Ocean City’s Boardwalk is where the battle is joined each day: They heat up the ovens, throw the dough in the air, and spread the sauce far and wide.
They are fighting the pizza wars.
Pizza on the Ocean City Boardwalk is a business of tradition, nostalgia and competitiveness, all served with a dash of oregano. Walk the Boardwalk and you will see more than a dozen pizza parlors and restaurants mixed between the themed mini-golf and arcades — from Angelo’s to JoJo’s to Primavera to Big Slice on one end, to Pisa, Roma and Angelo’s II on the other.
Best known in Ocean City is Mack & Manco’s — or it was, anyway, before the name was changed over the winter to “Manco & Manco’s” as part of an an amicable separation between the children and grandchildren of Vincent Manco and Anthony Mackrone, who founded the business in 1956.
Manco’s reign was unquestioned for years. But then, 12 years ago, Walt’s Original Primo’s Pizza — owned by Walt Gauta, with its flagship location in Somers Point — opened a restaurant on the Ocean City boards, just a few yards north of the central Manco’s location.
And so, the war was on. Coincidentally or not, the first non-Ocean City Manco’s location opened in Somers Point — a mile or so up the road from Walt’s Original Primo’s.
Both sides tend to underplay the rivalry — or even acknowledge its existence.
“I don’t think it’s a rivalry,” said Gauta, of Egg Harbor Township. “We get along fine. ... They felt it was a good move to open in Somers Point, for the same reasons we felt it was a good move to open in Ocean City. People do more comparing than we do.”
The signs on the three Manco’s & Manco’s locations in Ocean City were discreetly changed over the winter, and on a recent weekday lunch hour in June the tables at Manco & Manco’s were as packed as if it were the Fourth of July.
“It’s got a thin crust, and just has great flavor,” said Lynda Leaming, of Cape May. “We come here even in wintertime.”
“It’s unique,” said her husband, Harry. “It’s unlike any other pizza we’ve had, and we’ve been eating pizza for years.”
“And one of our first dates was here,” Lynda added, “48 years ago. Or more.”
Joe Giunta, of Delaware County, Pa., had similar memories of coming to Manco’s as a kid — and was “passing on the tradition” to his twin boys Gavin and Braydoncq.
“It’s already their third time here — and they’re one,” Giunta said. “My family’s been coming here since I was probably their age. It’s just been a tradition, you know. And if I went anywhere else but Manco & Manco’s I’d be in trouble.”
Up the boards at Primo’s, it was a little less rushed — as in, there was only one family there, the loyal Pomppers from Salem. Though to be fair, of course, it was a Tuesday in early June.
“We always come here every year,” said Joyce Pompper. “I like the pizza, it’s good. ... Though I don’t know why. Tradition, I guess.”
A few days later, Keith Pilla, of Ocean City, had a very good reason for why he chose Primo’s: “I like the taste, I like the sauce. Plus I had a coupon.”
But besides the claimants to the throne, there are those simply trying to shore up their share of the pie biz in a busy market. Saleswoman Anna Santoro at 3 Brothers Pizza — a separate business from the 3 Brothers in Seaside Heights and other towns, she explained, as there are literally “two brothers in Ocean City and one in Italy” — defended her parlor as the workhorse of the Boardwalk.
“We’re open every time, shine or rain, thunder or no,” Santoro said. “When (other) people close, it’s no good for business. When businesses close, people don’t come on the Boardwalk.”
She also made sure to add that 3 Brothers was “the best on the Boardwalk. Everyone knows.”
Angelo’s II was purchased by Maria Duva, of Linwood, in 1989, who runs it along with the nearby Ocean Cafe. As she busily hopped from restaurant to restaurant, overseeing the training of a young hire, she imparted her personal take on the pizza business.
“People come here for quality, not quantity,” Duva said. “We have a lot of steady clientele coming for paninis, strombolis, calzones — it’s not just about pizza.”
The distinct Muppet-esque decor, she added, also helped them stand out.
“It’s the ‘place with the Elmos,’” as she’s heard Angelo’s II described. “They look for it and remember it’s us. It may sound weird, but it’s true.”
Prep’s Pizzeria & Dairy Bar, meanwhile, is coming up on its 50th anniversary in a few years, having been founded by Cathy and Joe Reubencq in 1965 — who named it after St. Augustine Prep — and co-owned today by Marybeth Grant and her sister Barbara Reuben. But even after all this time, Grant still feels as if it’s an uphill battle.
“I don’t even have to tell you,” said Grant, when asked about the competitiveness of the Boardwalk. “Last year, they opened up two pizza places — one to the right of us, one to the left of us, a half a block away. Of course, that doesn’t help the business any, to say the least.”
The problem, she said, is that “people won’t even try anything else, and that’s frustrating.”
For those who have come in, year after year, “They’ve watched me grow, and watched my family grow,” Grant said. “I’ve been here since I was 14. And we just started with the next generation. It makes it worth it in the end. ... I’ve put my heart and soul into it. This is my life.”
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