Then Harry Smith, the anchor of CBSs This
Morning, did a piece on the award-winning pizzas and like former President
George Bush, he blanched at the broccoli, made faces at the red potatoes and basically
said yuck about the pizzas.
Back to the Willington Pizza House, however, stacks of
comment cards from regulars said Harry Smith had it all wrong: the red potato
pizza was as much a slice of heaven as you could find anywhere. This one
older lady said, You better write and give that Mr. Smith a piece of everyones
mind, Mr. Amtower said. So he jotted off a relatively polite note
to Mr. Smith challenging him to try the pizza hed rolled his eyes at. Many
of our customers were closed-minded pepperoni eaters such as yourself, he
wrote, until they tried some of our specialties.
Harry Smith not only said he would try them but also
invited Mr. Amtower and the chef, Richard Rogers, to visit New York and make
the pizza on the air, which they did in May.
They put us up in this nice hotel and it was as
close to being a celebrity as Ive ever been, said Mr. Amtower, whose
segment appeared just before an interview with Mel Gibson.
Mr. Smith said he, too, enjoyed the experience. Marc
wrote a great letter, he Said. When I called him he sounded glib and
funny and he wasnt angry and I thought, How can I resist this?
In the final analysis Im still a pizza minimalist at heart, but to each
his own, thats what makes America such a great country. If Mystic
Pizza had its moment in the sun, when Julia Roberts and company came to town to
film the movie of the same name, this is Willington Pizzas moment. Hollywood
hasnt come calling yet. But big television names will do for now.
I'm thinking maybe next well try Letterman, Mr. Amtower said.
The owner of Willington Pizza House, Jeff Kelly, shrugs
his shoulders and smiles at all the attention. he was proud when his pizzas captured
the top two national prizes and happy to give the spotlight to Mr. Amtower and
Mr. Rogers and watch the show back home. Its exciting but all a little much
for a man who first opened a hole-in-the-wall pizza place in 1978, after the roof
of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed and his bartending job went with it.
At first I thought Id want to open an upscale
restaurant but I didnt have any money so I decided on a pizza house,
he said. It turns out it was the right thing because the pizza business
just keeps going up. His first pizza restaurant in Willington had three
tables. Although he had worked at pizza restaurants while in high school and college
at Southern Connecticut State University, he still had to consult with his brother,
Wayne Kelly, who owns Alpha Pizza in Middletown. Id call him and say,
The doughs doing this, what did I do wrong? he said.
At the start, Mr. Kelly was chief cook and bottle washer,
a one-man operation. but the pizzas caught on and he moved to his current location
on Route 32 in Willington, not far from the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
We opened around Labor Day weekend and I looked up and the place was full
of UConn students and the guys in the kitchen and I were trying to handle the
crowd and one of the guys said, My girlfriends a waitress and
I said, Could you call her now?
Mr. Kellys wife, Tonja, donned an apron and pitched
in. Soon enough, they had a legion of regulars and he continued to expand.
The restaurant is in a house thought to be more than 200
years old, where the original wood beams, even those once charred by the fireplace,
add to the homey décor. Theres a root cellar under one of the booths
and the tables sport red and white checkered tablecloths. A room full of carousel
ponies, Norman Rockwell paintings and a poster of Marilyn Monroe that says, Yes,
I use Lustre Creme Shampoo, add to the look.
Today, the restaurant seats 200 people and Mr. Kelly employs
50 people. Hes also opened Willington Pizza House Too, also on Route 32
near Route 74 and Interstate 84.
In a time when the economy is still on the mend, Mr. Kelly
said, I consider myself very lucky. I never expected to get this big.
Lines have been forming out the door on Friday and Saturday
nights, which is when Mr. Rogers, the chef, tests the restaurants latest
recipes, passing out samples to determine customer reaction.
Mr. Kelly said the menu variations which includes
the red potato pizza (with sour cream, broccoli, red potatoes, bacon, cheddar
cheese and chives) as well as the seafood pizza (with scallops, snow crab, shrimp,
cheddar cheese and bacon) and Greek and California pizzas started about
six years ago when the staff wanted to eat something anything!
other than a typical pepperoni pizza. A cheeseburger pizza and all kinds of
concoctions were tried; some, like the red potato pie, were keepers.
Original design: ©1997 Reminder Press, Inc.
Modified & Maintained by: Nick Lupacchino