Pizzerias often rely on a unified themeto bring customers in; positioning themselvesas a family-friendly atmosphere ora sports-viewing destination can help createthe recognizable image and brand ofthe restaurant. For years, pizzerias haveperfected the art of selling themselvesas a side dish to their pizza—a profitablestrategy. Occasionally, though, a pizzeriaabandons this marketing idea, ditchingthe flair and detaching itself from anysingle theme. This kind of pizzeria reliessolely on its pizza’s ability to act as apeople magnet, and the rest just seems tofall into place.
Two Philadelphia-born twentysomethings,fresh out of college and living inCharleston, South Carolina, took the Fieldof Dreams approach to starting a pizzeria.Not “If you build it, they will come,” butsomething equally fundamental: “If thepizza is good and the beer is cold, theywill come.” And, since 2006, come theyhave—in droves—to D’Allesandro’s Pizza(229pies.com) in the Elliotboroughneighborhood of downtown Charleston,South Carolina.
A Needed Pizza
Like many other graduates, brothersBen and Nick D’Allesandro didn’t knowwhat to do after college. After finishinghis studies at the College of Charleston,Ben convinced Nick, a graduate of TempleUniversity in Philadelphia, that thesparse pizza selection in Charleston createdthe perfect environment for a businessventure.
For Ben, the decision to open a pizzeriain Charleston simply made toomuch sense to pass up; he thought theaddition of a pizzeria with a creativemenu would be a hit in Charleston. “Ilove pizza,” Ben enthuses. “I made pizzasall throughout college, and I’ve beeneating it my whole life. My brother and Ihad just graduated and we thought, hey,why not give it a shot?” This entrepreneurialspirit and commitment to makinghigh-quality, gourmet pizzas havemade D’Allesandro’s a favorite withCharleston’s large market of college students(nearly a dozen colleges exist in oraround Charleston) and the city’s constantflow of tourists.
Nestled inconspicuously on the cornerof Bogard and St. Philip Streets,D’Allesandro’s commands little attention.A few neon beer signs flicker inthe window while the muted tones oftrendy music float out to the sidewalk,mixing with the aroma of baking pizzas.One could easily walk by and not noticewhat’s going on inside. But once throughthe door, customers are welcomed by ahodgepodge decor: Chalkboard art hangson the walls, and trophies from unknowncompetitions are displayed with an obviousindifference to any strategic interiordesign. Customers can sit at the bar orat a booth and watch while young pizzamakers toss homemade dough and applytoppings liberally. It’s the type of placewhere a bar-sitting patron can carry ona conversation with the pizza cook whilethe pie is made just inches from his or hersweaty pint glass. There’s a sense of intimacyto D’Allesandro’s; by the time youeat your pizza, you feel almost as thoughyou’d cooked it yourself.
Customers come in and out constantly.Some arrive and leave quickly, just stoppingin for a beer to remedy the burden ofheavy and humid Charleston air. Not justany beer will do, though: A clear refrigeratedcase displays over 20 import andartisan beers in bottles, and draft beer isalso available. Crowd favorites such asBlue Moon and Yuengling fill up pitchersand pints for thirsty customers. Wine andsoft drinks add further beverage variety,but the libations serve only as a complementto what Charleston residents regularlycall the best pizza in town.
The true secret to their success: a varietyof creative pizza combinationsmade with quality ingredients. Choicesrange from basic cheese to a loaded fivetoppingsupreme. Nick favors the GetGnarly pizza, with balsamic-marinatedchicken, spinach and blue cheese—reminiscent more of a gourmet meal than apizza. Meanwhile, Ben says The Chaucinatoris D’Allesandro’s biggest seller—a twiston a Margherita pizza, minus the tomatoesand with a double helping of pepperoni.However, customers are encouraged to improviseand create their own masterpiecesby choosing from any of the 30 sauce andtopping choices. In fact, at D’Allesandro’s,any pizza creation can end up on the menu.“Customers and employees are always experimentingwith new pizzas. If it sticksand people keep asking for it, it becomes amainstay,” Ben says.
Pies come in 10”, 12” and 16” sizes, andfifteen sandwiches made with bread froma bakery on nearby James Island are alsoavailable in 6” or 12” sizes. Panini sandwichescalled CalJoes and chicken wingsround out the menu. Eight reasonablypriced lunch combinations are availableevery day and include a can of soda or ahouse salad. D’Al’s, as the locals call it, alsohas a happy hour every night of the weekfrom 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., offering pizzas andsubs with a pint for a discounted price.
D’Al’s also offers a popular free deliveryservice to the Charleston peninsula,an area that includes residential andcommercial districts along with largenumbers of university students living inon-campus housing.
Spreading the Word
Ben admits that the marketing strategy forD’Allesandro’s is hardly groundbreaking.“We benefit most from positive word ofmouth,” he says. When asked about businesschallenges in downtown Charleston,Ben can only complain about a lackof parking, but because Elliotborough ismore of a pedestrian area, it doesn’t affectbusiness too much. “We’re in a residentialneighborhood, so foot traffic is alwayssteady,” he says.
D’Al’s owners certainly know how tocapitalize on their accessibility in theElliotborough neighborhood. They’veplayed host to Halloween costume partiesand trivia nights, and have featuredlive music as part of a block party-typecelebration. “Those were great ways toget people in the restaurant,” Ben says.“Events like that help people associateD’Allesandro’s with having a good time.”
For now, the D’Allesandro brothers arecontent running just one pizzeria, but don’tcount out a second location in the future.“We’re always thinking of ways to makethe pizza better,” says Ben. “In this business,it’s necessary to be forward-thinking,and we’re always saving our money in casewe want to open another location.”
Although D’Allesandro’s has enjoyedsustained success since its 2006 opening,the D’Allesandro brothers have hadto deal with a few unexpected obstaclesin the restaurant business. “Equipmentmaintenance is a never-ending battle,”Ben admits. “We didn’t know our equipmentwould require such constant upkeep.”Likewise, the D’Allesandros havesome advice for fellow pizzeria operatorsor those wishing to get into the business.“Keep up with your taxes,” says Ben. “Ifyou aren’t setting money away for whentax season comes around, it can reallysneak up on you!”
Ben and Nick are also quick to notethat their survival depends greatly onthe quality of employees they hire. “Wetry to hire unique and outgoing employees.We have a large clientele of youngpeople, so it’s important for us to hirepeople that fit the attitude of our restaurant,”Ben points out. (True to word, amohawk-sporting waiter pleasantly circledthe restaurant the day PMQ stoppedin for a slice.)
D’Al’s is more than a pizzeria; it’s partwatering hole, part social hub. In thisunrefined pizza joint, hipster studentsmingle over pies while camera-wieldingtourists hike from the posh shops on KingStreet and the picturesque views of thefamed Battery in search of Charleston’smost popular pie. The D’Allesandros,meanwhile, simply continue to enjoy anddevelop the unique combination of menu,employees and vibe that seems to pleaseeveryone who walks in the door.