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Grotto Pizza plant in the dough

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Each dough ball is checked for its perfect sphere shape and placed on trays for hours of cooling before it's packed and shipped.DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY March 2022

Each dough ball is checked for its perfect sphere shape and placed on trays for hours of cooling before it’s packed and shipped. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

DOVER — There’s about eight people who know the dough recipe at Grotto Pizza out of the thousands who work for the pizza empire. All of them are carefully vetted by a group of top employees, including owner Dominick Pulieri. All have to sign confidentiality agreements.

“You’re talking about an early-stage product and putting it in the hands of somebody. And that somebody has to be trustworthy and diligent,” said Michael Jones, the Grotto Pizza food and beverage director. “They also have to be a technician, because when it comes to mixing dough, it’s a very controlled process.”

While it’s an elite group that knows the precise recipe for the legendary pizza dough — including Jones — the process of manufacturing is down to a fine science. The top-secret ingredients are mixed in giant mixers, with 1,100 pounds of dough at a single stage. 

Once the dough is processed, it’s loaded on a conveyor belt and divided by a hopper and divider — machines that scale and divide large quantities of dough. After its weighed and divided, the dough is sent down a winding chute to round the dough into perfect spheres. If it’s not rounded just right, the dough won’t stretch right, and the pizza will have thin spots.

The spheres of dough are placed on trays, the trays are placed on towering racks, wheeled to a walk-in cooler for hours. Each tray can hold 75 pounds, and in the summer, the freezer can be packed. Each rack is covered to ensure the dough keeps its moisture.

After the dough ages, it’s packed up and shipped to one of the 23 Grotto Pizza locations in the state in refrigerated vans.

In all, Grotto Pizza can produce 1.4 million pounds of pizza dough in a year, for pizza in stores and bake-at-home kits. The facility runs up to six days a week, depending on lead up for the summer season.

“Baking is a total science, and it’s the same thing here,” Jones said. “That science is the ingredients and the control you have on the process. For example, yeast is a live product and if you don’t control that one ingredient the product could suffer. And that’s why we limit our production here. Everything’s got to be controlled so the product is consistent.”

A dough divider at Grotto Pizza can process thousands of pounds in one session, weighing and dividing it to perfect size. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE /MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY March 2022

A dough divider at Grotto Pizza can process thousands of pounds in one session, weighing and dividing it to perfect size. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

In 2021, Grotto Pizza consolidated manufacturing its pizza dough in one warehouse in East Dover, transitioning production there between the New Castle facility and a restaurant in Lewes. In all, the restaurant giant spent $2 million on the new facility in Kent County, including renovations and equipment.

It freed up space for Grotto and gave the restaurant a central location to transport pizza quickly to Wilmington and as far south as Bethany Beach.

When it comes to the other two key pizza ingredients, Grotto Pizza now works with Winona Foods, a quality cheese manufacturer out in Wisconsin for its cheddar, aging and grading it to specifications to ensure it melts the right way while the pie is baking. 

“We used to have these 40-pound blocks of cheese and grate them. It just became a lot,” Jones said.

As for the sauce, Grotto Pizza also contracts out with Stanislaus, a processing company based in California, for plum tomatoes. Grotto Pizza has about one and a half years of canned tomatoes in store, just in case there is a drought or other supply chain issues.

Cheese is too fragile a product to buy in bulk. So when it’s time to buy, he’s on the phone with Winona Foods, forecasting the future. In case of a shortage, Winona Foods will hit the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to buy milk futures to ensure that they can make cheese in a pinch and without seeing a huge cost increase.

But for now, Jones said Grotto Pizza doesn’t have to worry about that scenario. Sales trends have been slightly up in the last few years, with people enjoying takeout and pizza delivery. Even whispers of a recession leave some uncertainty, but he said that people tend to stay closer to home during downturns.

“Pizza is easy to produce, and while other restaurants tried takeout, it’s hard for fine dining options,” he said. “When I first came here in 1980 and tasted the product, I thought it had such a unique flavor profile: a tangy, slightly sweet sauce with oregano. Not to give too much away, it’s a simple recipe. Nothing overpowers it, and I think that’s the way it should be.”

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