A piece of the pie

By Scott Chase

A hands-on approach keeps this family business in the dough

If you’ve been to Nicola Pizza just once, odds are good that a member of the founding family, the Caggianos, has greeted you, served you, cooked for you or cleaned up after you. If you’ve been twice, it’s a sure bet! The landmark eatery in resort town Rehoboth Beach, Del., celebrated a half-century in business this summer. With the pandemic mostly in the rear-view mirror, the season is looking good.

And change is in the air. After all this time, company president Nick Caggiano, Sr., 85 years old, recently announced plans to move from the restaurant’s two downtown Rehoboth locations to a larger facility out on the nearby Coastal Highway. Nick, Jr., 56 years old, says the move was precipitated by traffic in town and the lack of parking spaces for carry-out and dine-in customers. It’s the latest move in a half-century saga that has seen Nicola Pizza grow from an idea into an institution.

“What we really wanted was to get both locations back under one roof,” says Nick, Sr. “Upstairs we’ll have a banquet room that can be used all year for weddings and other occasions, and the entire operation should be easier and less expensive to run.” The family expects to get the new store ready in time for the 2022 summer season.

Back in the mid-1960s, Nick, Sr., and his wife, Joan, were living the suburban dream. Nick worked at a canning company and Joan had a job at a local bank. Occasionally the Caggianos would cook up some pizzas and Italian specialties at home, which created a burning desire for more by all who were lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Son Nick, Jr., came along in 1965, and five years later daughter Camille was born with spinal bifida. Nick and Joan knew they would have to change their lives and began selling pizzas to friends and neighbors to enable them to stay home.

That little side hustle went on for about a year, the patriarch recalls, and visions of expanding from the Caggiano family kitchen to a store began to gel. As second-generation owner Nick, Jr., tells it, “The iconic location on First Street became available with a rent-to-own option, so my parents pooled their resources, signed the lease and opened with 17 seats on June 11, 1971. They made money their very first year.” With the restaurant operating only during the summer season, Joan kept her job at the bank and Nick, Sr., took work as a substitute English teacher, spending as much time as possible with Camille. After six summer seasons, the Caggianos went all in and opened Nicola Pizza seven days a week all year.

With pizza as the main menu item, life was good, but a funny inspiration really changed everything for Nicola. Nick, Sr., remembers that the Rehoboth Beach lifeguards wanted something more portable than a slice of pizza, and “with a little meat on it,” so he devised a version of the calzone, stuffed it with ground beef, pizza sauce and cheese and dubbed his creation the Nic-o-Boli. “This really blew up the name and the business,” Nick, Sr., says. “We really took off after that!” Nick, Sr., tested the product with family before adding it to the menu.

In fact, the Nic-o-Boli, available steaming hot over the counter or frozen by the dozen, created such a following that the Caggianos experimented with retail sales, reaching a high point of a dozen stores in the Washington, D.C., area, including Magruder’s Grocery, another family business. But the restaurants have always been the heart of the business. The two Nicks decided against expanding retail sales and have never really entertained opportunities to franchise.

The potential for loss of control is what really sealed the fate of outside sales. “We decided that a family member would always be present in the stores so we could maintain our quality of ingredients and preparation," Nick, Jr., says. “It’s a real hands-on approach to making sure that every pizza and every Nic-o-Boli is as good as you remember it. Heck, I’ve already made 10 pizzas myself today and it’s not even lunchtime.”

The family opened a second location on Rehoboth Avenue in 2010, just a few paces from the original store. “Our goal with the second location,” says Nick, Jr., “is to meet growing demand from our customers and bring our food to them with less of a wait.” As an established business in the city, Nicola was able to secure a liquor license for on-premise sales and create a different atmosphere for the store, with more than 20 large-screen TVs in its Upper Deck Sports Bar.

Nick, Jr., doesn’t remember a really bad time for the business over the past five decades — with one exception: “The first Iraqi war back in 1991 was a tough time for us, much worse than the pandemic,” he recalls. “But take-out has been the backbone of our business for years, and it just ramped up this year when people couldn’t come to the restaurants.”

The biggest news out of Nicola Pizza of late is the announcement that the family will move its business out of Rehoboth and onto the ocean highway closer to Lewes, Del. While Nick, Jr., says the main reason for the move is to provide an easier pick-up option for customers, he’s sad about saying goodbye to the two original locations. “The move is bittersweet. I want to maintain the same clientele and open up Nicola to folks who won’t drive into downtown on a summer weekend. We think the new location will solve that problem.”

Nick, Sr., sees the work ahead as a labor of love that honors wife Joan, who passed away in 2017, while creating a foundation for the family for years to come. “Our main goal over the next two years will be to duplicate our family feel out there and retain our loyal customers here in Rehoboth as well as in Lewes and other communities. We’re certain that people passing through will stop in and grab a Nic-o-Boli or a pizza.”

Setting up the future for the next generation is a work in progress with no known outcome. Nick, Jr.’s teenagers, son Vincent and daughter Julia, already have a presence in the restaurants.  Nick’s first cousin, Kelly Munyan, works there, too, as general manager of the entire operation. But there’s no pressure, Nick, Jr., says. “The kids don’t have to follow in our footsteps, but the restaurant business will be here for them if they decide to make this a career. Dad and I and the family have lots of work to do, and they can be a part of it if they want to be.”

Son Vincent, who just graduated from nearby Indian River High School, says his future is wide open. He’s been focused on business and marketing classes, and he enjoys working in the restaurants, but he plans to take a break year and think more about his life ahead.

“I would love to keep it all going downstream,” Vincent says, “and I love working here with my family. At least I’m not getting bossed around by strangers!”

 

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