Cheese panzarotti at Franco’s Pizzeria in Westmont, N.J. — Photo courtesy of Catherine Smith
When I was growing up in South Jersey, my dad and I had a tradition: before getting on the train and heading into the city for Phillies games, we’d stop in at Wawa to pick up iced teas, Tastykakes, and soft pretzels. Then we’d walk to Franco’s Place, where we’d split an order of cheesy curly fries, and each have a root beer and a panzarotti.
If you’ve never been to South Jersey, you’ve probably never heard of a panzarotti – deep-fried pizza dough stuffed with sauce, mozzarella cheese and choice of pizza toppings – so before you ask, no it’s not just a fried pizza turnover, hot pocket or calzone. And no, even if it looks like it, it’s not just an oversized Totino’s Pizza Roll. But we’ll forgive you for making such inaccurate comparisons, because we’re used to it, and because it’s impossible to understand a panzarotti until you eat one.
Served fresh out of the fryer, this steaming pocket of dough – trademarked the Tarantini Panzarotti – shows up, unassumingly, at the table in a plastic basket lined with wax paper. The golden brown dough is covered with greasy, crispy bubbles that offer a strange satisfaction when popped.
There is a proper way to eat a panzarotti: to avoid a face full of steam, or even worse, a burnt mouth, tear off a corner to release the heat. Then squeeze up the cheese and sauce, and dig in, strategically planning your bites to avoid drips, as you would an ice cream cone. This is the method passed down to me by my father on our trips to Franco’s Place.
Franco’s Place was (and still is) one of only a handful of local pizza shops and restaurants that serve panzarottis, which made those of us who scarfed down the fried pizza pockets at this Westmont, NJ restaurant feel like we were part of the “in-crowd.” It was Franco’s family who created the panzarotti (and sold them to the other shops).
While kids in other schools had pizza parties, kids in Westmont had panzarotti parties, and what started as a game-day tradition with my dad became much more. I imagine every family has a food, one they associate with celebrations, get-togethers, and traditions. For my family and so many others here, it is undoubtedly the panzarotti.
To celebrate my 13th birthday, I traveled with a group of girlfriends by limousine the half a mile from my house to Franco’s Place, just to eat panzarottis. Eight years later, watching with my family to see if the Phillies would break the curse of William Penn and win the World Series, we ate away our nerves with panzarottis. And six years after that, in 2014, when I moved home after living in North Carolina for many years, my family celebrated with panzarottis and a champagne toast. And this past February, when the Eagles took down the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, panzarottis were once again on the menu.
As someone who has moved and traveled quite a lot over the years, the panzarotti has become synonymous with home. But how did this delicious combination of fried dough, gooey cheese and tangy sauce come to call South Jersey home? Like so many American treasures, it was through a combination of circumstance, chance and pure determination.
Sixty years ago this summer, the Tarantini family – Paolina and Leopoldo and their five youngest of ten children, Sergio, Franco, Anna, Mario, and Yolanda – immigrated to the United States from Puglia, Italy.
Initially, Leopoldo and Paolina planned to settle their family in Arizona, alongside their daughter, who had moved there with her G.I. husband, but the heat proved to be too much for them. So after a few weeks, the family relocated one more time to Camden, New Jersey, just a couple miles from Westmont.
Living in a small apartment and struggling to make ends meet, Paolina had an idea that would drastically change her family’s fortune (and legacy). She started making panzarottis in her kitchen and had Leopoldo hit the streets to sell them..
The panzerotti (spelled with an ‘e’) dates back to the 18th century, with families in Southern Italy passing down recipes from one generation to the next, each creating their own version of the panzerotti based on preference and availability of ingredients in their region. For example, the Tarantini family originally used ricotta with no sauce, while other families used various types of cheese like caciocavallo and buffalo mozzarella, and even at times added cooked ham.
Just as generations past customized their recipes, Paolina looked for ways to make her recipe more appealing to her new American neighbors. “She would make them down in Italy, when we were kids,” Franco recalls. “She would fill them with ricotta cheese and deep fry them. Oh! They were great! But people here just didn’t like the ricotta, the ricotta seemed to be an acquired taste.”
Paolina tried adding sauce and mozzarella cheese, and before long, Franco recalls, she was making two dozen panzarottis every day for Leopoldo to sell to local businessmen on their lunch breaks.
By 1960, just two years after arriving in America, the Tarantini panzarotti had gained enough local popularity that the Tarantinis, despite naysayers, made the decision to rent out the basement of a local row home and officially start their business.
On one of the first Friday nights, children from around the neighborhood were invited in for a free panzarotti, and, afterwards, they ecstatically ran home to tell their families. That, Franco tells me, “is how it mushroomed.” By 1963, the Tarantinis had acquired a nearby plot of land, built, and opened their first restaurant, The Panzarotti Spot on the Marlton Pike in Camden.
Shortly after opening The Panzarotti Spot, they acquired two food trucks (vans, at the time) that Franco and Sergio would park outside nearby Camden and Woodrow Wilson high schools during the lunch hour. “My God,” he said, “In them days, for 50 cents, you’d get a panzarotti and a soda. And the kids, they just loved it… Every day we were selling out, 150 panzarottis each truck – 300 panzarottis a day, in an hour. Five days a week. You do the math.”
Before long, in 1971, Franco, now with a family of his own, opened his own restaurant, Franco’s Place, in the neighboring town of Westmont. Here he introduced the panzarotti to another community and thousands more families. And it is here that 25 years later I would be introduced to the panzarotti by my father.
Things have changed dramatically for the Tarantinis – and the panzarotti – since they first moved to America. What began with Paolina making just two dozen panzarottis a day by hand in her own kitchen to sell around the neighborhood has grown into a business that requires a machine in a factory, and the family now makes and distributes nearly 5,000 panzarottis every day to local bars, pizza shops and restaurants in the tristate area.
But even as the business has grown, local businessmen can still stop by the factory on their lunch breaks and order a fresh panzarotti out of the fryer and neighbors can pick up a dozen for their family to enjoy on game day.
The Panzarotti, with its steaming gooey cheese and crispy crust, will always be a reminder of celebrations, family get togethers and pre-game traditions with my dad; but it will first and foremost always be, for me and others who grew up here, the taste of home.