A PASTIME of Ocean City is window shopping on the Boardwalk. No matter the season, the stretch of storefronts the Boardwalk is famous for are usually open to stroll into. People can gaze at all sorts of Ocean City commodities for their viewing pleasure, from tee shirts to the rides.
But one storefront where you will get an actual show is Manco & Manco Pizza on 9th Street. With an open kitchen in view of Boardwalk goers and dine-in patrons alike, the employees make the pizza in a fantastic display. The kneading, tossing and saucing is done just behind the dining counter giving the customer an experience with their food.
“Our customers like to watch the show we put on – hand tossing the dough, throwing it in the air,” says Chuck Bangle, one of the three co-owners of the company. Chuck, his wife Mary and her mother Kay Manco, who, with husband Frank, founded the pizzeria in 1956, are all about encouraging customers to enjoy the experience with their staff.
“They are here to have a good time. Having open air stores is like inviting people into our kitchen,” said Chuck.
In spite of the pizza being made in plain sight, some things are kept under wraps – such as their secret recipe. And though it looks easy, tossing a pie the Manco way is harder than it looks. The pizzaioli (what they call their pizza makers) make it look effortless, but that only comes from their decades of experience.
“Ninety nine percent of these guys who make pizza [in this shop] do it for a career,” Chuck warns me before I step into the line.
A tray of dough is always on hand on the counter, pre-portioned in the back of the restaurant. A pizzaiolo will make two pies at a time. Twin portions of dough are first dipped in flour, stacked on top of each other and flattened to approximate pie size. A quick push in the center, and then the dough is kneaded until it possesses that thinness Manco’s is known for.
It requires quick reflexes and finger strength to keep up with the pace Manco’s pizzaioli work. I realized that quickly when stepping into the line, immediately making these pies at what I thought was breakneck pace. You have to make them fast – after all, there are a lot of hungry customers waiting and watching.
Picking up the two piles being kneaded, I peeled them apart. Flopping one over my palm, I twisted the pie, kneading apart the edges even further.
“You pull the edge apart with your thumb as you twirl,” said Bob Kearn, my pizzaiolo mentor. He showed me how and I followed suit, pulling the edges of the pie until it was just wide enough for a regular pie.
With that done, the pie was then thrown onto the pizza paddle. Freshly grated cheese is spread copiously atop the worked dough. If you watch closely enough from the counter, you can almost see the cheese bounce as it is dropped on.
And finally the sauce, applied in a Manco’s-exclusive spiral fashion. Most pizzerias spread it consistently on the pie to the crust. But that is not the case here. At this venue, you will see them throw it on with their custom sauce hose in a spiral fashion unique to the Manco’s franchise.
“There is a button [behind the counter] you push as you spiral around the pie,” says Bob. “You let go of it a moment before you are done [your spiral].”
“There are a lot of little rules and techniques little things we do here,” says Chuck. “But it guarantees the taste of our pizza is uniform.”
With the pizza fully decorated and ready for heating, our pizza headed to the ovens right behind us.
For pizzaioli who have been making pizza for a while, the whole process takes a few minutes at most. I took a few moments longer than the pros.
Part of Manco & Manco’s success is the continued use of the same recipes and techniques from when they started in 1956. Their culture has been consistent since the beginning. From the way they make pizza to the face of the staff, it is almost like a return to the 1950s.
“Everything stays consistent,” says Chuck. “Even though ingredients go up in price, we never compromise [with] a cheaper product. Our average tenure of a full time staff is 28 years – we have a lot of long term employees. People recognize the same faces in here. [For some employees] this is a full time job. You’ll also notice that the store is immaculately clean, and that our staff is well dressed and groomed,” says Chuck. “It is part of our wholesome image.”
Maintaining a consistent, wholesome image on both sides of their counters has led to many successes for Manco & Manco. Their stability has gained them the notice of celebrities such as Al Pacino, reviewed by organizations such as Barstool, and renown nation wide.
“This store has been talked about,” says Chuck. “We have a following from Rhode Island to California. Some people say when they get into Ocean City, they get a slice of pizza or a whole pie [from us]. They don’t even go to the hotel room and unpack.”
The instant appeal, along with the newer location of the shop – formerly the Strand Movie Theatre – allows Manco’s to truly incorporate themselves in the renowned parts of Ocean City. Since they are right on the brink of everything on the Boardwalk, their familiarity and customized restaurant allow them to be a keystone to the storefronts.
“We took over this space for a number of reasons,” says Chuck. “We wanted to preserve the historical integrity of the Strand Movie Theatre. The building is a marvel of engineering. We also wanted to beautify the corner. 9th Street is the main entrance to Ocean City and the main entrance to the Boardwalk. With Manco’s here and Shriver’s our neighbor across the street, it bookends our corner and makes it beautiful.
“It also makes us more visible and it’s more modern. When I built this place I built it not to be a pizzeria but a venue that serves pizza. As a big, open area restaurant, we handle anyone that needs wheelchair access. We have married people in the shop. We do a lot of fantasy football parties. It is easy to bring double wide strollers.”
The kitchen that Bangle and the Manco’s crew has built into the corner of 9th and the Boardwalk has a lot of accommodations for the current era. But the one thing you will never find in there is a tally of how many pizzas they make on a daily basis.
“If we had to count how many pies we make in a day, we’d quit,” says Bangle.
-photos by Stef Godfrey