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Rated PG: Agatucci's expands into frozen pizza

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Normally the words "frozen" and "pizza" don't go together in my vocabulary. It's from my youth, when frozen pizza featured crust that could be used as a shipping crate and sauce that probably had been rejected by reputable tomato sauce manufacturers.

I remember wondering if the cheese was real and I didn't want to think about where the "meat" might have originated. I was afraid it was something the cat dragged in ... literally.

Times have changed and just like food manufactures have managed to make fat-free stuff mostly edible, they have made frozen pizza taste more and more like a pie straight from the pizzeria oven.

So when I found myself sitting at a table down at Kelleher's a few days ago with a frozen pizza on the table in front of me, I gave in to prodding from Pat Sullivan and Bill Blasek and tried a piece. Now I was there to interview a couple people about the pizza and the fact it is now part of Keller's late-night menu, not to actually eat any. Again, not a fan of frozen pizza, so I figured one piece would be all I'd get down.

Numerous pieces later, and only one beer to wash them down, I walked out of there believing a local, popular pizza restaurant could actually sell frozen versions of its delectable pies that tastes just as good as fresh.

Agatucci's is getting' it done right.

The Agatucci family, in business since 1926, has launched a line of frozen pizzas that, after only five weeks, can now be found in more than 90 places — grocery stores, convenient stores, restaurants and bars. Being distributed by Brewers Distributing Co. of Peoria, it's likely to be found in a great many more places in the future once word gets out that it tastes as good as that served at Agatucci's on North University St.

That's about all I'm going to say about taste. I don't do food reviews. But I know what I like and I like Agatucci's fresh pizza (with or without Tiger sauce). Now, I like Agatucci's frozen pizza.

But why, after 87 years in business at a restaurant nearly impossible to get into on a weekend night, did the family decide to launch of line of frozen pizza?

Actually, this is the second time Agatucci's went frozen, said Tony Agatucci, who now runs the business with his cousin Dan. Their fathers, Jim and Jerry, tried the frozen pizza business in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Wasn't too good back then, huh?" I asked, still gobbling.

"Oh, it was good all right. The frozen end of the business got so big they were forced to decide where they were going to concentrate — on that, or on the restaurant. They decided to focus again on the restaurant and gave up the frozen pizza business," Tony said.

Isn't there a chance that could happen again?

"Not this time. We aren't trying to do it all ourselves," he said.

In fact, the frozen pies are being made in Walnut by a company called Avanti's Foods. Talk about irony, huh? Except this Avanti's is not connected to the Peoria-based Italian restaurant chain by the same name.

"They have our recipes and everything that goes into a frozen pizza made there is the exact same as we put in our pizza at the restaurant. They are doing a phenomenal job, which is why it tastes the same. Can you tell the difference?" he asked as I scarfed down another piece.

"Mmmphh mmmphh," I replied, admitting I could not.

Another factor is that Brewers Distributing is doing that end of the work. In Fact, Tony and Danny Agatucci said Paul Jacob of Brewers is the main reason they got back into doing frozen pizza.

"He brought it up one night when he was in the restaurant, but we didn't give it much more thought then. But he brought it up again a few weeks later and we just kind of went from there," Tony said.

"A year later, here we are," added Danny, explaining it took that long to get everything set up, including the making of the pies, just the way the Agatucci family wanted it. "We wanted to make sure we got the pizza as close to the original as we could and we think we've done it."

So far Agatucci's frozen pizza is in five counties in central Illinois, but it likely will expand, Tony said. "We're considering pitching it further north," he said.

To date four styles are available — the Special, sausage, pepperoni and cheese — and all come in the 12-inch size.

Tony said the family doesn't view anyone as being competition. "That's because my grandpa always said to just do the best you can and don't worry about anybody else or what anybody else is doing. He's right; we've got a huge following of people who love our food and so far, because of that, the frozen pizza business has gone even better than we expected. We're pleased, to say the least," he said.

Bill Blasek, the manager of Kelleher's, said he found the idea of putting Agatucci's pizza on his late-night menu "a no-brainer. Everybody loves their pizza and I had been looking for something to fill the void between the time our kitchen closes at 10 p.m. and the bar closes. I think this is a perfect match."

Jeff Oeth, who is manager of Brewers Distributing's non-alcohol division, said 90 percent of the distribution so far is to grocers and convenience stores. "Everything has exceeded all of our expectations so far," he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).

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