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How a Pizza Just Says ‘No’ To Pepperoni
The New York Times · Sunday, July 10, 1994

By Jackie Fitzpatrick

When the red potato pizza — and the seafood casino pizza — from the Willington Pizza House each took first prize in a national contest and were featured at this year’s Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, the restaurant’s general manager, Marc Amtower, was thrilled. The pizzas were even mentioned on “Good Morning America.”


    Then Harry Smith, the anchor of CBS’s “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 everyone’s mind,’ “ Mr. Amtower said. So he jotted off a relatively polite note to Mr. Smith challenging him to try the pizza he’d 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 I’ve 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 wasn’t angry and I thought, ‘How can I resist this?’ In the final analysis I’m still a pizza minimalist at heart, but to each his own, that’s 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 Pizza’s moment. Hollywood hasn’t come calling — yet. But big television names will do for now. “I'm thinking maybe next we’ll 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. It’s 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 I’d want to open an upscale restaurant but I didn’t 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. “I’d call him and say, ‘The dough’s 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 girlfriend’s a waitress” and I said, “Could you call her now?”
    Mr. Kelly’s 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. There’s 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. He’s 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 restaurant’s 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.    


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