A Sicilian Specialty in Hamilton Square
The Real Corleone
If there could ever be a Harlequin novel about pizza, this would be the story for it.
The story would start in Sicily, in the town of Carini, some 40 years ago. Young Marcello Mandreucci would be there, a little boy helping out in the local barbershop near the town’s piazza.
Every Saturday Marcello would wait for the pizza maker from the nearby town of Corleone—yes, that Corleone, the birthplace of both real and fictional mobsters—to arrive on his tiny motorized cart, loaded with pizzas for the lunchtime crowd. Marcello made sure he was always first in line for the popular pizza. He quickly became good friends with the pizza man, watching him carefully as he doled out slices and then motored off to the next town to ply his trade. The man and his pizza became an obsession for Marcello.
When he came to America at 16 and got his first job in a Carteret pizzeria, the pizza from Corleone haunted him—and so did the man who made it. He soon made them his inspiration, opening pizzerias and restaurants in other parts of the state, including the famous Marcello’s in Bordentown and Hammonton. But the pizza from Corleone was never far from his ambition. For years Marcello experimented with different variations of dough and sauce and cheese, olive oil and seasoning, but nothing he created ever came close to the pizza from the man in the motorized cart, the man he called “U Zu Calogero.”
“‘Mister Charlie,’ it would be in English,” Marcello Mandreucci tells me, wistfully, when he talks about the man he befriended and admired all those years ago. “No matter what I was doing here in America, learning the pizza business, then opening my first place when I was 20 years old—Marcello’s in Bordentown—that man from Corleone would be in the back of my mind. I knew I would go back to Sicily someday, and I hoped he would still be there.”
About ten years ago, Mandreucci did just that. He returned to Sicily, to Carini. He asked about U Zu Calogero and was told that his old friend was still alive, but no longer delivering his pizza from town to town. So Mandreucci drove to Corleone, and found the now elderly pizzaiolo still at work, making and selling his pizzas. Before he could even introduce himself, the old man recognized adult Marcello and called his name.
“’I knew you would come back to see me, Marcello,’ he says to me,” Mandreucci recalls, blinking away tears. “I spent the whole day with him. He told me stories about his children, his grandchildren, his life and about that pizza he loves to make.
“I told him about my restaurants and pizzerias in America,” says Mandreucci, “but I wanted him to know that he was the one who inspired me, and that I was always trying to make his kind of pizza, but I could not. So he told me that he would give me the recipe, but that it was a secret and that I could not use it until he died.”
A few years later, Mandreucci learned that U Zu Calogero had passed on, and he began to try to re-create the pizza of his youth to honor his mentor. By then he had shed several of his restaurants and opened a different kind of pizzeria in Hamilton Square, a takeout-only storefront he called Pizza-Grill.com. It had no chairs or tables, no booths or seating of any kind, save for a few benches outside the entrance. He hired a crew of deliverymen, outfitted them in white shirts and dark red vests, piped Italian pop songs and Sinatra into the parking lot and cautiously began to offer “Corleone Style Pizza” from Thursday through Sunday in Hamilton Square. A year ago, Mandreucci officially trademarked the name “Corleone Style Pizza” and began to promote the new pizza aggressively on social media, on cable TV and in print.
It is a pizza unlike any you have ever had in your life.
Like so many things Sicilian, it comes with a full measure of mystery and intrigue, secrets and suspicion. Mandreucci steadfastly refuses to reveal most of the ingredients of the Corleone pizza. The dough is made with three different flours; Pillsbury Extra Strong is one of them, but Mandreucci only offers a wry smile when asked about the other two. The dough is proofed for an extra-long fermentation. “A few days” is Mandreucci’s only time stamp. Three cheeses are blended for the Corleone, including mozzarella, pecorino and a secret basketaged Sicilian cheese Mandreucci will not divulge.
“I use only Italian tomatoes for the sauce, and only dried oregano grown near a mountain outside of Corleone,” Mandreucci is grudgingly willing to say, “and only extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily.” He shows the bottle of oil, large and ornate. The oil within is emerald green.
He has entrusted the recipe to only one man to date, his head baker at Pizza-Grill.com, Luigi Severo. Mandreucci makes the rectangular Corleone pizza with great delicacy despite the loud din, the ringing phones and the hectic pace of the pizzeria around him. Severo is more workmanlike about it, carefully stretching the dough a certain way and in only one direction, per the recipe, then adding the cheeses, sauce, oregano and olive oil in a careful drizzle. The pizza bakes in a huge, rotating gas-fired oven for about 20 minutes, then is garnished with two fresh basil leaves. Its aroma fills the room, despite all of the other standard pizzas, tomato pies, garlic knots, sausage rolls and calzones being baked alongside it. Pungent cheese is the first scent, then the potent, green olive oil and the sweet, dried oregano.
At first glance, the finished pizza is a wash of bright red and yellow, with those two basil leaves like buttons on a suit. The crust is a deep golden brown on the bottom, lustrous and caramelized. A slice of the pie is weightless, its interior pillowy soft and airy. There is a sourdough tang but also a nutty sweetness in the first bite, and the cheeses pull back from the teeth like al dente pasta.
To watch Mandreucci eat a slice of his beloved Corleone pizza is to see a man transported and transformed:his eyes closed with every bite, his mind travelling back to Sicily, the youth brought back to his now 50-year-old face. It’s an extraordinary thing to see.
“It’s not just that the pizza is what we had back then,” Mandreucci says, “but that everyone who comes here from Italy, they cry when they taste it. It reminds them of home, and of when they were young, too. It’s made from the heart, they know.”
In a part of the state best known for Trenton-style tomato pie (and Severo makes a very good version of that pie as well), the Corleone pizza has developed a cult following in Mercer County and among pizza geeks on the East Coast. Its limited availability initially made for sellouts almost every night. Now, with Severo in charge of the time-consuming process, the Corleone pizza is available every day— but it’s still advisable to order in advance and plan accordingly.
Those who finally make it to Mandreucci’s quirky, purist pizzeria should ask for a few paper plates and many napkins. They will not make it home before the pizza’s aroma teases away any patience. Better to just stay in the parking lot, open the car windows, let the Sinatra swirl in with the scents of savory and sweet, grab a square of warm pie and join the young and the older Marcello on that piazza in Carini and bite into the real Corleone.
45 George Dye Rd., Hamilton Square
A SLICE AND A DRINK
Special pizzas like the Corleone deserve beers and wines to match. Here are five of New Jersey’s best pizza-friendly quaffs.
HOPEWELL VALLEY VINEYARDS
Vintner Sergio Neri’s favorite, made with the Monferrato grape native to his mother’s village in Piedmonte, this fresh, peppery “wine of the farmers” plays well with plain as well as meattopped pies.
WORKING DOG WINERY
This bold, decadent Chianti Classico–style wine practically explodes with cherry and spice in your mouth, a great foil for the pepperoni, spicy sausage or arugula on your pizza.
RIVER HORSE BREWING CO.
ROLY POLY PILS
This long-fermented traditional Czech-style pilsner from head brewer Chris Rakow is unfiltered, with a dry, slightly nutty finish that cuts through rich cheeses and sweet tomato sauces.
DOUBLE NICKEL BREWING CO.
This amped-up old-school lager with a silky mouthfeel and noticeable sweetness will pair well with the yeasty, charred, wood-oven and coal-fired pizzas cropping up across the state.
CARTON BREWING CO.
This low-alcohol “session” ale is refreshingly hoppy, with bursts of grapefruit and pine that will match any pizzas you bring to the next tailgate—and you won’t be blotto before the big game.