better over here.

But Buddy’s fame now rests on more than pizza. He reaches out to organizations that aid the homeless and other underprivileged groups. In 1975 he founded the Buddy LaRosa High School Hall of Fame to honor local athletes. After the riots in 2001, he helped the Cincinnati Police Athletic League get involved with amateur boxing.

“I like making people happy,” he says, flashing his signature smile. “I like helping them. I like serving them and giving them what they want.”

These days, Mr. West Side spends his time taking care of JoAnn, who in recent years has suffered from health problems. Until his mother died a few years ago, he visited her every day. His sons Michael and Mark run the day-to-day operation of what is now nearly a $130 million business, and the company continues to innovate. In the early 1990s they were one of the first restaurants in the country to adopt the “One Number” system for handling carryout and delivery. In 2005, Pizza Today magazine named LaRosa’s chain of the year. Plans for more growth are handled by the management team while Buddy supplies the face of the organization.

My hour-long interview with him has stretched to more than 90 minutes, and Buddy is ready to continue. He says, “You need more, let’s keep going. I want to give you what you need.” But he’s already confirmed my belief that he’s the king of the west side—a local kid who defied the odds with charm, hard work, a natural liking for people, and a killer recipe for pizza sauce. When we finally part, he waves and flashes the Buddy smile. Then he turns to Pete and says, “OK, what else have you got for me to do?”

Photograph by Jonathan Willis
Originally published in the January 2008 issue.

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