Apizza Center: 58 years at 600 degrees
Published 5:20 pm, Wednesday, March 3, 2010
1952. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected to the presidency and the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Salt Lake City, Utah. The average American took home $3,850 a year in wages, saved toward a dream house that cost $9,050 and gassed up the car for 20 cents a gallon. For escapist fun at the movies, we danced through the puddles with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain and rooted for John Wayne to win the heart of the feisty Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man.
And at 116 Post Road in Fairfield, the Apizza Center opened for business.
Florindo D'Arcangelo, the proprietor, is a slim, fit fellow. Close-cropped hair, mostly pepper with just a pinch of salt, chiseled features and big limpid eyes paint a warm open face. He's precisely groomed and nattily turned out in a polo shirt and slacks. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Lino, as he likes to be called, on stage in Vegas crooning a few tunes and melting hearts. But as executive chef and owner of one of Fairfield's landmark Italian restaurants, he's got other things to melt.
Lino took over the Apizza Center in 1963 after successful runs as owner/partner of Frosinone Importers and the legendary Sorrento Market in Bridgeport, among others.
"I love this country," he says. "I haven't left here for 27 years. I feel great. The last time I went to the doctor was 20 years ago."
This from a 70-year-old who looks like he might be 50-something.
"What does the term Apizza mean?" I ask.
"In Italy, when you ask for a slice or a whole pie, you say, `apizza.'"
I ask how many pies he produces in a week. He says, "Before it used to be much more, but eight, 10 years ago the competition started coming. Back in the beginning a whole pie cost $3. We sold about 700 to 800 a week -- no, maybe close to a thousand. Now, maybe 250."
Still, if you run the numbers using the most conservative figures, that's more than a million and a half pizzas in 58 years! Probably a lot more. Imagine the pepperoni.
In the farthest corner of the restaurant, the flickering light of a television tucked into the first booth along the wall catches my eye. A woman with her back to us sits quietly watching. I ask Lino who it is. He says with a smile, "It's my wife, Mafalda." She's watching General Hospital.
"How long have you been married?" I ask.
Lino calls across the restaurant, "How long we been married?" while tossing me a puckish wink. Mafalda answers, "You don't know, I'm not gonna tell you!." Actually, Lino and his brother married Mafalda and her sister. It's a family thing.
I wonder out loud if he ever takes time off.
"Once a year we take the granddaughters to Disneyland. But that's only once a year. The rest of the year, I'm here seven days a week." Lino loves what he does.
As one would expect, this long-established, well-run family restaurant engenders fierce employee loyalty.
"I got one guy that's been here 19 years," Lino says. "He started washing dishes, now he's the head cook. I do the ordering though. I got about 2,000 items to keep track of in my head and I don't have a computer."
When asked who is responsible for the recipes that have kept the Apizza Center so popular for so long, Lino's face brightens with personal pride. This place is clearly his bambino.
"Do you have a signature dish?"
"Yes, the Lino Special, it's a dozen clams with my special basil sauce over pasta."
"And the house red sauce, San Marzano tomatoes?" I ask. He nods, "Yes."
I know this particular variety is renowned the world over as the best sauce tomato, so I try for more secret ingredients, "What else, good olive oil... "
"It's my mother's recipe. I'm not going to say anything else."
After this last exchange, Lino's expression makes it clear that we're heading into a classified area. And ever so gently, he touches my hand as if to emphasize the point. The protocol in this conversation is now: don't ask, won't tell. Fair enough.
So here we are in 2010 and this quiet, unassuming family restaurant is still humming along after nearly six decades. The cooks are happy, the waitresses are content, the customers are loyal and Lino is a happy man. All is well at the Apizza Center in Fairfield.
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles by Downey about long-standing Fairfield and Southport businesses and organizations. If you have an idea for a story, please contact us at email@example.com or (203) 255-4561, ext. 111.