Compact and lithe, Nino Coniglio could have been a gymnast, “but I was too busy running with a pack of wild kids,” he says.
Given his book-a-week reading (and now his discourses on agricultural macroeconomics and foods of the ancient world), he might have become a professor. His charisma might have made him a stellar salesman.
“But I could never do what other people do,” he says. “I never wanted to be a guy who fits in. I want to stand out.”
The 38-year-old’s latest bid for distinction, Coniglio’s Old Fashioned in Morristown, a pizzeria, opened in October just off the Morristown Green. In April, he won the grand prize at the 2023 New Jersey Pizza Bowl with a seductive combination of Calabrese tomato sauce, garlic confit, crispy basil, Italian pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, ricotta from Jersey Girl in Branchville, and mozzarella from Lioni Latticini in Union.
Raised by his single mom in an affordable-housing project “in Bedminster, of all places, I’d ride my bike to the two pizzerias in Raritan, because being in a pizzeria made me happy. The owners would shrug and ask me to do chores like sweep, wipe down tables, take out the trash.”
“My payment was pizza,” he says with a laugh.
For Coniglio, persistence paid off. “I’d watch the pizzas being made and memorized the steps. But when I asked the owners to let me help in the kitchen, they wouldn’t budge. So I’d take extra dough home and experiment in our kitchen. When I showed the pizza guys what I could do, they finally put me to work. I loved it. Those guys were so cool, and their pizzerias were Italian neighborhood institutions. The feeling of community was so strong, and pizza was our pride and joy.”
Eventually, Coniglio’s pizza journey took him to the city. “After high school and my community college moment, I moved to Brooklyn and made pies in Gravesend, another Italian neighborhood,” he says. “A couple of years later, I was hired at a pizzeria in Williamsburg, where the new concept was wood-burning brick-oven pizza. The chef took me under his wing, and I became a serious student of pizza and Southern Italian cuisine. Pizza became my life. I was invited to cook at the old-school legends Di Fara in Brooklyn and John’s of Bleecker Street in [Greenwich] Village. Finally, I was a pizzaiolo in my own right. But I needed to bust loose and get noticed big-time.”
Coniglio’s ticket to renown was pizza acrobatics, “like Cirque du Soleil tricks, but with pizza dough,” he says. “It takes endless practice, but I’m on good terms with pizza dough.” He entered competitions and, at 21, won the grand prize in Pizza Acrobatics at the 2007 New York Pizza Festival. He continued to compete and win domestically and in Europe.
“I was now known in the pizza world,” he says, “but not yet as a pizzaiolo. So I started entering competitions for actual pizza cooking, and eventually won gold medals for best pizza and an all-pizza episode of Chopped.” (Most recent win: the “staggeringly competitive” New Jersey Pizza Bowl.) “Some fans who were entrepreneurs wanted to back me in a new Williamsburg pizzeria. It really took off. Then, in 2017, I met Shealyn Brand at a pizza show, and she became Shealyn Brand Coniglio in 2021.”
His social media–savvy spouse calls herself a pizza influencer with “a pizza theme on 95 percent of my wardrobe, not just for social media, but because it’s my thing. We both live and breathe pizza.”
Says Coniglio, “We didn’t seek out Morristown. I was looking at spaces all over the metro area, and I happened to see this one while visiting my sister, who lives here. It was love at first sight.”
During construction, the Coniglios covered the façade with printed screenshots of snarky Facebook comments about the project. “We’d see people reading and laughing,” he said. “A new business that can poke fun at itself is intriguing.”
Soon after it opened on Halloween at 11 South Street, Coniglio’s Old Fashioned had lines outside “as if Bad Bunny was spinning here,” he says. “Customers waited so patiently to pick up their pies.” Coniglio estimates that “at least 200” pizzas are picked up daily, adding, “We’ve streamlined the process.” The pizzeria itself is worth a dine-in, with tiled walls, wood floors, booths, and a midcentury fountain that dispenses sodas, some serving as mixers for BYO libations. Outdoor tables offer a view of the green.
Coniglio’s garlic confit–strewn Brooklyn Round pie, his winning entry in the 2023 NJ Pizza Bowl, is on the menu with other whole pies. (“This is not a slice joint.”) Gluten-free Caputo flour from Naples contributes to a delectable crust.
Pastas are cooked al dente and luxuriantly sauced. Perfect vinaigrette graces enormous, garden-fresh salads. Chicken and eggplant parmigiana “over the years has become so bland, like a school cafeteria dish,” Coniglio says. “I’m taking it back to its Southern Italian roots, with less grease and great marinara and cheese.”
Hand-kneaded, hand-seeded breads, dense and delicious, are baked in-house daily. Coniglio stocks “real bagels, with boiled dough, that I learned to make in Queens.” Italian desserts like bomboloni, spherical doughnuts filled with pastry cream in various flavors, are baked Wednesdays through Sundays. Coniglio’s Sicilian hot snacks, called rosticcerie, include fritters stuffed with potato, egg and cheese. “I don’t know of another American restaurant with a rosticcerie specialty,” says the boss.
Coniglio now owns seven pizzerias—three in Brooklyn, three in Manhattan, and Coniglio’s Old Fashioned. “Discovering Morristown and moving here from Brooklyn was like winning the lottery,” he says. “This town is a fantasy. The history, the food, the trees. Everything we could want is moments away. Our Brooklyn friends cannot believe this place.”
The Coniglios live in an apartment on the opposite side of the Morristown Green from the pizzeria. In January, Shealyn gave birth to Penelope Luciana Coniglio. “Getting to work means a stroll through the Green for all of us,” says the new dad. “It’s easy with a baby carriage. Penny’s growing up at Coniglio’s Old Fashioned. I want her to follow her own path, like I did. But who knows? Maybe she’ll grow up to be a pizzaiola—a woman pizzaiolo. The world needs more of them.”
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