By Cynthia McFarland • Photos By Kent Weakley
As New York as it gets. That was the resounding endorsement I’d heard even before I walked through the doors of Pronto Pizza.
Everyone was talking about this great place in the middle of town with excellent pizza, authentic Italian, and where kids can always count on getting free ice cream. (Okay, so that explains the ice cream cone prominently displayed next to the neon Pronto sign.) Having never been to the Big Apple myself, I figured I’d better take someone along who had. After our meal, my friend confirmed that, yes, this eatery is “as New York as it gets.”
Gleaming mahogany wood paneling, plenty of mirrors, a tile floor, and old-fashioned copper ceiling tiles straight from Brooklyn set the scene for this cozy restaurant just west of Publix in busy Churchill Square. It’s a family atmosphere with a dash of sports bar thrown in. Photos of the original Rat Pack, The Sopranos, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro add another splash of New York flavor.
“We’ve been busy from the first day we opened our doors,” admits Sal Troche, who owns the establishment along with brothers George and Dominic Sullivan. Uncle Art Sullivan (as in the Sullivan car dealerships) was the one who first made the brothers aware of Ocala. Dominic moved to Florida and started selling cars for Uncle Art in Gainesville back in 1987. He eventually convinced brothers George and Sal that opening a restaurant in Ocala would be a win-win for all involved. Pronto opened in Ocala in August of 2003 and as Sal says, “It has exceeded our expectations.”
Sal is quick to admit the restaurant coming together so beautifully is part of God’s plan, along with a lot of family love and a strong work ethic. He recalls praying about this exact business opportunity 10 years ago, and the restaurant’s overwhelming success is testimony to that heartfelt prayer. In fact, two new Pronto locations are set to open in Ocala this summer.
“After 9/11, it was really a wake-up call to settle down and raise a family, and Ocala is a perfect place for that,” says Sal. “We came here to settle down, but that really hasn’t happened — we’ve been so busy!”
Sal had the original Pronto Pizza in the heart of New York City at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. From top to bottom, the look of the Ocala location is similar to this first shop, notes Sal, adding that he’s put his heart and soul into the business. The thing is, it shows. Sal and George did all the woodwork and Sal’s teenage son installed the copper ceiling tiles.
Many of the employees at Pronto are family and you sense the camaraderie immediately. In addition to George and Sal, other working family members include brother Abiud, sister Maria, and Sal’s wife, Liusa. Although brother Dominic doesn’t work at the restaurant, he and his family make frequent appearances.
It’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off the bountiful array of pizza, calzones, and other Italian delights displayed behind the glass counter as you enter the eatery. And the aroma! Let’s just say it would be impossible to walk in and not order.
In pizzeria fashion, you place your order at the counter and fetch your own soda, cutlery, napkins, and condiments. Find a seat and a server quickly brings the food to your table.
We started our meal with a glass of wine and a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and chickpeas, with a light, yet flavorful balsamic vinaigrette. Considering the massive list of items you can add to your salad, we thought we showed restraint. The choices include everything from mandarin oranges and Tuscan roasted veggies to fresh avocado, Kalamata olives, and much more. Vegetarians can easily make a substantial meal out of a salad because of the generous portions. Each is priced as a two-item, three-item, or five-item salad. Of course you can always add additional items for just $1 each. The Greek salad is a favorite of many patrons.
“There are a lot of New Yorkers in Ocala now and everyone was relieved to find real pizza,” says Sal.
Pizza is indeed the most popular item on the menu, but you don’t have to hail from New York to appreciate this fact. Thin crust has always been my favorite and Pronto’s New York Style is perfect. The choices are so expansive you may have a hard time deciding. There are nearly 20 toppings available, but we found the simple combination of fresh mozzarella and plum tomatoes absolutely divine. For those who want to add meat, the Italian sausage has just the right amount of spice.
If you favor a heartier style of pizza, chose the Chicago Deep Dish or the Stuffed Pizza. The pizzas are baked in a brick oven, hence the crusts that are cooked just right. For those who just can’t make up their minds, you can always order by the slice and try one of each style.
The calzones can be made with any of the pizza toppings and there are also Sausage Rolls. You can order rolls made with pepperoni, chicken, broccoli, or spinach, all with a combination of ricotta, Romano, and mozzarella cheeses.
If variety is indeed the spice of life, Pronto Pizza has plenty of options. The menu offers “Create Your Own Salad” and “Create Your Own Pasta” sections, and there is almost no end to how inventive you can get.
“We did the ‘Create Your Own’ so everyone can be happy,” says Sal. “If you’re happy, we’re happy.”
Pizza at Pronto was a no-brainer, but neither could we resist the “Create Your Own Pasta.” We settled on grilled Pacific salmon over linguine, and Sal added some fresh mussels, as well. All pasta dishes come with a small house salad and Italian bread. You get to choose your pasta, your sauce, and your toppings. How convenient is that?
It didn’t take me 10 seconds to realize this is the perfect spot to bring a group of family or friends who don’t like the same things. Everyone gets to order their meal just as they like it.
There are always daily specials, and in addition to the “Create Your Own Pasta,” there are pasta specialties including Pasta Primavera, Fresh Basked Ziti, Lasagna, and Spaghetti with meat sauce, or topped with meatballs or sausage.
There is also an entrée section to the menu which offers such classic Italian dishes as Chicken Parmigiana, Eggplant Parmigiana, Meatball Parmigiana, Chicken Palermo, Shrimp or Chicken Cacciatore, Chicken Florentine, and Shrimp or Chicken Pronto, which sautés your choice of shrimp or chicken with scallions, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes in a sherry cream sauce served with your choice of pasta. Entrées come with a small house salad and your choice of Italian bread or garlic knots.
Good Italian is easy if you use the right ingredients,” says brother Dominic. He admits that if they cut corners on ingredients, they would save money, but that’s not the plan. Pronto’s food costs may be higher than some would think necessary, but the taste is worth every dime. It also turns out that the lasagna, marinara sauce, and cannoli are all family recipes from Grandma Maniccio, now 92 years old and still going strong.
Guests adhering to low-carb diets should ask about “George’s Atkins Special.” Just because it’s true Italian doesn’t mean your meal has to be loaded with carbohydrates!
For those in “sports bar” mode, the menu also features spicy buffalo style chicken wings and hot Italian sub sandwiches.
Believing that you can’t do a restaurant feature justice unless you sample at least two desserts, my friend and I managed to save a bit of room to indulge in the homemade tiramisu and cannoli. We gave an enthusiastic “thumbs up” to both. A deluxe carrot cake, New York style cheesecake, and Chocolate Corruption, a decadent chocolate cake with both dark and white chocolate chips, were also available. And, of course, kids always get a free scoop of ice cream.
And in case you need another reason to visit Pronto, check out the accordion/piano player [Editor’s Note: See “The Accordion Files” by Lynn Peithman Stock, Dec. 2003] on Friday and Saturday nights from 6pm to closing.
For me, that incredible New York style pizza is reason enough to go back. With Pronto in town, who needs to head to the Big Apple anyway?
303 SE 17th Street — Churchill Square, Unit 104
Ocala, FL 34471
Hot Tip: Two new locations set to open this summer!
By Cynthia McFarland • Photos By Kent Weakley