She can’t answer the question.
She can tell you the story about how the business was started 70 years ago, and she can recite the long listing of tasks she tackles on a daily basis, but Toni DiCarlo cannot explain why Original DiCarlo’s Pizza has reached cult status in the Upper Ohio Valley.
If you reside between Steubenville and Moundsville, it’s likely you’ve consumed it hundreds, if not thousands, of times. If you are visiting the region, you are urged to try it. At first, the squared-slices appear uncooked to newcomers, but that impression quickly passes with the first bite.
“It’s always been delicious. It’s always been like a party in your mouth with every bite, but why it’s become so iconic, I’m not sure,” she admitted. “But I can tell you that it’s not something we take for granted even for a minute. That’s not how my father went about it, and it’s not how we go about it either.
“We all work very hard every single day to make sure that everything we serve the people is the best it can be with every single order we take,” DiCarlo continued. “If we receive a complaint, we find out why someone needed to complain, and we fix the problem. That’s how we’ve always gone about it and how we will always go about it.”
The first Original DiCarlo’s Pizza shop opened in Steubenville in 1945 with every piece selling for a nickel, and this second-generation owner beams when speaking of her uncle and father.
“Right after World War II, my father’s brother, Primo, opened the first store in Steubenville, where they started selling what he had discovered in Italy during his service. It was a crispy bread product covered with sauce and cheese and was being sold in a lot of the Italian cafes, and he brought it to America,” DiCarlo said. “And then four years later, my father Galdo opened his store in Wheeling on the corner of 14th and Main streets, where Wesbanco Bank is today.
“In the mid-1970s, the shop moved up Main Street to another building that’s no longer there, and then in 2000 we moved the store to Market Street across the street from the McLure Hotel,” she continued. “And then in 2009, we moved to our current location back on Main Street.”
Today there are DiCarlo’s shops in many corners of the Upper Ohio Valley thanks to franchise agreements and private ownership, and many bars have single slices on the menu. Two of those shops are located in the Warwood and Elm Grove areas of Wheeling, and there are privately owned stores in Sherrard, Wellsburg, Pittsburgh, York, Parkersburg, and Richmond, Va. DiCarlo said another store likely will be opening in Myrtle Beach this year.
“When independent owners started opening their shops, it was nothing like franchising is today. Instead, it was employees who thought a new shop would work well in other areas so my father and uncle worked out deals with those people, and new shops opened,” DiCarlo said. “That’s how the Elm Grove store opened, in fact. But today, it’s different, and that’s the side of the business my sister, Anna, and her son work on, and now there are DiCarlo’s Pizza shops in a lot of different areas.”
Toni DiCarlo operates three stores in downtown Wheeling, in Glen Dale, and in Dallas Pike near the Travel Center of America truck stop, and the menus at those shops travel beyond the original pizza product. For example, the stores in Glen Dale and downtown Wheeling offer baked sandwiches, calzones, and fresh salads daily.
But when Toni first told her father she wanted to be involved in what would become a tradition, he said no. Galdo was old school.
“At first my father did not want his daughters involved with the business because that’s not what women were supposed to do in his mind at that time,” DiCarlo explained. “In his mind, he always thought women were supposed to get married and have lot of babies. That was how people thought in those days.
“But I was persistent because I knew I loved it even as a child,” she said. “I didn’t really fit in with my peers when I was in grade school and high school because as soon as school was over, I was going to the shop. Eventually, my mother started giving me tasks to do, and that’s really how I learned everything involved with running the business.”
And these days DiCarlo’s stays true to the family’s original pizza recipe – almost.
“The crust is so simplistic that it can’t be duplicated,” she insisted. “The sauce is a family recipe, and we grate our cheese ourselves just like they did because if you order it already grated it changes everything about it because of the preservatives that are in the pre-grated product. The way we do it each day makes it as fresh and delicious as it can be.
“The only thing we do differently today concerns the pepperoni. My father was slicing it himself every day, but we now buy it sliced because it doesn’t change the product at all. It’s still a very high-quality pepperoni just like they use when all this began,” she continued. “Our mentality is if it’s not broke, why try to fix anything about it. People love it this way, so that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
Another family tradition has continued, too, and that is the fact the customers can observe the process. We watch as the employees stretch the dough on the rectangular trays; we see the sauce being applied; our anticipation grows each time a new tray goes into the oven and when a nearly finished tray comes out; and then it’s sliced and placed in what we pray is our box; of course, there’s the downpour of provolone cheese; and then finally, the careful placement of the circular pepperoni.
“When my uncle and my father opened the first two shops in Steubenville and then in Wheeling, the shops were really small, and that meant they were making the pizza right in front of their customers. They didn’t have a back kitchen or anything like that,” she said. “And if you think about it, that’s really how the shops appear today. Most of them are still small places, and the people still get to see their pizza being made.
“It’s become part of the experience. It’s because part of what DiCarlo’s means to the people of this valley and now to people in a lot of other areas,” DiCarlo said. “The whole product is unlike anything else most people experience, and that’s something we appreciate very much as a family.”
Toni DiCarlo works each day with her son, 28-year-old Christopher, and her daughter, Lauren, is currently looking to move back into the area so she, too, can become more involved with the daily operations. She has long loved opening new Original DiCarlo’s Pizza shops, but she is not sure if and when her side of the family will expand.
“My son, daughter and I are looking to the future to see what’s possible, but right now we’re happy with the three stores that we have,” she said. “I do love opening new stores. I enjoy that very, very much, but you live and learn from your mistakes so we’re taking our time with that and concentrating on getting the three stores that we own now to the level where we would like to see them.
“Once we get to the point where we are comfortable enough to expand, I can see that happening again, but when is the question. Right now, we’ll proceed with caution to make sure we’re taking care of what we need to take care of,” she continued. “This isn’t a job, though; this is my life. It’s what I know and how I’ve lived since I was a kid growing up in Steubenville.”
She still works the front counter when needed, and she’s quick to answer a shop’s phone if it rings too many times. On this Thursday, DiCarlo is working in her office located inside her downtown Wheeling store, and she’s kept close watch over the lunch rush that has already produced 72 orders by 12:30 p.m.
“I am very proud of my family, and I love it,” DiCarlo said. “People who know me can easily recognize the passion I have for this business. I just have this unending love for our family business. I always have. There’s nothing else I would have rather done with my life; I know that for sure.
“I do think my father would be proud of us today, but at one time I think he felt bad because it’s not an easy job. You definitely have to have a certain mentality to survive in it. This job is not for everyone, and I don’t say that because I think I’m special or anything like that. I’m saying that because you just have to be cut from a certain cloth,” she said. “You just have to be able to take everything that comes and goes – the good and the bad – and if you can’t do that, the business won’t survive.”
photos by Steve Novotney