By Cindy Hadish/ for the Corridor Business Journal
Consistency is the “secret sauce” behind the longtime success of A & A Pagliai’s Pizza, according to its founder, who is still involved in the family business after more than six decades.
Armond Pagliai, who turned 90 this year, opened the doors to what was then the Pizza Palace in downtown Iowa City in 1962.
At its current location at 302 E. Bloomington St. since the 1970s, Mr. Pagliai still has the keys.
“I come down here during the day and help give them a hand,” he said. “There’s always something to do.”
He and his wife, Rene, met in high school in Madrid, Iowa, and have been married more than 65 years, with three children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Rene and Armond Pagliai are shown inside Pagliai’s Pizza in Iowa City, in August 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
They moved to Iowa City to open the restaurant after the success Mr. Pagliai and his late brother, Sam, had with their first family-owned pizza place in Ames.
Sam Pagliai recruited his brother to make pizzas with him in the late 1950s, when Armond was working on the assembly line of John Deere in Ankeny.
“I used to go up on weekends to help him,” Mr. Pagliai said, citing the success of what was then the Pizza House, across from Friley Hall, an Iowa State University dormitory.
Serving pizzas, particularly on Sundays when the dorm’s dining room was closed, “we just couldn’t keep up,” he said of the popularity of the thin-crust pizza, a culinary tradition that continues today. “We’d make them as fast as we could.”
Back then, a 12-inch pizza was 85 cents, with a 14-inch selling for $1.25.
“Now, we pay 80 cents just for a cardboard pizza box,” Mr. Pagliai noted.
Their parents, John and Catarina Pagliai, immigrated to the United States from Italy. John Pagliai worked in the coal mines of the mining settlement of Zookspur, Iowa, south of Madrid, where the family lived on three acres, with a cow, chickens and hogs.
Armond, the last surviving sibling, was the youngest of seven children.
“We didn’t grow up eating pizza,” Mr. Pagliai said of the origins of the recipe, made with Italian spices and a secret sauce. “But we’d make our own sausage and our own cheese and (their mother) made all of our own bread.”
Family photos from those early days line the walls of Pagliai’s Pizza, located in a late-1800s grocery store that the couple improved after losing their original site to urban development.
Armond Pagliai points out his father in a group photo of the mining camp where he worked in Iowa. The photo hangs on a wall inside Pagliai’s Pizza in Iowa City. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The Pizza Palace on South Clinton Street, along with other storefronts near the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest, became property for the Old Capitol Center, later known as the Old Capitol Mall.
“The front doors of the mall: that’s where we were,” Rene Pagliai recalled, with her husband remembering the restaurant’s neon sign “that lit up really pretty.”
Moving to the former grocery store involved repairing floors that had caved in where coolers were kept and other remodeling, but the site has proved popular, particularly for University of Iowa students.
The restaurant, which seats about 100 customers, is kept in pristine condition; one of the family’s points of pride. Booths from its early days include seating that Mr. Pagliai has reupholstered himself.
“When you grow up a little hungry, you learn a lot of skills,” he said.
Over the years, the family has opened about 30 pizza restaurants in college towns in Iowa and other states, most of which were started by family members, including their grandson, Joseph Pagliai, owner of the Grinnell Pagliai’s Pizza.
Rene Pagliai turns on the lights inside Pagliai’s Pizza in Iowa City, in August 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The “A & A” for the Iowa City location – originally for Armond and son, Armond Jr. – stemmed from a recommendation to place the restaurant’s name at the top of telephone listings. A & A Pagliai’s Pizza, open 4-10 p.m. daily, is now owned by Mr. Pagliai’s nephew, Anthony Fontanini.
“It’s worked out pretty well for us,” Mr. Pagliai said. “I helped a lot of people get started.”
On a good night, the restaurant serves up 500 pizzas, with sausage being the most used ingredient, but vegetarian options and even a gluten-free crust making it onto the menu alongside popular choices, such as the Palace Special, with pepperoni, sausage, onion, beef and mushroom.
While outsiders have suggested shaking up the menu, Mr. Pagliai said the restaurant owes its success to the tried-and-true.
“That and hard work,” he said, citing stellar managers and staff. “You’ve got to put in a lot of time.”
Find more news about the Corridor by subscribing to the Corridor Business Journal.