Home / Eat & Drink / Palermo’s Pizza On the Rise
Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

Palermo’s Pizza On the Rise

Milwaukee company’s quality earns high praise

Google+ Pinterest Print
Americans are becoming increasingly aware of how our nation’s food is controlled by a handful of massive corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health. In the roughly $4 billion frozen pizza industry, for example, two multinational corporations, the Schwan Food Co. (Red Baron, Freschetta and Tony’s) and Nestlé (DiGiorno, Jack’s, Tombstone and California Pizza Kitchen), dominate the category. The David in this David and Goliath story is Milwaukee’s own Palermo’s Pizza, a brand of frozen pizza that, though it doesn’t have the tools and resources those mega-corporations have, competes by simply making better pizza.

After immigrating to the United States in the 1950s, Sicilians Gaspare and Zina Fallucca followed family members to Milwaukee, where they settled down and started their own brood by having three sons, Peter, Giacomo and Angelo. In 1964 the Falluccas opened Palermo Villa, a small Italian bakery on Murray Avenue, just north of North Avenue on the East Side, and became renowned for baking delicious Italian breads, cookies and cannoli. When the hardware store next door became available, the family expanded their bakery. In 1969, the Falluccas opened a restaurant that served authentic Italian specialties from old family recipes, such as calzone—but it was their pizza that that garnered the most praise.

A local grocery store owner—some say it was Max Kohl who opened Milwaukee’s first modern-style supermarket with the novel concept of an in-store bakery and deli; others say it was Tom Balistreri, a Sicilian who opened Sendik’s on the East Side—convinced Gaspare, or Jack as he was known, to make pizzas for him to freeze and then sell at his grocery store. With one foot in the frozen pizza business on a small retail scale, Fallucca sold the family restaurant and devoted himself full time to the venture.

In 1978 the Falluccas transformed an old bakery on the South Side into a manufacturing facility to make Palermo’s frozen pizza breads. From that point on, the local company developed and grew, piece by piece. Palermo’s began producing 12-inch round pizzas made with crusts that were par-baked, and then came thin crust pizzas and fresh deli pizzas. In 1989, the company introduced the industry’s first pizzeria-style frozen pizza made with a crust that rises as it bakes.

In 1991, when Palermo’s had about 30 employees and sold its frozen pizzas in grocery stores throughout the state, the Falluccas gave their sons Giacomo and Angelo control of the family business. The second generation, which now includes Giacomo’s wife, Laurie (vice president of marketing), and brother Peter (who works in facilities management and employee services) catapulted the Palermo’s brand into the national frozen pizza market by entering the private label business, producing unique, custom-made frozen pizzas for grocery stores to sell under their own brand names.

Without the overflowing coffers of their corporate rivals, Palermo’s Pizza had to establish its own niche in the frozen pizza business by making high-quality pizzas with great ingredients.

“Just look at the ingredient statements on the products,” says Chris Dresselhuys, Palermo’s marketing director. “None of our meat toppings have any artificial fillers in them, and we use 100% real cheese. Being a brand that was born in a pizzeria, our owners have very strong beliefs on how pizza should taste, and the level of quality it should be made to, and it’s just not something we’re willing to compromise.”

This year Health magazine named Palermo’s Primo Thin Garden pizza “America’s Healthiest Frozen Pizza,” and in the July/August issue of Fitness magazine, Palermo’s Primo Thin Margherita pizza was awarded “America’s Best Frozen Pizza.” Palermo’s pizzas have also been featured in Men’s Health magazine, in the book Eat This, Not That, and on the Food Network’s “Unwrapped.” Within its beautiful 135,000-square-foot facility in the Menomonee Valley, Palermo’s Pizza makes six styles of frozen pizza (each with two to seven flavor combinations), from organic pizzas baked on a slab of marble within an imported Italian oven, to rich, sinfully satisfying breakfast pizzas.

Palermo’s Pizza offers one-hour walking tours of Villa Palermo, its state-of-the-art pizza factory with a design inspired by a 16th-century Sicilian villa. For more information, visit www.palermospizza.com.