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Island profile: John Riccobono, the education of a pizza guy

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO John Riccobono and his ‘lucky bills’ at the corner table in Bella Vita.
John Riccobono carries $13 for good luck, a 1976 $2 bill from his mother, a 1959 $10 bill and a 1935 $1 silver certificate ‘that someone gave me as a tip one day.’

When John Riccobono was a child, he learned the best way to judge a pizzeria is with a plain slice.

“It’s called the bend test,” he said. “Make an indent with your finger in the crust and fold it. It’s not supposed to droop down.” The bend test, according to John, reveals at once whether the slice has the right amount of sauce and cheese and the quality of the crust.

Now a 23-year-old manager and owner with his parents of Bella Vita Pizzeria on North Ferry Road, John’s education is one part culinary school, two parts Old School.

He grew up in Medford and had never been to Shelter Island before he came with his father and uncle in 2009 to open the pizzeria. “In fact, I never heard of it in my life,” John said. “I had no idea this place even existed.”

His father and uncle sat him down one day after high school football practice, and said, “We are opening up a pizzeria.” I said “Oh my God, that’s incredible, where?’” John thought they said Staten Island, so when they got in the car the next day and drove east to see the place, he thought they were going the wrong way.

John’s family had a lot of skilled cooks and “a lot of Johns.” His father “Big John” worked for decades as a chef. John’s father and his uncle Tony opened their first restaurant in 1985, Riccobono’s. “I took my first steps in that pizzeria,” John said. “There is video footage.”

His grandmother and father made the dough every day. You can’t make real pizza if you don’t make your own dough, John noted.

He graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School in 2010, at first considering art school to develop his talent for pop art and cartooning. Not sure he could sit still long enough to survive art school, he “wasted a couple of years” at Suffolk County Community College and then followed his joy to the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. He will graduate this August with a degree in hospitality and culinary management.

John is a self-described “pizza snob. You’d be surprised how many people in the business have the dough and sauce brought in, have the cheese ground and brought in. We make everything here. We use three kinds of tomatoes. I think it blends the perfect flavor.”

For five years John and his family have been living in Medford and making pizza on Shelter Island. He’s grateful for the many regulars who have kept them in business, especially from January to March. “We were open all winter,” he said. ”Sometimes we take naps over here. It’s so safe, so quiet in the winter but then it just explodes in the summer.”

The camaraderie among the workers at Bella Vita is palpable, and it doesn’t take long to understand that this is not just a random assortment of guys working in a casual restaurant. John admits, “We have this group, ‘the pizza boys’ … just a bunch of kids hanging out and making pizza. We do a lot of artwork, T-shirts, fancy cups. That’s what we do.”

Most of them played football in high school and college. “We’re all big guys around here,” John said.

“Actually, we are massive,” said Joey, one of the pizza boys, sitting in on the conversation.

Running a pizzeria is not without drama. One day John and an employee named Fred were setting up for the day when a partial wall and a large segment of ceiling collapsed, barely missing John. Seven sturdy dough tins happened to be stacked under one end of the wall, and they held it up until the landlord arrived. “It took us by surprise, but we were O.K.,” John said. “Keep cool and move on.” Once the dust was cleared, they were open for business.

In a place where “giving back” is part of the culture, the Riccobonos came to Shelter Island ready to donate generously to the community that supports them, especially the raffles and benefits that are a regular part of Island life. For the first “Empty Bowls” event to benefit the Shelter Island School Edible Garden, “Big John” made gallons of his signature Italian wedding soup. Since 2012, Bella Vita has sponsored the Bucks’ team dinners, providing 10 to 15 pizzas to feed our boys of summer.

Medford is “a place where you can stand in the middle of the street and see four pizzerias,” John said. He loves doing business on Shelter Island, where handmade pizza is relatively rare and take-out and delivery even rarer.

And then there’s what he calls the honesty factor. “People give me honest feedback about everything, from how the food is to my employees,” he said. “People who forget to pay, come back and pay. It’s very refreshing to see that.”

John is slowly applying his culinary school education to Bella Vita. He’s revising the menu to make it easier to read and navigate. He plans to remove a few dishes and add a few, including a cheeseburger, and he’ll print the new menu on recycled paper. The biggest change is that Bella Vita now delivers.

“I hope to have a huge family one day,” John said. “Family means the world to me.”

His culinary school experience has fueled his excitement about the future of the family business. “My dream is to become a full-time Shelter Islander and have 40 more years at Bella Vita,” he said. “I want to be here until I have kids and maybe until they have kids.”

John claims that the best pizza he’s ever tasted — except, for his own — comes from Little Vincent’s in Ronkonkoma. “Little Vincent’s passes the bend test every time.”