Dough boys

Ralph Crescitelli shows that he can still send kneaded dough airborne. JENNY SWIGODA / TIMES PHOTO

A celebration of 60 years at the same Mayfair location inspires some long-ago pizza makers at Tony’s Place to show they haven’t grown crusty . . . oops, we mean rusty.

Back when Harry Truman was president, a couple of South Philly guys decided to move their bar-restaurant from 10th and Jackson streets to the Northeast. Tony and Dominic Mallamaci brought their recipes for old-fashioned tomato pies and handmade meatballs with them when they opened Tony’s Place on the 6300 block of Frankford Ave. on July 2, 1951.

Eleven presidents and 60 years later, those recipes have not changed — something Dominic’s son, Joe, is proud of.

“I’m a stickler about staying the same way,” he said.

When the brothers opened on Frankford Avenue, they couldn’t afford to buy cheese for the tomato pies, Joe Mallamaci said. A pie was dough with sauce and seasonings only. When they began putting cheese on the pies, he added, they put it right on the dough and put the sauce on top.

The menu has expanded, of course, and customers can get their pies pretty much any way they want as long as they don’t ask for any outlandish toppings. Mallamaci is particularly proud of the roast beef, roast pork, Italian sausage and those homemade meatballs.

“We make five-hundred a week,” he said.

Although tradition is big at Tony’s, there are some modern touches, too. Sports fans won’t miss any televised action. There are eight TVs in one room, three in a second room, and a 104-inch projection set in a third.

A BIG REUNION

On July 12, some of the men who worked at Tony’s when they were teens during the 1950s and ’60s showed they still knew how a pie is supposed to be made.

John Lindell, Pat Baker, Mike Speak, Charlie Garuffe and Ralph Crescitelli kneaded dough and spooned on sauce to some applause as Tony’s staff and customers celebrated the bar-restaurant’s six decades in the Northeast.

“You can make it in your sleep after you worked here,” Crescitelli said.

Garuffe was 13 when he started making dough for tomato pies at Tony’s in 1953.

“We did it by hand. No machines,” he said.

Garuffe worked at Tony’s while in elementary school and at Father Judge High School, took a few years off to serve in the Air Force and came back in the 1960s. In 1971, he bought a bus to ferry Tony’s customers to Eagles football games and back.

He eventually graduated to alumni status and said he’s among a half-dozen patrons known as the “Old Buzzards,” who have their names on Tony’s bar stools.

Baker worked at Tony’s in the late ’50s, and so did his brother. Speak was in seventh grade at the Allen Elementary School in 1964 when he started doing food preparation in the basement for a buck an hour.

They all were part of an army of local kids who worked at Tony’s over the years.

“Everybody in the neighborhood got a job here,” Speak said.

And a few kept those jobs as years turned into decades.

Waitress Debbie Colfer said she started at Tony’s 24 years — and two husbands — ago.

Manager Andrew May, 46, was a 14-year-old student at Father Judge when he started down in the basement. He has been manager now for 20 years, and his 16-year-old daughter, Colleen, also works at Tony’s.

“I’ve been employee of the month 384 times in a row,” he said.

Waitress Louise Berry has seen romances blossom and little kids grow up during her 30 years at Tony’s.

“It is like a family here,” she said.

Family members also were on hand on July 12 — Mallamaci’s 94-year-old mother, Mary; his sister Mary; and one of two sons, Joe Jr., who operates his own restaurant in Ivyland, Bucks County. Son Anthony, a New York police officer, couldn’t make it.

GOOD OLD DAYS

The employees of any business that has been operating for six decades are sure to have a few choice stories to tell. Tony’s current staffers, as well as the “alumni”, have theirs.

May said one longtime customer once told him he always felt safe at Tony’s. “He said no one was ever yelling or screaming,” May said.

That’s not to say there haven’t been the odd incidents, Mallamaci said.

There was the time a man came in with an imaginary drinking buddy. May recalled that the man ordered two beers. Nothing unusual there, but the guy drank one beer as the other sat on the bar in front of an empty chair. Other customers, noticing that the man was talking to the empty barstool, were amused.

One joked to May that he wanted to buy the guy and his friend another round. May finally told the man he could have another — but his friend would have to go.

THE LURE OF THE BEVERAGE

Assistant manager Carol Camm, who worked at Tony’s for 13 years, found there was a little mystery in pizza orders.

She said she couldn’t understand why some men would come in and order pies and sit there to wait for them. Why didn’t they just order them by phone? Why sit at the bar and wait? . . . and polish off a few drinks while they were waiting.

“It took me six months to figure that out,” Camm said.

Berry once chased two guys down Frankford Avenue after they left without paying their tab. She caught up with the duo and shamed the money out of them. She also took another ten from them for her trouble.

“I can laugh at it now, but then I was so mad,” she said, adding that it’s very unusual for customers to stiff Tony’s.

“I know of maybe three incidents in thirty years,” she said.

Then, there were the dough fights.

Yep, dough fights. Homemade, handmade pizza dough lasts only so long before it must be thrown away. Somewhere in time, one of the many teenagers who worked at Tony’s apparently decided it would be a lot of fun to chuck the dough at his co-workers before dumping it.

“What else are you going to do with it?” Speak said.

Evidently, over the years, Dominic and Tony developed a tolerant attitude toward some of the mischief that is sure to be part of hiring teen workers.

Speak recalled how he and a co-worker tried to make off with two cases of beer quarts that they figured would add fizz to a party they’d planned while their parents were at the Shore.

Using a ploy that wasn’t unheard of, they toted the full cases outside and put them among the empties stacked behind Tony’s, figuring they’d retrieve them later.

Dominic, however, caught on. The boys weren’t fired, Speak said, but Dominic told them how disappointed he was.

“He was disappointed!” Speak said, laughing. “We had twenty people coming over!”

KEEPING IT GOING

Not all the memories are happy ones.

“In 1989 we had a fire and lost everything,” Mallamaci said. “We were closed for seven months.”

Determined to keep the look of the neighborhood landmark that Tony’s had become, the bar-restaurant was rebuilt “the same way,” Mallamaci said.

“All our customers came back. All our workers came back, too,” he added.

Joe Mallamaci and his wife, Joanne, took over Tony’s after his father’s death in 1976. Uncle Tony had died a few years earlier.

Mallamaci said he couldn’t run Tony’s without his wife. “She keeps the place running,” he said.

And they couldn’t do it without great employees, he added.

“I’ve got the best staff in Philly,” Mallamaci said.

He looked up at the wall near the pizza oven — at photos of his father and uncle.

“They’re the ones who started it,” Joe Mallamaci said. “All we did was keep it going.” ••

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com