The pizza place as community anchor.
On a busy day at Conca D’Oro, the Main Street pizzeria and restaurant in Sag Harbor, Frank Venesina will turn out 300 pies. That’s most days in July or August, of course. But also evenings after Little League games when the place swells with uniformed kids and their fans, as well as mid-winter nights when a sizable chunk of this old whaling town’s population might pile in to sup on eggplant rollatini, penne with peas and ham, or a slice of Sicilian, shoulder to shoulder with neighbors.
“You have to make them fast if it’s busy,” says Venesina, a dozen rounds of dough laid out before him in a sort of assembly line. “No more than 20 to 30 seconds per pie.” He dusts the marble counter with flour, shifting his weight back and forth on running shoes, not unlike a boxer sizing up the speed bag or a running back preparing for a handoff. And then, in rapid succession, his muscled fists and forearms kneed, stretch, spin, and top the pies, before sliding them all into one of the three Bakers Pride ovens he mans.
Since he first started working at his parent’s shop at age 12, Venesina—who is now 35 and wears a shaved head, white T-shirt, basketball shorts and white apron—has perhaps baked a million pies. But even those are just a small part of the wider South Fork pizza constellation that revolves around Conca D’Oro.
Venesina’s father, Tony, and mother, Lena, newcomers to Sag Harbor from Villagrazia, near Palermo on the southern Italian island of Sicily, opened Conca D’Oro in 1976, at a time when pizza was still a relative oddity on the East End. In East Hampton, there was Ma Bergman (in the space that is now Nick & Toni’s), Brothers Four and Sam’s. And on Shelter Island, Nettie’s has been turning out pizza since the 1960s.
Tony learned how to make pizza from Lena’s brother, Celestino Gambino, who opened La Parmigiana in Southampton in 1974. (Gambino passed away earlier this year.). Frank, in turn, learned how to make pizza from his father, who still “makes the dough in the morning, makes the sauce, cuts the cheese,” says Frank.
And, over the years, Conca D’Oro trained and spawned a handful of other pizza options. There is Luigi’s Italian Specialties in East Hampton, run by Luigi and Sara Burriesci (Sara is Lena’s sister). Frank’s older brother, John Venesina, used to work at Conca D’Oro, but left to open Edgewater’s in Hampton Bays. Frank’s other uncles, Peter and John Gambino, opened Baby Moon Restaurant in West Hampton. And Frank’s cousin, Enzo Burriesci (son of Luigi and Sara), runs Primavera Italian Specialties in Montauk.
When the shop first opened, it was just Tony and Lena behind the counter. “It took a few years to catch on with locals,” saysFrank, a new father who speaks in a soft, metered voice. “They had to close in winter. Sag Harbor wasn’t hopping like it is now.” (They still close in February.) But, today, it’s hard to imagine this harbor town without Conca D’Oro.
Andrew Bedini, owner of the coffee roaster Java Nation, another Main Street shop that supplies workaday sustenance, says he eats at Conca D’Oro as many as 5 days a week, although once or twice a week is more common. (Bedini admitted he’s a big “slice-and-a-beer” guy, and Conca D’Oro offers Peroni, Beck’s and Amstel.)
Local writer Emma Walton and actor Steve Hamilton regularly take their two children to eat in Conca D’Oro’s back room, where “we usually order one dish for two people to share and we still end up taking some home,” Walton says. “Plus they throw in free salad and garlic knots.”
“One can have a real Roland Barthes fit of meloncholia over thoughts of losing Conca D’Oro,” says local playwrite Joe Pintauro, referring to occasional rumors of the restaurant losing its lease. “One may think restaurants like Conca D’Oro are too commonplace to miss that much but imagine not being able to pull on that aluminum door handle and putting your cold face into that warm Southern Italian oven air to watch your hot flying saucer sliding out with literally your name on it and for 18 bucks? Imagine the downer of no pizza to warm your lap on the drive home.”
Not surprisingly, Conca D’Oro scores high on sites like Yelp and Google. “Very casual dining, the portions are huge,” one commenter remarks. Another writes: “Classic pizza counter with great slices—go for the veggie if they have it.” Still another advises: “It’s not on the menu, but order the chicken Parm with vodka sauce. So yummy!!!”
Colleagues call Frank a pizza master, who regularly one ups the standard Sicilian or regular cheese slice with veggie-heavy permutations. Earlier this fall, when the kitchen staff requested a predinner service pizza that wouldn’t be “too heavy,” Frank compiled a nocheese, no-sauce pizza topped with zucchini, anchiovy, a little garlic and onions, and a generous Pollack-esque pattern of olive oil.
While Frank captains the pizza ovens, his cousin, Franco Li-Gregni, who previously worked at Baby Moon in Westhampton, mans the kitchen, which dishes out a wide range of traditional Italian-American dishes, from the seafood platter (mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, marinara sauce over pasta) to whole wheat pasta with baby clam, zucchini, asparagus and peas, to bucatini with broccoli rabe, grilled chicken, and sundried tomatoes. The penne vodka and linguini with clam sauce are perennial favorites. (“My favorite for sure,” says Frank of the linguini.)
“I think it’s the best pizza around,” says Sag Harbor Express editor Bryan Boyhan, before adding that the Venesina family “are tremendously generous and giving people,” for instance, helping with supplies, food and housing when Sag Harbor adopted a couple dozen Biloxi teachers made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. When Emma Walton was in the hospital after the difficult birth of her daughter, her husband picked up takeout to bring to the hospital, and “sweet Lena gave him a bottle of wine to go with it,” Walton recalls. “It’s the kind of place that makes you grateful to live in a small town.”
So, when the Pierson High School girls field hockey team won the Long Island championship, Conca D’Oro was a fitting place to celebrate. (Frank’s wife and one-year-old son traveled upstate to support the team.) Each week, Conca D’Oro delivers 80-some pies to the Sag Harbor Elementary School, offering kids a treat and parents a break from lunch prep. From the front window banquets, customers look out onto other small town keystones like the Sag Harbor Pharmacy and the Five and Dime. At around 3:00 p.m., any day that school is in session, Conca begins to fill with students looking for a predinner snack. On one recent afternoon, an older man comes in to the shop with a sheepish teenage boy in tow. “Aiden’s looking for employment,” the man says, leaning on the marble counter. “I heard you might have some shifts for him. He’s not afraid of hard work.”
Frank says, “I’ll let you know,” before announcing over the din: “Meatball hero. Sicilian.”
“Hey kids,” Frank says to two girls who come up to the counter.
“One plain slice,” one of them says.
“You go to Stella Maris?” Frank asks as he slides the slice into the oven. “Yeah,” the girls reply. “I went there when they called it St. Andrews,” Frank says with a smile and the girls laugh. “You weren’t even born yet.”
Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End.