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Monday, July 5, 2010

Cassizzi's Ristorante in Port Richmond

When I first went to Cassizzi’s Pizzeria Ristorante at 2533 E. Clearfield Street in Port Richmond, I was struck by how much the place reminded me of the restaurants in the city of Florence. Here was a taste of Europe right in the neighborhood! I liked the homemade food, the restaurant’s lack of pretension, and the fact that it was a BYOB.

Recently I sat down with the owner, Nick Cassizzi, and asked him why the place wasn’t packed like “frozen food process restaurants” like Applebee’s. Why, after all, would people opt for frozen processed food over homemade fare?

“People’s palates have really been prostituted in this country. The fast food industry has really done a number on us,” Nick answers, sampling a new sauce his chef has just whipped up. “Here, go ahead, try some.” I dip in. It’s not sweet like an Applebee’s sauce. Another thing: Nick doesn’t have to scream over background music. While gobbling up French fries and Fillet ‘O Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s has a certain appeal, it doesn’t measure up when you want to do more than just eat on the run.

Nick Cassizzi is asking God why his place isn’t drawing them in like flies. Sitting with him and counting the very countable heads in the restaurant, I’m asking God the same question, especially since nearby restaurants like The Hinge have managed to hold their own for the last several years. “The owners there are friends of mine, nice people, but they’ve weathered a few storms,” Nick says. “The problem may be that we’re only two years old.” Two years, like the seven year itch in a marriage, is a crucial milestone for most restaurants, and Nick is feeling the pinch.

“I’m open to starting something creative in here, like a Pen and Pencil Club or having a Chess Club or musicians or even writers reading from their works,” he says. “Do you have any ideas?”
Judging from his background, Nick could even get up and entertain diners himself. He’s got more stories than O’Henry or Hemingway. This Lincoln High School grad left Port Richmond in the early 1960s to go to graduate school in NYC where he became a noted clarinetist before going into arts management. From NYC he went to Los Angeles. Name a famous entertainer, like Better Midler or Barry Manilow, and Nick’s probably had dinner with them. His creative management skills are still being sought after the likes of the San Antonio and Buffalo Symphony orchestras.

His first restaurant venture was a pizzeria he opened with his family on the boardwalk at Cape May. After two years time the decision was made to move the pizzeria to Philly.

Law of the universe: Great dreams always attract obstacles. In Nick’s case, it meant transforming a Port Richmond funeral home run by the Flanagan family into a restaurant. Flanagan’s had been doing funerals in the area since 1910. “In 1918 [during the flu epidemic], they were doing 150 funerals a month. The last funeral was in 1985 or ’86. I bought the place in 2007. When we came in there was dust everywhere,” Nick tells me. “Drain pipes, sinks, everything had to be replaced. We even found an old metal casket.”

Nick says that after the last funeral the building was occupied by an elderly “eccentric gentleman” who liked to walk the beaches in Wildwood in a string bikini and a big straw hat.
“One day after I bought the place I was in here working when this guy knocks on the front door. He asks me if he could come in, and I said sure, but then he said he wanted to make arrangements for a funeral.”

For a short time the funeral-parlor connection generated a fair amount of jokes. One friend suggested that Nick name the place “Pizza to die for.”

Fixing the place up was no easy task, especially when you have to deal with rezoning issues and the Philadelphia Gas Works. Nick quickly went through his private stash of $150,000 emergency money to get the restaurant going. “The most brutal situation in the city is the Gas Company,” he tells me, adding that the Gas Company overcharged him $3,000 before it finally admitted that the building’s meter was “faulty.”

“I pray a lot,” Nick says. “We recently found out that TV’s Chef Ramsey is looking for another Philadelphia restaurant to visit, so we applied online. We’re doing everything to stay alive, from slashing prices--$4.00 for a sandwich and a 25% off all Cassizzi meals when you join the Diner’s Club. “

The sad thing is this: Nick Cassizzi shouldn’t have to do a thing. What can be better than cheap, homemade food in beautiful surroundings?

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