There are several well-known Cincinnati food families but when it comes to pizza there is only one ... Larosa's. The local chain and its well-known founder are household names.
Cincinnatians who can't remember their own phone number can quickly recall the Larosa's delivery number and jingle. And that's why, as Joe Webb shows us, Larosa's is something that is So Cincinnati.
It's noon at the Western Hills Larosa's on Boudinot and founder and pizza icon Buddy Larosa is in the kitchen with his sons and grandson. Buddy is comfortable here but not real comfortable with the title "icon." He says he's not so sure what it means. "Lookit. I didn't go to college but I had a PhD in the streets, though. Our school colors were black and blue."
Whatever he learned on the streets worked in the kitchen. In 1954, Larosa threw in with a cousin and two friends to start a pizzeria. "It wasn't an instant success. We struggled. We all had other jobs. We only opened in the evenings."
But something clicked. By the early 60's, the partners were gone and Buddy was solo at the Boudinot location. Today, his name is above the door of 65 locations across the Tri-State. "We are the dominant pizza brand in our core market and we're going to stay that way."
Mike is CEO but not afraid to pick up a rag and clean ... his brother Mark is president. Mike's son Nick oversees operations. The business is constantly evolving. New menu items, like rondos introduced last year, were developed in the Larosa's test kitchen next door. "We are always tinkering. We're like toymakers in a shop. Always in the test kitchen tinkering...we'll put something together."
Buddy loves the spinach rondos. Pizza is still the staple. Larosa's sells about 100,000 pizzas every week. About two-thirds of them called in through the call center. Tonight, on a Friday, 130 people will be here taking calls.
At noon today, while dozens of operators were busy taking phone and online orders, on Boudinot, the guys with their names on the door were working the floor. A lot has changed. But for Larosa's ... a lot is the same way it was in 1954. "I try to teach these young people you have to try many things until you find out what you really love to do. Then you live to work rather than work to live. I'm blessed I love what I'm doing."
Buddy Larosa is officially retired but still keeps an office, with a complete kitchen, next door to the Boudinot Avenue restaurant. He is 82 years old.