I first called Italian Family Pizza a few years ago, when they were downtown on First Avenue.
"Do you guys deliver to Pioneer Square?"
"Nah," came a woman's voice, audibly steeped in Philly cheesesteaks and padded by the cacophonous hum of a busy pizzeria. "We only delivah tah the Hahhhhbaaah Steps."
Translation: "We only deliver to the Harbor Steps." Which means they were more than willing to make a delivery, as long as we were located within 376 feet of the restaurant. I ordered a large mushroom and olive pizza, and my friend and I walked down to pick it up.
The pizza box we were presented with was the size of a sidewalk square. A single slice stretched from elbow to fingertip. Italian Family Pizza's large pie is so ridiculously, monstrously, preposterously huge, it evoked emotion. We smiled, we laughed, we shrieked, and we laughed again when we realized it would take two of us, all four hands and 20 fingers, to carry the massive pizza box down the street.
Out on the sidewalk, a strange thing happened. As we shuffled down the block, awkwardly maneuvering our precious pizza pie, Seattleites made eye contact. They smiled. They laughed. They shrieked. And the strangest phenomenon of all: Strangers actually spoke to us.
"Where ya going with that big pizza?" they called, smiling coyly, shamelessly flirting with our oversize pie.
"Whoa! Where'd you get that huge pizza? Can I get a slice?" they joyfully cracked, their pupils replaced with tiny spinning pizzas as they dutifully stepped aside so our wide load could safely pass.
Turns out all it takes to melt the Seattle Freeze is an oversize pizza pie.
That First Avenue location is now set to be demolished, but the pizzas inspire just as much amusement at the new five-week-old location on Madison on First Hill. As I sat in the window seat with a large glistening pie, every single person walking by pointed to our pizza in disbelief, gawked to their companion, stared longingly and hungrily, and smiled.
But please don't think this is a gimmick—that all Italian Family Pizza has going for it is size. This, my friends, is one of the best East Coast–style pies in the city. It's one of the best pies in the city, period. The tomato sauce is homemade, and the crust is perfectly bubbled and chewy. Slices are thin enough to fold in half, so you can eat like a true New Yorker, but far less delicate and floppy than a wood-fired Neapolitan pie.
Toppings are classic: You won't find artichoke hearts, barbecue chicken, or goat cheese on the menu, but you can get anchovies. The sausage is made to their specifications by Ballard's Cascioppo Meats, but they don't name-drop on the menu. The edges of the small pepperoni rounds curl and crisp up in the hot oven and then pool with oil that lazily drips down the slice as you bring it up to your lips. They make their own cannoli and salad dressing, and they serve a classic white pie, a bit of a rarity in the Pacific Northwest, that you should most definitely top with fresh clams. It's subtle and mild, creamy with ricotta and the tender chewiness of the clams.
"Here [in Seattle], they think the white pie is with this Alfredo sauce, and we don't do it that way," says co-owner Steven Calozzi. "We just do the moozerell, the fresh rigot cheese, olive oil, and a little bit of pecorino Romano. That's the white pie to us."
Steven owns Italian Family Pizza with his wife, Jennifer Calozzi. High-school sweethearts from Philly, their early 1990s prom picture joins many other framed family photos on the restaurant's walls. Warm, loud, and gregarious, with thick-as-Sunday-gravy East Coast accents, they'll make you feel like family as soon as you walk through the door. With the accents, the Sopranos style vernacular ("yous guys" "rigot" "moozerell"), and Steven's knack for casually quoting De Niro, it's hard not to see the couple as colorful Italian American caricatures in our relatively homogenized and timid city.
"We were always taught that a closed mouth doesn't get fed. I guess that's why we're just loud and brash," says Steven.
He says his pizza is a hybrid of Trenton and Brooklyn styles, and he first learned the recipe 30 years ago, when he was a kid in Philly.
"If I had a tough time with [the recipe], I'd call my gram. She just died in February; she was 92. But I would call her and say, 'Grandma, what do I do again?' We used to call her Yoda, because she was about as big as him and as knowledgeable in The Force as Yoda was. She was great."
The Calozzis say the size of their pies is a tribute to the pizzerias on the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, where they used to work and hang out.
"The giant pie came from Wildwood, New Jersey. That was a Jersey Shore thing. You know, Joe's Pizzeria, a 28-inch pie, biggest pie on the boardwalk. My peel is about 25, 26 inches, and I make it as big as the peel. But just so people don't pull a tape measure out and go, 'Hey! Your pizza was only 24 inches!' I say it's about a 23 or 24 inch pie."
The pizzas come in small ($9–$10) or large ($28–$30), and the latter is big enough to split into thirds, if you want to experience as many topping combinations as possible. And why wouldn't you? On my last visit, we topped a third of our pie with that excellent pepperoni and black olives, a third with one of the daily specials (large rounds of Genoa salami and salty prosciutto), and the last third was a white pizza topped with clams.
Forever a teacher's pet, I beamed with pride when our server, another heavily accented East Coaster with a big red-and-green Italy-themed tattoo on his forearm and a love for Rollerblading, praised me for splitting the pie into thirds, especially impressed by the white clam portion. We ate until we were stuffed, and then we ate some more, and then I ate leftover pizza for the next couple of days. There are still leftovers in my freezer. I had a slice today. Did I mention the pizzas are gigantic? Bring your friends.
Several years ago, the Calozzis were planning to open a restaurant at the Jersey Shore, but Steven's brother was doing MMA fighting in Seattle and invited them to come out west and check it out.
"He said: 'Yo, I've been selling cheesesteaks here between fights. We can open something up, and maybe it's good. And if not, you can go back home and do your thing.' He was at Belltown Billiards selling cheesesteaks out that back window there."
In 2012, Jennifer and Steven peeled off from the cheesesteak business and opened their pizzeria on First Avenue, Italian Family Pizza. They never went back home.
"What I think is, cities are all the same. You got assholes in your city, and you got nice people in your city. And that's any city. You can be in Cleveland, New York, or Tampa, Florida."
With more space in the new location, they just expanded the menu to include Stromboli, massive calzones, and meatballs, which is Steven's current favorite pizza topping.
"Homemade with beef, pork, and veal, the way my gram showed me how to do them. Once everything levels off, maybe we can do some pasta. We do martinis now. Little by little, we're growing into the space."