Annunziata Palese, who co-founded Nancy’s, home of the original stuffed pizza in Chicago, dies at 87

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Annunziata Palese, the woman who co-founded Nancy’s Pizza, and whose nickname became synonymous with stuffed pizza in Chicago and made the city’s greatest cheese pull famous around the world, died Jan. 20 at 87 years old.

Palese’s late husband, Rocco Palese, first made the Chicago-style stuffed pizza in 1971 at Guy’s Pizza, which they took over in the Hermosa neighborhood.

“When he invented the stuffed pizza, there was war,” she said in a 2016 Tribune profile, her English imbued with Italian. “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.”

The contentious couple worked side by side for years.

“I used to make all the dough when we was Guy’s Pizza,” Palese said. And it wasn’t just pizza dough. “I have to do the pasta by hand, no machine.”

Her hard work by hand didn’t stop Rocco from experimenting with his new obsession: stuffed pizza.

“Every day he made one,” she said. “He give to amici to taste. And then they call, and then they want to eat the stuffed pizza.”

When Palese tasted her husband’s creation, she conceded.

“I was thinking it was good,” she said. “And he said to me, ‘Oh well now it’s good. Before it was no good!’ ”

Their legacy remains the most polarizing and least understood of Chicago-style pizzas. At its best, a stuffed pizza appears as a round deep-dish pie with a crisp, high-sided crust ringed around cheese and your choice of fillings, topped by a thin pasta-like layer, all hidden under a brilliant red sauce.

The Paleses sold Guy’s later in 1971 to open Ricci La Cantina in West Rogers Park. They sold again the next year to open Rocco’s Pizza in Montclare, but closed after just a few months.

They opened Stella Alpina in Dunning next, with a bar and pool hall in front and takeout pizza place in back, where they also lived. Palese said it was there that two brothers offered to buy the business. They worked at the restaurant as a trial. One night they disappeared, taking Rocco’s stuffed pizza recipe and his story behind it as their own, she said.

Eventually the Paleses sold yet again to take over a restaurant called Mario’s.

Before opening, they wanted a new name.

“There was the cook and my husband,” Palese said. “They try this name, no good. That name, no good. They try so many times. They try to say it on the phone.”

Finally one clicked.

“Then they say, ‘Nancy,’ ” she said. “It was more easy to say, ‘Nancy.’”

The first Nancy’s Pizza restaurant opened at 7309 W. Lawrence Ave. in Harwood Heights in 1974 — and Annunziata became Nancy.

Their first rave review came later that year in the Chicago Sun-Times suburban weekly section by entertainment reporter and editor Vicki Giammona. Another review in Chicago magazine led to lines out the door and around the building.

The stuffed pizza origin story has long been disputed, but not by Giammona.

“As far as I know, I’m pretty sure Nancy and Rocco invented it,” she said in 2016. “I covered all the suburbs, too, so I’m pretty confident that if someone else was doing stuffed pizza, then I would’ve known about it.”

The big issue was the business was very small.

“And they were immigrants who didn’t know about publicizing themselves and didn’t know the game,” Giammona said.

The woman known by then as Nancy was also so quiet in public.

“Rocco had to try to drag her out to talk to people,” Giammona said. “She’d stay in the kitchen, just shaking her head.”

Annunziata Scarano was born Feb. 28, 1934, in Brindisi Montagna, a town in southern Italy. She was the fourth child in a family of seven girls and one boy.

Rocco Palese was four years older, from the same town, and that’s where they met. When asked about the year they married, his wife, then in her 80s, laughed and blushed. “I’m embarrassed to say, because I was very young,” she said.

They married in 1948. “But my husband wait until I am 19 years old to get together,” she added emphatically. The newlyweds moved north, where her husband served his mandatory military service. Their first child, son Teodosio, was born when she was 20. Daughters Marisa and then Rosetta followed, all born in Italy.

The couple worked for a time in vineyards. They made pizza, thin crust, and calzone at home, typically stuffed with salami and ricotta.

“But not too much like here,” Nancy said. “Because we no have no money.”

The family moved to Chicago in 1969.

After their initial success with Nancy’s, they opened more locations, including two pivotal pizzerias in 1978.

The Nancy’s on Golf Road in Niles is the only location still in the family, now owned by daughter Marisa Palese Besch and her husband, Fred Besch. He learned to make pizza from Rocco.

Dave Howey opened an Oak Lawn franchise. He was a college-kid customer who became a pizza-making protege and ultimately a family business confidant. With Rocco’s blessing, after his fifth heart bypass surgery, Howey bought the rights to Nancy’s Pizza and took stuffed pies nationwide in 1990.

By 1999, 54 Nancy’s Pizza locations pulled cheese in Chicago and beyond. The brand now has 28 locations in and around Chicago, Atlanta, southern Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.

But first came the bombings. Three mysterious bombings in all, in 1980 and 1982, caused financial ruin. A lengthy criminal investigation revealed the destruction was done by extremely disgruntled former franchisees disputing territory. False rumors about mob hits and insurance fraud haunt the family to this day, said daughter Marisa.

“Rocco couldn’t get insurance after the bombings,” Howey said in 2016, “Who’s going to insure you after your stores are bombed three times?”

Rocco Palese died in 1994 at age 64.

His wife spent her days at the restaurant on Golf Road with the quiet air of a grande dame presiding over the family booth. She shared their stories of love, war and pizza to the few who asked with careful precision.

“When she ate, she’d have a glass of vino,” said Marisa. “I tried to sneak in some Chianti, but she always wanted merlot and knew the difference.”

Nancy’s last day at the restaurant was Sept. 10, 2019. The next day, the woman who helped build a pizza legacy with her husband, moved to the Glenview Terrace nursing home in Glenview to receive care due to dementia.

“We were just people who worked in the kitchen,” she said in 2016, “Me and him, we used to work on the pizza, so once in a while, we fight.”

“But we laugh. We fight,” she said. “But after, it was nothing, no more.”

“I wish he was still here. God, he took him too early.”

She died with family by her side.

Annunziata “Nancy” Palese is survived by three children and nine grandchildren.

Private services are planned.

lchu@chicagotribune.com

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