EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Rocco Giugliano’s Capri Family Pizzeria now is the food court.
At the Shore Mall, where Giugliano brought his secret-recipe sauce in 1975 and once squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder among other eateries, his 2,000-square-foot restaurant stands alone.
Tarps drape over nearly every other place in the food court — and on most storefronts in the mall, for that matter.
“If I didn’t have a following or reputation, I would have to shut down. The Capri is so strong, I’m operating in an empty mall, all alone,” said Giugliano, 64, of Egg Harbor Township, who retains a slight accent from his native Naples, Italy.
The Shore Mall owners are in the middle of plans to take down portions of the mall. Although anchors Boscov’s and Burlington Coat Factory are part of longer-term plans, most tenants in the long-struggling complex left by January.
However, the pizzeria’s lease doesn’t expire until the end of May, and Giugliano said he will be in business at the mall until then.
Meanwhile, although Giugliano is looking for other nearby locations, he said he hopes to strike a deal to move to the front of the mall when his lease expires.
However, Cedar Realty Trust, the Shore Mall’s owner, said the mall is “very unlikely to have space for him,” Vice President Brenda Walker said.
As a restaurateur for most of the mall’s 45-year history, Giugliano has a unique perspective on the property — from a budding shopping center, one in its heyday, then in dramatic decline, and now in transformation with plans that may not include him.
Giugliano came to the U.S. in 1964 and opened his first pizzeria with a friend in New York at age 18 — “When there used to be one pizzeria in every town in those days. It blew up in the mid-’70s and the malls blew up.”
He opened Capri in the Shore Mall at age 25. By the 1980s, he could sell 300 pizzas a day — 500 on shopping holidays.
“In the ’80s I used to have 28 people working here,” he said. “When I opened up, there was a line.”
Now, he sells about 80 pizzas and has a staff of five.
Business dropped 35 percent in the past few months, a figure that Giugliano said is a testament to his food despite the obstacles he faces.
There is nearly no passing foot traffic in the food court. A wall now separates him from the bustling state Motor Vehicle Commission. To get from the commission to the pizzeria requires a walk on the outside of the mall.
“I’m doing business in a mall where 99 percent of the shops had to leave,” he said.
Despite the void around him, Giugliano said, his customers come out of their way to order pizza, cavatelli with meatballs, or chicken cutlet with broccoli rabe.
Okey Langbein, 47, is one of those people.
Now living in West Virginia, Langbein grew up in Egg Harbor Township and has been eating this pizza since the sixth grade.
A maintenance supervisor for Greyhound, Langbein stops for a meal when he’s working at his company’s location in Pleasantville.
“This place is like an icon. … When I want to get a pizza when I’m working in the area, I come here,” he said.
Inesa Grisajeva, 32, of Egg Harbor Township, works at nearby Boscov’s and eats there four times a week. She ordered a big chef’s salad with honey mustard dressing.
“I came here early so I could eat just that,” she said.
When it comes to marinara, Giugliano is particularly proud of his sauce, bright red and chunky with tomatoes.
“Not diluted with water, not spiced up,” he said. “The pizza business is delicate. People don’t understand how delicate it is.”
For his crust, he skips flour and instead uses semolina, which he said is more expensive but gives a better crust underneath. He sprinkles two palms worth of shredded mozzarella and slips the pie into the oven, effortlessly, with a flick of the wrist.
“They say, how do you do that? I say it comes with the years,” he said.
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