Nancy Palese, co-founded iconic namesake pizza restaurants in Chicago, dies at 87

She and her husband and restaurant co-founder Rocco Palese created a hearty “stuffed” pizza (not deep dish) that would become the core of Nancy’s Pizza restaurants.

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Rocco and Nancy Palese present their stuffed pizza in the 1970s.

Rocco and Nancy Palese present their stuffed pizza in this 1970s photo.

Courtesy Nancy’s Pizza

Nancy Palese and her husband, Rocco, helped develop the stuffed pizza that became the cheese-and-tomato-filled foundation of her namesake Nancy’s Pizza restaurants.

The couple’s inspiration for their specialty, with a crust on the top and bottom, was scarciedda, a stuffed Italian Easter pie.

Mrs. Palese, who had dementia, died Jan. 20 at a nursing home at 87, according to her daughter, Marisa Palese Besch. 

Up until 2019, Mrs. Palese would drop in and look over the franchise her daughter operated on Golf Road in Niles.

“Till the last minute,” her daughter said, “she was, ‘You gotta do it this way.’ The product had to stay the same.”

Born Annunziata Scarano, she grew up in the town of Brindisi di Montagna in the province of Potenza in Italy’s Basilicata region — the boot-shaped country’s “instep.” She was 14 when she married her husband, Rocco, in 1948.

In 1969, they immigrated to Chicago “with small suitcases in their hands,” their daughter said.  “‘Here we are, 1969 — the American Dream.’”

The couple operated several other pizzerias but wanted their own place. In the early 1970s they opened Guy’s pizza at Armitage and Kostner. A few years later they established the first Nancy’s — with stuffed pizza on the menu — at 7309 W. Lawrence Ave. in Harwood Heights. 

Quality was important to the couple. Mrs. Palese’s husband “had a little secret spice room where he mixed things up and put things in packets” to keep the recipe confidential, said Laurie Cairns, a publicist for Nancy’s.

In the mid-1970s Chicago Magazine named it the city’s best pizza, according to Dave Howey. He became a fan as a hungry Loyola University student. Later, he learned how to make the stuffed pizza while working at their restaurant near Montrose and Central. He went on to organize the franchising of Nancy’s restaurants by him and other owners.

Approximately 30 Nancy’s Pizzas operate in the Chicago area and downstate and in Georgia, North Carolina and Missouri.

“Nancy and Rocco are pizza royalty,” Howey said. “Before all the [business] books and all the [management consultant] Peter Druckers of the world, she instinctively knew this pizza was special. She wanted every pizza going out the right way” from the kitchen.

 By 1983, Nancy’s Pizza was one of the top-selling vendors at ChicagoFest, a precursor to Taste of Chicago.

“Both of them together, they were a team,” their daughter said. “Oh my God, we were at the restaurant 9 o’clock in the morning until midnight, 1 o’clock, seven days a week. She was a very, very strong woman.”

She and her husband prevailed over a violent takeover attempt, their daughter said. In 1984 three men — a franchise owner, his son and another defendant — were sentenced to federal prison for bombing competing Nancy’s restaurants in an attempt to gain control of the business.

“My mother truly loved her customers. She got up every morning thinking that she wanted to make an outstanding presentation,” her daughter said. “She left a legacy out there you cannot forget.”

Mrs. Palese and her husband employed hundreds of people over the years, she said, giving other restaurateurs their first start.

Their customers have included actors Taylor Kinney, Barbara Eden and Ann Jillian.

Mrs. Palese enjoyed listening to REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly” and “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.

She believed, “We did it ‘Our Way,’ ” her daughter said. 

Mrs. Palese’s death was the third in a year among Chicago pizza dynasties. Donna Marie Malnati, who died last year, was the wife of Rudy Malnati, who perfected his pizza-making skills at Pizzeria Uno, the birthplace of deep dish pizza. His son Lou established Lou Malnati’s and their son Rudy Jr. founded Pizano’s Pizza. Rudy Malnati Jr. died last month.

Mrs. Palese’s husband died in 1994. She is also survived by her daughter, Rose, son Ted and nine grandchildren. Services are pending.

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