LaRocca’s Pizza & Pasta Marks Silver Anniversary

POLAND, Ohio – It was 1977 when two sisters, both born in the small town of Pacentro, Italy, began discussing opening a pizza shop here.

It wasn’t until April 18, 1991, however, that Anna Ficorilli and Iola Mordocco finally opened their restaurant, LaRocca’s Pizza & Pasta, in a strip plaza at the intersection of Clingan Road and U.S. Route 224.

They loved to cook and their families loved to eat what they served. Friends also lavished praise on the meals the sisters prepared.

And LaRocca’s celebrated its silver anniversary Monday, April 18, with a festive atmosphere inside the restaurant.

The large bouquet of flowers Denise DeBartolo York sent stood on a table to the left of the entrance and another of congratulations was delivered as a reporter and videographer interviewed Ficorilli, her husband, Joe, and their daughter, Joanna Zisis. Zisis and her son, Alexander, age 5, came from their home in Chicago expressly to join the celebration.

Does it sound like a movie with a happy ending?

But as any commercial lender can tell you, it takes more to succeed as a restaurant, let alone remain in business 25 years, than family recipes, friends’ encouragement and a talent for cooking and baking.

Joe Ficorilli, who retired nine years ago from Commercial Intertech, arrives at 4 a.m. six days a week to make the spaghetti and bake bread. It takes an hour and a half to make “the noodles,” as he calls the spaghetti.

Ficorilli makes a week’s worth of meatballs – “entirely beef” – on Mondays and shapes the cavatelli – thick and chewy cowry-shaped shells made of water and semolina flour – four times a week. On Fridays, he bakes 17 dozen rolls in addition to the 30 loaves of bread because of the huge demand for the fish LaRocca’s serves that day.

Ficorilli sleeps in on Sundays, he says, but still comes in at 8 o’clock to help clean the restaurant.

One factor that led to the sisters opening LaRocca’s in 1991 – their maiden name is LaRocca – was Anna Ficorilli’s brother-in-law, the late Albert Ciccone, building the strip plaza in the southeastern quadrant of the intersection. “It was an ideal situation,” she says.

She and Mordocco began with 12 employees – LaRocca’s has 32 today – all sons and daughters, including Zisis, who worked in the family business until leaving for college. She returned to help out during college breaks, though.

The family atmosphere has remained intact, Anna Ficorilli says, even though LaRocca’s has hired other servers and cooks as the sisters’ children grew up and left to pursue their own careers. “We’re like one big family here,” she says. “I try to hire the children of my friends.”
Those who worked at LaRocca’s while in high school or college return, often with their own children, to dine and say hello to the owner.

Missy Gabriel has worked at LaRocca’s 15 years off and on and Maryann Pellice the last 20. “They’re the best people in the world to work for,” says Gabriel, who recently rejoined the staff.

The sisters began with a limited menu – “pasta, meatballs and some soups,” Ficorilli says and “a few tables. Soon we needed to expand,” which they did.
The recipe for the tomato-based pasta sauce – “like Grandma used to make,” Ficorilli says – remains a secret. She divulges only that it lacks oregano and smiles as she says, “What’s made in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.”

Joe Ficorilli, born in Sulmona, Italy, five miles from Pacentro, grew up in a household “where everyone cooked, the men on Sunday. Sunday was homemade pasta and meatballs. My dad made wine.”

He refined his culinary skills in Vietnam where he served on a gunboat on the Mekong River. He and his fellow soldiers took turns cooking, Ficorilli recalls.

As for making the spaghetti and cavatelli, Joe Ficorilli is also close-lipped about how he does it. “I have a recipe,” he says, is helped by “machines” and he uses “a big bowl” to make the dough. “You gotta have the touch,” he says.

LaRocca’s does not have a chef, Anna Ficorilli points out. “No chefs,” she emphasizes. “I teach my employees how to cook. Almost everyone here can cook except the waitresses.”
Good cooking requires practice, Joe Ficorilli adds.

“It takes practice,” his wife echoes, before stressing how most dishes are made from scratch, made from fresh ingredients and, to the extent possible, made from produce grown on nearby farms, primarily tomatoes and peppers, late summer and early fall.
“Because we make our own products,” Ficorilli says, “there’s little waste,” and little waste contributes to profitability.

“We make our own polenta, eggplant and wedding soup,” she says. Polenta is coarsely ground cornmeal mixed with water (sometimes chicken broth), essentially Italian cornmeal mush.

She is especially proud of the braciola and primavera dishes LaRocca’s serves – Zisis was eating braciola during the interview. “What we serve here we eat.  We cook everything to order. We use the same local distributors we’ve always had,” she says.

Most businesses start out in debt. LaRocca’s did not. “We did good from Day One,” she says.

LaRocca’s has been featured in the press and been the subject of local TV segments, including Casey Malone’s show. Word has gotten out well beyond Poland, Ficorilli says, with customers coming from East Liverpool and Canfield and New Castle, Pa.

PICTURED: Alexander Zisis joins his grandmother, Anna Ficorilli, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of LaRocca’s Pizza & Pasta.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.