Chef Boyardee: Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in New York City

You’d think it’d be easy to find an Italian pizza maker in Manhattan to star in a TV commercial. Fuhgeddaboutit. Read on.

Pizza, Pizza!

My first assignment at Young & Rubicam was copywriting on Chef Boyardee. As a newbie, I was unaware other agency creatives shunned this account.

Chef Boyardee was part of American Home Foods, a hard-boiled, tight-fisted consumer package goods (CPG) company known for grinding copywriters into pasta ingredients. No matter. I was thrilled to be working on a national brand.

Better yet, I hit the jackpot. My first job was to write a new TV commercial for Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix.

Think Inside the Box

Once a staple of family dinners, sales of Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix had sagged like loose pizza dough as neighborhood pizzerias sprang up across America. (And yes, there was a real Chef Boyardee. His Italian name was Hector Boiardi, which he anglicized.)

My job was simple. Come up with an idea that would reverse these drooping sales. Sure, I said, no problem, right away. (Gulp.)

The Client Pitch Meeting

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY.

Across the long mahogany table, I faced my clients: American Home Foods’s President DAVID JAICKS and his corporate lieutenant, CARL BECKER – two no-nonsense execs with better things to do than listen to a lowly copyboy.

I needed to pitch hard and fast. I opened with an accepted fact to get their heads nodding.

Research shows that folks love the taste of fresh-hot pizzeria pizza. It’s the gold standard. Bingo. Both nodded their heads, expressions flat.

So what if our commercial shows an Italian pizzeria guy who says Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix is just as good as pizzeria pizza? They lifted their eyebrows, intrigued but dubious. I pressed on.

Chef Boyardee is just as good because it now has a new exclusive pizzeria recipe. New pizzeria recipe? The client duo mulled the idea, beginning to warm. I ramped up my sell.

And what if this Italian pizzeria guy comes from New York city, the pizza capital of the world? The corners of their mouths tugged. I had their attention.

Plus, did I mention? This Italian pizza guy, he’s colorful. He’s got a ton of New York attitude and skepticism. So he’s more believable. More likable. And more memorable! Jaicks and Becker raised their chins. I went for the close.

Finally, what if – to make this commercial 100% convincing and authentic – we shoot in a real-life pizzeria and use an actual real-life pizzeria chef? His real name would be supered on the screen when he starts talking.

Advertising idea brought to life. The future TV spokesperson for Chef Boyardee.

Jaicks and Becker glanced at each other, then back to me. Becker spoke, “Okay, but you’d better make it good.”

Citywide Hunt for the Pizza Guy

Skip the usual casting call, actors were off-limits. The TV networks classified this script as an “Expert Testimonial,” which meant the on-camera person had to actually work at a pizzeria. No faking allowed.

So I hit the sidewalks in the broiling summer heat, gumshoe-ing my way to find the perfect “Pizza Guy.” From Manhattan’s East Side to the West Side, North and South, I poked my head into every pizzeria joint I came across. And you know what I found?

Hispanics working inside. And lots of Asians. Greeks, too. Plus an assortment of African Americans. A veritable United Nations of pizza slice slingers. But no classic Italian pizza chef.

I began to regret my big-mouth promise to the client.

Hot Tip at 85th and Columbus

I told my dilemma to my co-workers. Some empathized. Some grinned. Most couldn’t care less. Then a woman art director offered a lead that seemed too good to be true.

“There’s this Italian guy in my neighborhood who runs a pizzeria. In his mid-40’s or so,” she said, “Loads of personality, always wise-cracking.” I scribbled down the upper West Side address. Ten minutes later, I was on the “B” train headed uptown.

The Pizza Guy Sighting

From the 86th street exit, I speed-walked two blocks to a modest pizzeria on Columbus. Cautiously, I opened the door and stepped inside. There he was. The Pizza Guy.

He was behind the counter, joking with a customer. Definitely Italian, tall and lean. He had dark hair and thick eyebrows, which made him look stern, until he smiled, which lit up his face.

Time was not on my side. I was short of casting options and already in pre-production. I could sense this guy was no sucker. I’d only get one shot to make this introduction work.

Hey, Wanna Be on TV?

I came clean. I blurted out about the TV commercial and said he’d be great to play a pizza guy. I explained that I worked at a large mid-town ad agency and could get him an audition.

He looked at me bemused, sizing up what sounded like a bullshit scam. Stillness hung in the garlic scented air.

Suddenly I remembered, “You’ll get paid full union scale for the shoot day, plus residuals every 13 weeks the commercial is on the air. It’s thousands of dollars.”

His hand shot across the counter to shake. “Hi, I’m Tom Sciarrino.”

That’s a Wrap (er, almost)

After a video-taped audition, the client approved Tom and we shot at a downtown pizzeria. For a first-time actor, he did a terrific job. The commercial ran about a year and Tom earned a very tidy payday. (Watch it below.)

There was just one last moment of anxiety. It occurred when we showed the rough cut to our clients.

Jaicks and Becker watched the screen and nodded approvingly as our star pizza chef delivered his pitch-perfect pitch. They snorted a laugh at the end when the front panel of the box hinged down to reveal a pizza oven over the announcer’s closing line “The Take-Out Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven.” The mood was triumphant. Ad agency backslaps all around.

Then Jaicks, the company president, interrupted. “If the gold standard is pizzeria pizza, shouldn’t the end line say ‘The Pizzeria Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven?’”

Nooooo, my brain screamed. The tag line was meant to intentionally repeat the words “take out.” That’s the cleverness. His suggestion would ruin everything. Please, don’t. Not on my first commercial. I started to object.

Becker waved me silent. He spoke gently and evenly.

“Good thought, David, but I think it’s fine. I got the idea. Let’s leave it alone,” Becker said. Jaicks considered, nodded, and thanked everyone as he left the screening room. Becker followed, but just before exiting, he turned and gave me a conspiratorial smile.

My first national TV commercial was headed to air – with the right tag line.

For the TV testimonial commercial, Tom Sciarrino delivers all his lines in two extended scenes. A strong performance for his first time on camera.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Dan Weiss. Producer: Ted Storb. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Food Photography: Michael Schrom. Client: Carl Becker, David Jaicks. Product: Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix (American Home Foods). Talent: Tom Sciarrino.

Epilogue: After 36 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tom’s Pizzeria and Restaurant closed its doors in May of 1994 due to rising rents.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our media history.

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