Medusa Pizzeria owner Ernesto Villico was grinning, though you could hardly tell because of the giant orb of fresh mozzarella he’d shoved in his mouth as a joke. He held a pizza peel with a freshly-stretched dough in his hand, had his name stitched along the back of a custom Italia soccer jersey and sported a lipstick outline on his cheek from where his wife Casimira laid a smack on him after a fun group photo session. He was having a ball, and it showed.
Both Ernesto and Casimira seem like they’re always smiling, and their friendly hospitality warms the atmosphere at their Fishtown restaurant.
The dining room at the corner of Gaul and York is huge, and though it’s appointed with hardwood tables and decored with lots of local art, it looks almost aseptic when viewed from the outside. “It looks empty even when it’s full,” a regular customer recently observed. But when the Villicos and their family — who make up most of the staff — are working the oven and out on the floor, the vibe is like a party.
This is not the couple’s first rodeo, after all. In fact, Ernesto and Casimira are proof it’s possible to own so many pizzerias that you forget when you started running some of them.
Casimira is certain about Joe’s at 16th and Sansom. The popular slice parlor just celebrated its 30th anniversary, meaning it launched under that name not long before the couple met there — she as a customer stopping by and he slinging dough behind the counter, fresh off the boat from Sicily.
And there’s no question when it comes to Medusa, which is their latest venture. It opened almost exactly a year ago, differentiating itself from their other three venues with its floor-to-ceiling windowed walls, table service, second-floor roof deck and focus on wood-fired pies (instead of American fold-your-slice style).
But as for Ciao Pizza at 17th and Chestnut in Rittenhouse, and Margherita Pizza at Second and Market in Old City?
“Oh gosh, I haven’t kept track!” Casimira said when asked what year those counter-service spots were bought and renovated by Ernesto and his brother-in-law Salvatore, who also emigrated from the island off the bottom of Italy’s boot. “Ciao was something like 15 years ago. Margherita probably around 20 years.”
Though they all have similar decor — copper pots and pans hung across the deck oven hoods, curved wood backs for the bench table seating and murals of Italy on the walls — the family doesn’t really hype the connection between the three Center City shops. Each has its own following as a lunchtime go-to and neighborhood delivery joint, so co-branded marketing wouldn’t necessarily be helpful in growing each one’s ultra-local clientele.
Not much marketing seems to work anymore anyway, per Vito Lizzio, the 36-year-old Sicilian nephew Ernesto entrusted with management of his original 16th Street shop. Last year Vito printed up coupon postcards offering a big discount, but after distributing literally thousands of them, not a single one was redeemed.
“It’s all done online, you know?” said Vito in heavily accented English. “No one takes my printed menus anymore, either.”
Casimira is astounded by the extent to which customers prefer online interaction. “They’ll pay an extra $15 in fees for Caviar or Grubhub even if they live around the corner!”
She just implemented a Joe’s Pizza loyalty card that offers discounts after you buy a certain number of slices or pies, “but you have to come in person,” she said. “Or you can call — in person. We offer free delivery, and no one takes advantage.”
The rise of internet delivery has caused a big shift in the way small, independent, cash-and-carry restaurants do business, but it’s not the biggest change the Villicos have noticed when it comes to their Center City spots. That would be rising rents.
“The rents are going up so fast that it’s hard to keep up,” Casimira said. In addition to the new loyalty card plan, they’ve also added a small Italian specialty grocery area to Joe’s, and will be showing soccer on the TVs in the second floor dining area. But the real response to the threat of an untenable lease renewal? That’s where Medusa comes in.
“I love Center City, but so many places opened up, corporate places, so it’s tough for the mom-and-pops,” Casimira explained. “With our next spot, we wanted to make it somewhere people can come, feel comfortable, eat healthy pizza and have a good time.”
By opening Medusa, which was the first store the Villicos designed from the ground up, they’ve insured future generations of their family will have a pizzeria to run for many years down the road. Good thing, too, because the stem of relatives coming over from Sicily — which began with Ernesto and his parents some three and a half decades ago — has not slowed down. And everyone gets into the family business.
The most recent arrival is Christian Lizzio, another nephew of Ernesto and Vito’s cousin. Twenty-nine years old, he’s currently overseeing the kitchen at Ciao.
“There’s no future for young people [in Italy] right now. It’s sad,” Christian said. “There’s just so much more opportunity in America. Right now I’m cooking pizzas, but who knows what I could do.”