Swirling for 60 years: Legendary Grotto Pizza celebrates anniversary

Dominick Pulieri, shown in this undated photo making a pizza at Grotto’s in Rehoboth, learned the trade while working at his brother-in-law’s Pennsylvania pizza eatery. Submitted photo

REHOBOTH BEACH — Like the sauce circularly spread over the cheese on those doughy shells, Grotto Pizza founder/owner Dominick Pulieri’s success story is certainly sweet.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Sixty years ago, Grotto Pizza had a rather humble beginning. Rehoboth Beach had not yet become a huge tourist mecca, and native Delawareans, Mr. Pulieri said, had yet to develop much of a taste for pizza.

“The unfortunate part was … there were no customers,” he said.

In the six decades that have followed, Grotto Pizza has evolved into an iconic pizza/sports bar chain that boasts its “Legendary Taste” at nearly two dozen locations in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Delaware has the most Grottos, 16 current restaurants statewide with a 17th on the way in Millsboro.

There are three Grotto restaurants in Maryland. Pennsylvania also has three, including in Harvey’s Lake in the northeast part of the state, where Mr. Pulieri learned the pizza trade while working for his brother-in-law at his pizza restaurant.

Today, Grotto Pizza is a multimillion-dollar company, employing approximately 1,800 during peak tourist season and 1,200 in off-peak at its 22 restaurants.

Server Shannon McCoy places a pepperoni pie on a table at Grotto in Dover in 2018. Delaware State News file photo

County officials are thrilled with that progress.

Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, said Grotto is a big part of the coastal area’s popularity.

“We’ve really come a long way just recently as a culinary destination, and of course, Grotto Pizza is one of the great standout pizza places here. It plays in well to southern Delaware becoming the ‘culinary coast.’ That’s a big part of it, that ‘Legendary Taste’ that Grotto brings to the pizza scene.”

From scratch

Seventy-eight years ago, Dominick Pulieri was born July 2, 1942, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Italian immigrant parents who came to America from the town of Pulsano in southeast Italy.

“My father came to the U.S. when he was 17. He had relatives in Ohio, so he moved there. He went back to Italy, where he met my mom and married her, but she was afraid to return to Ohio, because she was scared of storms,” said Mr. Pulieri. “So, they moved to Wilkes-Barre because she had a friend there, connected to the coalmines.”

After graduating from Wilkes-Barre GAR High School, Mr. Pulieri enrolled at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1964. He taught biology, general science and chemistry in the Smyrna School District from 1965 to 1970.

The early ‘daze’

At age 13, Mr. Pulieri had a paper route.

“And my sister, at that time, got married to this fellow who happened to be in the pizza business. The place was called Joe’s Pizza, and it was in Plymouth, Pennsylvania,” he said. “We had a second location called Joe’s Pizza in Harvey’s Lake. It was at that time that I used to go to the Lake. I didn’t make pizza. I had to sweep the floor and do the ‘dirty’ thing. But it was all good. It was fun getting away for the summer.

“Then, gradually, after the first two years, when no one was looking, one of the pizzamakers … he would let me get on a soda box and stand on the soda box and I’d learn how to make pizza,” Mr. Pulieri said.

Looking for a way to fund his college tuition, Mr. Pulieri ventured from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coalmining fringe to coastal Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where he joined his sister and brother-in-law in a pizza restaurant venture. It would become Grotto Pizza.

Looking for a way to fund his college tuition, Dominick Pulieri ventured from Pennsylvania’s coalmining fringe to coastal Rehoboth Beach in 1960, where he joined his sister and brother-in-law in a pizza restaurant venture. It would become Grotto Pizza. Submitted photo

“I first started making pizzas with my brother-in-law, Joseph Paglianite, at his pizza restaurant in Harvey’s Lake,” said Mr. Pulieri. “In 1960, I came to Rehoboth Beach with my sister, Mary Jean, and my brother-in-law, Joe. In those days, pizza sold for 20 cents and a whole pie was $1.60.”

The idea for a possible move to Delaware was cast in Harvey’s Lake through a twist of fate, Mr. Pulieri said.

“It just happened a fisherman — I guess it was the right thing at the right time — said, ‘I don’t understand. You guys should come down to Delaware.’ He said there is no pizza at all down there,” said Mr. Pulieri. “My brother-in-law, Joe, said to me, ‘Do you want to take a ride down there, and we’ll see? Maybe we can find a location and you go and operate it, and we can pay you more money.’ I said, ‘That will work for me.’ ”

To coastal Delaware they came.

It wasn’t easy selling slices during that first summer in business, as pizza wasn’t a well-known delicacy. To get the locals interested, Mr. Pulieri and his sister talked to everyone about pizza and handed out free samples to folks who passed by his store.

“She’d stand on the sidewalk and try to hand samples out,” said Mr. Pulieri. “At that time, there was basically (just) the locals. The tourists hadn’t arrived yet. And they didn’t know what pizza was!”

The first Grotto Pizza was on Rehoboth Avenue. “To say it was a restaurant would be exaggerating,” Mr. Pulieri said.

Next door was the Dairy Queen, which did a brisk business.

“We are next door to this Dairy Queen, and there are lines getting an ice cream. I used to think like, ‘They are busy, and we’re not busy,’ ” said Mr. Pulieri. “Every once in a while, I would fold a whole bunch of pizza boxes, and I’d walk out the front door like I am delivering them. I’d just go around the block and get rid of the boxes, to look like I am selling pizzas someplace else.”

Early on, it was not unusual, Mr. Pulieri said, to take in only $8 or $9 a day.

But on July 1, 1960 — the day before his 18th birthday — Grotto Pizza hit a financial milestone.

A vintage wintertime photo of Grotto Pizza in Rehoboth Beach. In 1963, Grotto opened a second location along the boardwalk, but remained a seasonal operation as Mr. Pulieri taught school in Smyrna. He opened Grotto Pizza as a year-round restaurant in 1974 to meet growing customer demands. Submitted photo

“By this time, there were some tourists coming into town and at least knew what pizza was. They didn’t know what Grotto Pizza was because we were new,” said Mr. Pulieri. “I remember going upstairs and waking my sister up. I checked the registers, and we did $101. We broke the $100 mark! That was huge. It was done on sweat labor. A lot of sweat labor by a lot of different people, not just myself.”

Gradually, business picked up. The first year, Grotto grossed $13,000. It tripled the second year.

In 1963, Grotto Pizza opened a second location along the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, but remained a seasonal operation as Mr. Pulieri taught school in Smyrna. He opened Grotto Pizza as a year-round restaurant in 1974 to meet growing customer demands.

“In 1962, there was a massive storm that came through the East Coast and literally wiped out the boardwalk. I always wanted to have a boardwalk location,” Mr. Pulieri said.

Opportunity knocked for such a location, the second Grotto Pizza in Rehoboth. By then, pizza popularity was growing.

“I took a chance, and we established the boardwalk location,” said Mr. Pulieri. “It was easy to expand. I mean when you have waiting lines, what does it tell you? There are more people out there that want your product.”

Name game

The name Grotto Pizza goes back to the days at Harvey’s Lake.

“Adjacent to Joe’s Pizza at the Lake was a placed called The Grotto. It was a bar. We were serving Joe’s Pizza at The Grotto bar,”
said Mr. Pulieri. “My sister happened to be with me. … ‘Why not call it … Grotto Pizza?’ I said, ‘That’s great … because it’s Italian. It’s not attached to me, necessarily.’ We agreed on that. That was the beginning of Grotto Pizza, in 1960.”

Family tradition

The zest for pizza stems from family tradition.

“I had a stay-at-home mom; my father worked in the strip coalmines,” said Mr. Pulieri. “I used to love Fridays because my mother would always make two or three pizzas. I grew up Italian Catholic, and we didn’t eat meat on Fridays — so we’d eat a pizza instead, and I always looked forward to that.”

Those sentiments have carried over to thousands of Grotto-loving families.

“I grew up with it, like many, many other families,” said Mr. Thomas of Southern Delaware Tourism. “There is a lot of nostalgic value. When families come here, they come here to relive great memories. And Grotto Pizza is one of those generational things. I think that is what you see when you go there and dine. You see multigenerational families, among many other guests. It seems like it has always been one of the drivers there, like, ‘We’ve got to go get our slice of Grotto; we’ve got to get our Grotto Pizza.’ ”

Company growth and philanthropy

Grotto’s instantly recognizable swirl, a combination of sweet tomato sauce and a blend of cheeses, has been baked into the dining traditions of Delaware beach vacationers, as well as pizza aficionados, for decades. Cheese first, swirls of sauce second — that’s the unique recipe for Grotto Pizza.

“The cheese goes on the bottom, sauce on top!” Mr. Pulieri said.

As the company continues to grow, the Grotto Pizza core values of excellent pizza, delicious food, friendly guest service and community involvement have remained unchanged.

In fact, the company is proud to share that more than 100 of its 1,600 employees have worked at Grotto Pizza for over 20 years.
Company commitment is key, he said.

Grotto’s mission, Dominick Pulieri said, is to make customers — many of whom are vacationing from northern Virginia, Washington, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as Delaware — feel at home. Submitted photo

“As we go forward, it is extremely important to have systems in place, formalized training. You can’t grow the company without that. There is no time for individuality. We constantly change things, but when we change, we all have to get onboard. It’s not going to be Sally’s way, Bobby’s way, Dominick’s way or Tommy’s way … it’s the Grotto way,” said Mr. Pulieri. “Remember that: the Grotto way. That is how you grow a company. As long as you have a Grotto uniform on, you are part of our team, and I expect you to be compliant with whatever your job is.”

Grotto’s mission, he said, is to make customers — many of whom are vacationing from northern Virginia, Washington, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as Delaware — feel at home.

“A lot of people have been exposed to Grotto’s. Our job is to be able to serve them. We are a service company,” said Mr. Pulieri, adding that the goal is to “make people feel like they can’t wait to get there.”

Delaware has the most Grottos, 16 current restaurants with a 17th on the way in Millsboro, above. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

“Hospitality goes beyond just service. Hospitality is, you are inviting them into your home,” he said. “This is their temporary home when they are away from their home. You want to make them feel comfortable. Think of them like you are family.”

Additionally, Grotto Pizza has contributed more than $1.5 million to nonprofit organizations through its Community Pizza Night Program.

“I’ve been fortunate,” said Mr. Pulieri. “I kind of think with that comes some kind of responsibility. I get happier if I give something away.

“We’re so thankful to the local community, visitors and our longtime employees that have supported Grotto Pizza for the last 60 years — contributing to the success of our business,” Mr. Pulieri said. “The Grotto Pizza experience is 100% customer focused, and we’re committed to ensuring that our pizza, our commitment to the community and our guests’ experience remains legendary for years to come — thank you for your business!”