Grotto Pizza's super-secret dough recipe; 10 more fun facts about Delaware's best known pizza

Ryan Cormier
The News Journal

After nearly 59 years, Grotto Pizza is Delaware's best-known and biggest homegrown chain.

Is it the cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella that keeps them coming back?

Or perhaps it's the trademark swirls of sauce made from California tomatoes picked exclusively for Delaware's pizza king, which now boasts 23 locations?

All could be true, but for so many Delawareans (and out-of-state vacationers to Delaware's beaches), it's all about the memories forged eating their pies.

Over the years, Grotto Pizza has grown to be the closest thing to Delaware's unofficial state food. That's not only due to its reach in all three counties, but also the emotional attachment customers have from summers munching on the unique slices.

Dominick Pulieri at Grotto Pizza in Rehoboth Beach in the 1980s.

We went behind the scenes at one of the pizza-maker's two commissaries to learn about Grotto's long-held secrets, special ingredients and journey from unknown to "Legendary Taste."

Their dough has an NDA (for real)

Grotto Pizza has two large-scale kitchens where they mix their own dough, as well as receive deliveries of their sauce from California and cheese from Wisconsin.

There's one near New Castle with a 300-pound mixer and another near Lewes, where a larger 400-pound mixer can deliver up to 675 pounds of dough at a time. 

That's where all the chain's dough is made, the mix that cooks into a thin, crispy crust with buttery notes.

Grotto Pizza Commissary Manager Mark Malenfant mixes dough ingredients in a mixer at the New Castle Grotto Pizza Commissary.

Since 1960, only about a dozen people have been told the dough recipe — and they each had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

That's right. The dough is so important that if a dough-maker were to leak the recipe to a competitor or someone else, it would break the contract and they could be hauled into court.

"It makes sure that someone isn't going to go out, find another job and use that recipe," says Michael Jones, Grotto Pizza's food and beverage director. He's a 38-year Grotto veteran employee.

Since January and February are Grotto's slowest months, dough is mixed only five days a week. Once the weather starts to heat up, so do the commissaries, producing dough seven days a week to keep up with demand.

The secret ingredients for Grotto Pizza dough sit before mixing at the Grotto Pizza Commissary in New Castle.

The dough is so important to the chain's survival that dough-mixers have to be heavily trained since it's such an exact science. Grotto owner and co-founder Dominick Pulieri has the final say on who is allowed near the mixer.

It's such an integral role at the company that the most recent person added to the team of dough-makers was hired about 10 years ago.

"We look for someone who will be here for a number of years," Jones says. "You have to be on top of it from start to finish, otherwise you'll affect the quality of the product. And that's why we only have a handful of people who can actually mix the dough.

"The dough is the foundation for our lead product and if that's not right, everything else is going to fail."

Mixing behind a curtain

Grotto takes another precaution: Dough-makers in Lewes mix the company's proprietary recipe behind a curtain, in complete secrecy.

Mixed dough is dropped into a series of machines to be cut and shaped into appropriate size for pizza crust at the New Castle Grotto Pizza Commissary.

Since the downstate kitchen sees more turnover — especially in the warmer months when beach business accounts for 60 percent of sales for the company from May to November — the curtain always stays up.

In New Castle, the curtain came down a few years back because nearly all their workers have been there for years. But the track where the curtains hung is still visible on the kitchen ceiling.

Secrecy was so strict for so long that dough-maker and Grotto production manager Mark Malenfant was quite surprised to see a News Journal photographer taking photos and video while he turned flour, yeast, shortening, salt, sugar, dough conditioner and more into rounded dough balls.

After a 24-hour refrigeration period, the dough is immediately shipped directly toGrotto's 17 Delaware restaurants, three Maryland locations and three Pennsylvania shops. 

Mixed dough is dropped into a series of machines to be cut and shaped into appropriate size for pizza crust at the New Castle Grotto Pizza Commissary.

Cheddar in, mozzarella out

Grotto Pizza has never been traditional, even though now it is a First State tradition.

Instead of mozzarella cheese, which is what most pizzas are made with, the chain has always gone with cheddar cheese, giving their pies a distinctive taste.

"We once used a 30-, 45- and 60-day blend of three cheddar cheeses, but now we use just one mild cheddar," says Vinnie DiNatale, Grotto Pizza's director of marketing.

About a decade ago, the Grotto team made a trip to Wisconsin to meet with a cheese master to decide on what that single cheddar cheese would be.

A pizza supervisor cuts a freshly baked pizza at Milford's Grotto Pizza. The Rehoboth Beach-born chain will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.

Jones, Grotto's food and beverage director, says, "We formulated our pizza cheese — something that is specific to our company — based on the flavor profile we wanted, how it melts in the oven and the stretchability of it."

Not much else has changed in nearly 60 years. 

"It's still the original recipe," Jones says. "We've tweaked it to be able to grow the company and add stores, but as it stands today, it's still the same basic recipe we've used since 1960." 

California maters just for Grotto

If you haven't been able to find a pizza sauce just like the one Grotto uses, there's a reason. 

The company teams up with Stanislaus Food Products in Modesto, California — whose motto is "The Real Italian Tomato Company" — to pick California tomatoes just for the Delaware pizza chain.

Jones goes out there every five years, touring the farms and inspecting the tomatoes. He watches the tomatoes get picked and cleaned before being processed into a paste, which is then canned and shipped to Delaware. That gives the sauce consistency from store to store.

"They are fresh out-of-the-field tomatoes that are packed as soon as they're picked," he adds.

Cheese on the bottom, Swirl on top

If you go into any traditional pizza shop and watch them construct a pie, you'll likely see a pizza-maker stretch out the dough, layer it with sauce and then spread mozzarella on top.

Pizza supervisor Sean Mann applies sauce to a pizza at Milford's Grotto Pizza location in 2016, using a mechanical pizza dispenser to deliver the company's trademark sauce swirl.

At Grotto's, the cheddar cheese is always placed directly on the dough with a trademark swirl of pizza sauce on top.

It has to be right every time. So much so that they formalized their five-level pizza-baker training in 2014, complete with videos, online tests and performance reviews.

A mechanical system with a sauce pump allows pizza-makers to use a hose to spread the sauce in the circular pattern.

The swirl is such a unique touch that it sometimes leaves customers baffled — or damn near hypnotized if they spin their pie on a table.

"Surprisingly enough, some people think the cheese is swirled on top of the sauce," DiNatale says.

A finished Grotto Pizza cheese pizza appears from the oven at their Pennsylvania Avenue location in Wilmington.

The Founder

Pulieri's road to Delaware began in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1942 to immigrant parents from Italy. His father worked as a coal miner.

It was there where he also graduated from King's College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college with a bachelor's degree in biology.

In 1960, he, brother-in-law Joseph Paglianite and sister Mary Jean Paglianite, opened the first Grotto Pizza.

"My father gave me a guilt trip. 'Ah, you went through college for what? To make pizza?'" Pulieri remembered in a 1986 interview with The News Journal.

Dominick Pulieri (right) with Rehoboth Beach Grotto Pizza general manager Bruce Morrow in 1990.

Joe Paglianite owned Joe's Pizza in Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania, and it was there Pulieri first tossed dough into the air and learned the craft of pizza-making.

Pulieri told The News Journal "a fisherman or something from Dewey Beach" was at Joe's Pizza and suggested they open a shop at Delaware's beaches. Joe thought it was a good idea and backed the first Grotto Pizza financially, sending Pulieri and Mary Jean south to get the spot up and running.

Since Grotto wasn't an instant success, Pulieri also taught biology, general science and chemistry in the Smyrna School District from 1965 to 1970. 

"Coming from a pizza area, I thought I would open the doors" and customers would flood in, he said in the 1986 article entitled "Doughboy." 

Grotto Pizza founder Dominick Pulieri is seen mixing dough around 1963.

How Grotto got its start on Rehoboth Avenue 

In the early 1960s, pizza was not the culinary staple it is today.

Mary Jean would hand out samples to people walking on Rehoboth Avenue. She would have to explain what pizza was and how to pronounce it.

Grotto Pizza made $100 for the first time on July, 1 1960, just one day before Dominick Pulieri — who lived at the beach and worked at the store during summers while he was in college — turned 18 years old.

Early marketing gimmick

Pulieri, now 76, is still intimately involved in all aspects of Grotto Pizza on a daily basis.

An August 10, 1986 article in The News Journal focused on Dominick Pulieri's rise as co-founder of Grotto Pizza.

He started out that way. Sometimes while working in his empty — and at the time mostly unknown — pizza shop, he would see long lines of guests waiting to get treats from Dairy Queen a few doors down.

To make his shop appear to be in-demand, he would take stacks of pizza boxes out his front door and walk through the lines of people on the sidewalk as if he were super-busy.

If they tracked him past the line, they would have seen that Pulieri would either take the boxes to his car or walk through the alley and back into the shop through a rear door. 

Drunk munchies helped Grotto survive

As a teenager living at the beach, Pulieri made plenty of local friends, which came in handy when it came time to give his business an early push.

One of those friends was Al Johnson who worked at the Pink Pony cocktail lounge on  Rehoboth Beach's boardwalk.

If it was a busy night at the bar and people were looking for food after last call, Johnson would call a sleeping Pulieri and wake him up.

Grotto Pizza on the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk in 1963.

Pulieri would get out of bed, fire up the ovens and open for the drunk munchies crowd from the Pink Pony, one of the first local bars that catered to a gay clientele.

The Pink Pony was destroyed by a storm in 1962, but Pulieri stills talks about how that connection helped make Grotto Pizza viable in its earliest years.

His job is to eat pizza 

He gets paid to eat Grotto Pizza all ... the ... time.

Jones — Grotto's food and beverage director — is in charge of making sure the pizzas are perfect at all 23 shops.

And other than Pulieri, he knows the ins and outs of Grotto's pizzas better than anyone.

Jones has been with the company for 38 years, starting as a summer pizza-maker in 1981 on Rehoboth Avenue before working his way up through the management ranks, including general manager and operations director before taking his current position.

"I've been making pizzas since I was 10 years old, so I kind of fit in," says Jones, who grew up helping at a family friend's pizza shop and is now in charge of Grotto menu research.

Grotto Pizza's New Castle County Operations Director Russ Wiedenmann shapes dough for a pizza at their Pennsylvania Avenue location.

He regularly crisscrosses Delaware and into Maryland to visit every restaurant, conducting quality control checks.

"Part of my job is tasting the pizza almost every day," says Jones, who is surprisingly fit considering his pizza-heavy diet. "I love our product and I never get sick of it."

When the downstate mixer broke during summer rush

With summertime being peak Grotto Pizza sales season, especially at the beach, the company cannot afford to be knocked off its game.

At its Lewes commissary, the dough-mixer runs continuously then, producing up to 675 pounds of dough per batch and — at times — up to 10,000 pounds of dough a day.

One year, in the middle of July, the massive metal dough hook that mixes dough cracked.

"We had to step-up production in New Castle and transport all the dough boxes they had down there up here," remembers Jones. He had a fleet of Grotto vehicles crossing the state to minimize the damage. "And our owner gets really nervous in those situations, so it's not a fun time."

Grotto Pizza facts and figures

1,400,000: Pounds of dough made by Grotto Pizza annually.

1,100,000: Pounds of cheddar cheese used each year.

450,000: Gallons of sauce used annually.

10,000: Pounds of dough produced in a single day in the summer at Grotto's Lewes commissary. 

$1.60: Cost of a cheese pie at Grotto Pizza when the first shop opened. (A large cheese pizza is now $15.99.)

20 cents: Cost of a Grotto Pizza cheese slice when the first shop opened. (A cheese slice now costs $2.50.)

1960: The year Grotto Pizza was founded on Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach.

1963: Grotto Pizza opens a second location on the Boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach.

1967: The original Rehoboth Avenue take-out stand moved to its present location in what they call the “Arcade Building.”

Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).