When New Yorkers visited the Phoenix area earlier this year to watch the Giants defeat New England in the Super Bowl, they were able to celebrate the victory with a taste of home.
Just a few miles from the University of Phoenix football stadium, where the game was played, is a Grimaldi's Pizza, operated by members of the same family who operate the legendary pizzeria in Brooklyn.
"I went to Arizona State and I loved the area," said Joe Ciolli, who owns seven Grimaldi's locations in Arizona, Texas and Nevada. "I ran the store in Brooklyn for six years, and people would always tell me I needed to open one in Arizona."
After six winters and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ciolli had tired of New York and headed west. The first Grimaldi's opened in Phoenix on Valentines Day in 2003.
"At least 25 percent of the people who come in know about our store back East," Ciolli said. "We are growing rapidly."
Secret's in the coal
Patsy Grimaldi, for whom the pizzeria is named, learned the art of pizza making from his uncle, who learned it from Gennaro Lombardi, the man credited with opening the first pizzeria in America in 1905. Grimaldi started making pizzas in his uncle's East Harlem, N.Y., restaurant in the 1930s.
Grimaldi went on to open his own pizzeria on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The pizzeria quickly made it to the top of numerous "best of" lists in the city.
The secret to Grimaldi's pizza is a coal-fired oven, which generates temperatures topping 900 degrees and cooks a pizza in minutes.
A ban on the construction of new coal-fired ovens prevented Grimaldi's from expanding into Manhattan, although Grimaldi did open a second location across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J. Joe's father, Frank Ciolli, bought the Brooklyn location, and the Grimaldi's name, in 1996.
Grimaldi's Arizona expansion wasn't without its challenges, Joe Ciolli said. While New Yorkers relish the slightly charred, smoky taste of a coal-fired pizza, people from Arizona didn't quite get the attraction.
"There were a lot of people who thought the pizza was burnt because of the way the crust looked," Ciolli said. "The biggest problem we had was making the pizza more conducive to people on the West Coast. It took a while to get people to understand it."
The pizza served at Ciolli's restaurants features a slightly more crisp crust than the pizza served back East. In true Brooklyn style, though, the mozzarella is underneath the sauce instead of on top.
"The biggest problem with our pizza is that it is addicting," Ciolli said. "Once you eat ours you don't want to go back to eating anything else."
And cooking in a coal-fired oven is a lot more complicated than setting a pizza pan on a conveyor belt and waiting for the cooked product to come out the other side. If a pizza burns or breaks apart in a coal-fired oven, the operation comes to a halt while the oven is cleaned out.
"Our pizzas are not the type where you can just hire a guy, put him in the kitchen and have him make a pizza," Ciolli said. "These pizzaiolos train for six months minimum before we open a new store."
All in the family
The Brooklyn Grimaldi's prides itself on such touches as homemade sausage, fresh cheese and olive oil from Italy. In order to preserve those traditions and be able to apply them to several stores, Ciolli standardized procedures in the restaurant and developed the logistics to transport products from New York and Italy to the stores out west.
"I took the concept from a mom-and-pop operation and developed it into one where everything is system-oriented," Ciolli said.
Ciolli's expansion plans include opening four new Grimaldi's locations in 2008, including two restaurants in Phoenix, one in Houston and another in Dallas. On tap for 2009 are additional restaurants in Las Vegas and Houston, along with one in San Antonio, Texas.
So far, Ciolli has resisted the urge to franchise, he said.
"I am going to try to keep things in the family," he said. "We want to keep the brand close to us."