The first time I went to Tacconelli’s Pizzeria in Maple Shade, the woman seated behind us was celebrating her 95th birthday. Generations were gathered to honor her: the birthday girl, her daughter, her grandson. Crisp pizzas steamed on tray stands, and the soundtrack was one of familiar conversation and laughter in the black, red, and wood-toned dining room.
At some point, the chatter spilled over to the next table. A pair of Italian aunties wished grandma happy birthday. Then, they set their eyes on her grandson.
Were his grades good? (They were.)
Such a handsome boy. (He was.)
They went on to enumerate the qualities of their niece, who was in need of a nice boy like him. As they chattered, his blush came to match the red sauce atop Tacconelli’s classic tomato pie (hold the cheese). You could tell, though, that he was used to this. Though I did not know it then, this was a classic Tacconelli’s moment. At a restaurant perfumed by dough and garlic, food is a vehicle that brings generations together.
This starts in the kitchen, where a father-and-son-led team (Vince and Vince) turn out masterful thin-crust pizzas from open black-tiled flame ovens and new-school pasta offerings that showcase Vince the younger’s training at the Culinary Institute of America. The pizzas lean beautifully old school and carry a deep history in the region, related to the original Tacconelli’s in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood, circa 1946.
There, you must reserve dough in advance. Here, the dough is plentiful, and that’s a good thing. It is easy (perhaps advisable) to order too much.
On that first visit, we shared a red pie with pepperoni and the signature white pie with spinach and chopped tomatoes. The crust was shatter-thin yet pliable enough to fold: some kind of alchemy. It was also gilding the lily after two portions of pasta. There were two of us.
This time, we showed a similar lack of restraint, but to be fair, this was not our fault. We happened to show up on first Friday, when fontina-stuffed meatballs are a special. Diners: Get the fontina meatballs. Fried first, then baked in red sauce, they’re decadent and arrive sizzling.
Do not let this stop you from ordering pasta, however (mercifully available in half portions). As we tucked into house-made shells topped with pork ragu—silky, savory and dotted with caramelized chorizo and tender broccoli rabe—I proclaimed that it was shameful not to eat that dish every single day. In retrospect, yes, I hear how this sounds. I meant it completely. Also memorable was a seasonal butternut ravioli, accented with apples and sage. Leaning savory, not sweet, it came dressed in brown butter and fried shallots.
In short order, our pizza arrived.
Inhale. Exhale. Though we did not have room we forged on, swept up in the music of family chatter. The menu states clearly that Parmesan is off the table—hearkening to a tradition started in South Philly, our waitress explained. No matter. Tart-sweet sauce and crackery crust with ample char came topped with arugula and prosciutto, in need of no adulteration. Lightly dressed in lemon and olive oil, the greens offered a peppery foil to the sweetness of the sauce. They also melted into the bite—everything in harmony.
Fully sated, we opted to bring our pint of homemade pumpkin gelato home. Even in the estimation of a pumpkin spice agnostic, it encapsulates the flavors of fall.
If you arrive on a Friday night, you’ll likely find 35-plus people waiting for a table by 6:15. It’s worth it. Put your name in with mom Doris and her team, who will likely greet you with a smile and a “hon.” Then situate yourself such that you can gaze into the oven’s flames. It’s hypnotic. While you wait, you’ll likely see someone get up from their table, walk into the kitchen, and give one of the owners a hug. This is very much that kind of place.
Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, 27 West Main Street, Maple Shade; 856-667-4992; Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, plus Friday for lunch. BYOClick here to leave a comment