An Italian immigrant who taught a teen busboy the ins and outs of the pizza business shaped a worthy successor to carry his company into the future.
A few years after arriving in the States from Italy, Pat Porretta, having already worked in a local pizzeria, was ready to stake his own claim on the Windy City pizza scene. In 1964, he and his wife, Anna, fashioned their own recipes to open Porretta’s Pizza, a small spot with counter service in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. And, though Pat never opened a second location, he soon expanded, building a thriving restaurant with a full bar and banquet hall.
Little did he know that a teen busboy would become a key player in the business’ future. “I was 13 when I started and became a pizza maker at 15; Mr. Porretta was the cook and taught me the whole trade,” recounts John Panvino, current owner of Porretta’s Pizza and Trattoria Porretta with wife Gabriela. “Eventually, I was manager, then we became partners, and five years ago I bought the business.”
John has been with Porretta’s nearly 40 years, and Pat, now 89, still operates a banquet hall in the original location, across the street from the pizzeria and trattoria, which are housed in one building with two kitchens tackling dine-in, carryout and catering. With three crusts on offer—thin-crust, pan and stuffed—plus frequent specials on everything from seafood and meats to pizza and pasta, the menu remains fresh thanks to John’s constant kitchen tinkering and hands-on approach. “I think not opening other locations has been important, because I’m always there,” John says. “I can greet people and buy them a drink, make sure the food quality’s right. The customers love that.”
Almost every week, John turns the pizzeria over to a local fundraising effort, giving schools, churches and youth programs 15% of total sales for the night. Those efforts also help acquire new customers—along with traditional tactics such as direct-mail menus and ads on grocery store receipts—in a highly competitive market. Recently, John even hired a marketing expert to revamp his website, create and post social media content, integrate online ordering, and run targeted ads online. “You can’t do everything yourself these days, and you have to keep up with what’s new,” John says. “We’ve gotten a great response over the last few months. But the best advertising is still word-of-mouth. People come from all over the city to have our pizza, and my proudest moments are when someone tells me how good the food is.”