Annunziata Scarano Palese, better known by her American name Nancy, which her husband Rocco used for the family-owned restaurant where he invented stuffed pizza in the early 1970s, died on January 20 from medical complications due to dementia. She was 87.
Several pizzerias (notably Giordano’s) claim to have invented stuffed pizza, a form of deep dish in which a thin layer of dough covers a filling of melted cheese. But Giordano’s didn’t open until 1974 — several years after Rocco Palese began giving away slices of his new creation in the street outside Guy’s Pizza, his first pizzeria on Armitage Avenue in Hermosa. He was inspired by his mother’s recipe for scarciedda, an Italian double-crusted Easter pie stuffed with meat and cheese.
At the time, Nancy was not pleased, she told the Tribune’s Louisa Chu in an interview in 2016: “We fight. I no want to do it. Sometimes we was so busy, and he fool around with the stuffed pizza, and I needed help, because we had nobody.”
But Rocco prevailed, and when he opened the original Nancy’s Pizza in 1974, the sign proclaimed it “Home of the Original Stuffed Pizza,” a boast its 31 franchises continue today.
“My ma, no matter what, was the type of person that whatever her husband did, she would stand behind him,” says her daughter Marisa Palese Besch, who now runs the Nancy’s Pizza location in Niles where, until a few years ago, Nancy regularly held court in a booth in the back.
Nancy was born in Brindisi Montagna, a small town in southern Italy, on February 28, 1934. She married Rocco in an arranged marriage in 1948, when she was just 14 — a fact their daughter didn’t realize until much later — but they didn’t live together for several years, until Rocco had completed his military service. In the ’50s, they moved north to Asti, near Turin. They had three children, Teodosio, Marisa, and Rosa, and they were very poor; at one point, Marisa was sent to live in an orphanage.
In the late ’60s, Rocco decided to move the family to America. Aunts who had already immigrated insisted that they would have a better life, and because her father had been born in the U.S., Nancy already had American citizenship. The Paleses arrived in Chicago in 1969 and settled in Hermosa. While Rocco worked in pizzerias and conducted his kitchen experiments, Nancy took a series of factory and cleaning jobs.
Rocco was independent and didn’t like working for other people, so in 1970, he and Nancy’s brother, also named Rocco, took over Guy’s. Rocco Scarano wasn’t a fan of stuffed pizza — Besch said when he first tried it he said, “What is this garbage?” — and soon sold out his share. Nancy stepped in to work in the kitchen, making pizza and scrubbing the pans by hand; the kids were also conscripted as kitchen workers.
The Paleses bought, operated, and then sold a series of bars and pizzerias on the Northwest Side in the early 1970s. In 1973, Rocco decided to try a new name. He’d noticed that other pizzerias had men’s names. “I remember it because I was there,” Besch says. “He called her outside and said, ‘See this name, Mario? From now on, it’s going to be Nancy.’” The following year, Nancy’s settled into its longtime home at 7309 W. Lawrence Avenue in Harwood Heights.
Shortly afterward, a friend of Rocco’s took him to a new pizza place on Harlem Avenue run by two of his former employees, Efren and Joseph Boglio. The pizza was strangely familiar. “That’s how Giordano’s started,” says Besch. “My family product.” But the Paleses were immigrants running a small business, and by the time Besch tried to take legal action, a judge ruled that too much time had gone by.
In 1977, the Paleses teamed up with a customer, Dave Howey, to open up two more locations in Niles and Oak Lawn; Howey would eventually buy out the franchising business and take it national in the ’90s. This was after a difficult decade when Nancy’s nearly went under because of a series of three bombings in 1980 and 1982 that made the business uninsurable and sparked rumors about mob hits and insurance fraud; an investigation later showed that the perpetrators had been angry former franchisees, but by then the damage had been done.
Rocco died in 1994, and Nancy and Besch continued to run the Nancy’s in Niles, the sole location that remained in the family. Though very shy, Nancy formed deep friendships with many customers. “She was just someone you wanted to have a conversation with,” says Besch. “She would not judge you. She was sweet. But she had her own way of thinking.” In all, she was in the pizza business for 50 years.
Nancy kept the pizza recipe close, particularly the spice blend, which is stored in packets in a locked room. Now that she’s gone, Besch and Howey are the only ones who know it, and it’s not going to change. “Nancy and Rocco are pizza royalty” Howey said in a statement. “We will continue to honor her commitment to the original recipe.”
Besch, meanwhile, wants to remember how her parents did their best, even if Nancy’s didn’t become a national name until after they sold out. “I want my mother and father to realize that even though they didn’t allow themselves to go farther,” she says, “that their name was not going to die.”