WILDWOOD — Hot slices of pizza disappeared from their paper plates almost as quickly as they arrived.
And in between bites, the men and women, and even young children, enjoying them laughed and smiled and knew they would be back soon for another slice.
It felt like summer had arrived Friday. That is, until the doors opened.
The rush of cool air and the sight of patrons clad in sweatshirts, heavy coats and boots was a quick reminder that winter was still lurking just outside Sam’s Pizza Palace.
But opening day at Sam’s and other seasonal businesses along the Jersey Shore offers a taste of what’s to come.
“Everyone wanted Sam’s Pizza,” said Erin Morey, a teacher from Wildwood High School who went with co-worker Jen Loper to pick up two pies.
Each Presidents Day weekend, fans of Sam’s migrate to the Boardwalk, some traveling from as far as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, for a taste of what has become a summer staple.
“Today’s a tradition,” said Anthony Zuccarello, whose father-in-law, Sam Spera, opened his Boardwalk restaurant in 1957. “It’s the first rite of spring. That’s what locals say.”
Back then, the restaurant was in a different location, about a half-block away, but little else has changed.
Spera’s son, Tony Spera, started working at the pizza place when he was 12 years old. His sisters, Rosemary Zuccarello and Rita Szczur, are also active in the business at Sam’s and at the adjacent Shore Plaza Motel.
“Back then we rolled the dough by hand. We’ve come a little way. A machine cuts it, weighs it, rolls it. We have a machine that cuts the cheese. It cuts down on time, but it’s the same pizza,” Tony Spera said. “We don’t change nothing. We keep everything the same.”
Seconds after the doors opened at 10:30 a.m. Friday, the phone rang.
“We’re open now,” Tony Spera said, answering a question he was likely to hear all day.
But most visitors on opening day just know.
“Fifty-five years I’ve been coming here,” Bill Whinna said as two slices arrived at the counter in front of him. Whinna, 62, had his first taste of Sam’s when he was a boy, and his family would come for summers to their home in Grassy Sound.
Normally, he prefers pepperoni slices, but in observance of Lent, cheese pizza will do.
“That’s the sign. The beginning of the season,” Whinna said.
Across the dining room, three boys from Wildwood Crest already counted themselves as Sam’s regulars.
The boys, Michael Sgrignioli, Nick Demento and Anthony Bruno, all age 12, skateboarded their way north on the Boardwalk to Sam’s.
And they immediately ordered the standard — two slices of cheese pizza each.
“We decided that yesterday,” Nick said of the group’s decision to roll their way to Sam’s.
“’Cause it’s good,” Anthony added.
Whinna likewise scarfed down his slices, leaving behind only remnants of the crust and a tip.
“You see the same people making the pizza for years and years, and it tastes like I remember,” Whinna said.
Just after 11 a.m., enough orders were coming in that a second pizza-making station — home to the dough, piles of mozzarella cheese and fresh tomato sauce — had to be manned.
One Wildwood city employee stopped to pick up 12 pizzas for workers at City Hall. One of Sam’s employees helped carry them out.
Inside, mini-reunions took place as old friends waved hello while waiting for their slices to arrive.
“These people, you don’t see all winter. Then they come to the opening. They start getting the feeling for the spring and summer,” Tony Spera said.
Friday’s temperatures hovered around 50 degrees, but Zuccarello recalled one opening weekend two years ago when snow still covered the Boardwalk.
“We were shoveling to open up,” Zuccarello said.
As he reminisced, pizza fans continued to pour into the restaurant, filling the turquoise booths and lining the counter.
“Hey, Anthony, how are ya? Welcome back,” another man said.
“Good to be back,” Zuccarello replied.
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