Baltimore’s Italian Disco pairs old-school Italian fare with modern cultural flair that makes it a standout on a crowded food scene. With a stellar pizza recipe and a strongly trained staff, Italian Disco ain’t your mama’s pizzeria.
Baltimore, Maryland’s Italian Disco has that “it” factor many restaurants seek. The restaurant serves Italian fare and tunes straight out of the ’70s and ’80s, giving it an old-school flavor with modern energy. There’s a DJ spinning tracks, hot pizzas coming out of the oven, and drinks flowing from the bar.
Julian Marucci, chef partner at Atlas Restaurant Group.
Owned by brothers Alex and Eric Smith and their partners, Italian Disco isn’t your average pizzeria with checkered tablecloths and chianti-bottle candles. The previous pizzeria where Italian Disco now sits used a machine to hand press their thin and crispy dough, and that wouldn’t cut it for Julian Marucci, chef partner at parent company Atlas Restaurant Group.
The former restaurant had been counter service, but the team decided to make Italian Disco full service with waitstaff and bartenders, a place “where people could hang out, have a slice of pizza, wings – just different types of casual Italian fare,” said Marucci.
On the menu
The top-selling pizza is the Margherita, which features house-made mozzarella, parmesan, San Marzano tomato sauce and basil. The Margherita is followed by a classic pepperoni featuring mozzarella, basil, tomato sauce and pepperoni. The mozzarella sticks weigh in as the third most-popular dish.
Pizza accounts for 60% to 65% of sales, Marucci said, and it’s a New York-style but made with Italian pizza flour. It’s more of a modern New York-style pizza, Marucci adds, and has a light, airy cornicicone.
Dough is made in-house, but so is the sauce. Mozzarella is cut for the mozzarella sticks, rolls for the sandwiches are baked fresh, and even the pasta is made in-house. They use Baker’s Pride double-deck ovens to bake the pizzas.
Aside from pizza, there are also classic sandwiches like Chicken Parmesan and a Meatball Parmesan. Salads like the Shaved Brussels Sprouts and the Arugula are popular, as are pastas like a classic spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce and basil and bucatini with basil pesto burrata.
There’s a curated mixed drink list, beer and wine.
When a new employee comes in to work at the ovens, “we make sure we have extra dough on hand,” Marucci said, “so that person would work with an experienced person and what they’ll do is say ‘Alright, make five pizzas.’ We might not put cheese on it so we aren’t wasting cheese, but we bake off the dough so we’re teaching them, they watch it bake in the oven to learn where the hot spots are in this particular location are and (where) you have to spin the dough in this part of the oven. You have to invest in your people and your training.”
With so much made in house, how does Italian Disco keep its labor costs down?
“You have to keep people who are well versed in different jobs,” Marucci said. “You need to make sure you’re controlling the preparation – just prepping what you need for the day or the following day.”
Like many pizzerias, hiring and retention remains a challenge for Italian Disco. To combat those issues, Italian Disco does a lot of in-house training.
Delivery is done via third-party companies like GrubHub and DoorDash. “I thing the biggest challenges is that sometimes these people don’t have the same values you do,” Marucci said. Sometimes food doesn’t arrive as its destination as quickly as you’d like it to or as hot as it should be.
The Italian Disco team has considered opening a second restaurant, but haven’t due to a combination of timing and location. Founder Alex Smith has been looking both inside and outside the state of Maryland. Atlas Restaurant Group will have 27 properties by the end of the year, and that’s a lot to keep up.
Baltimore’s dining scene is progressive and prolific, so what makes Italian Disco stand out?
“I would just say the quality of the New York-style pizza,” Marucci said. “I think that we put out a great New York-style that maybe a lot of other restaurants in Baltimore really don’t focus on. We focus on using the best ingredients possible to make the dough as well as the sauce and the cheese. If you invest in putting the best ingredients on the plate, I think that results in a very high-quality product. … I just think we deliver a great product.”
For fledgling operators, Marucci said to put as much into research and development as possible and continue education into the business aspect of the concept as well as the food, “from managing the food costs and labor to continuing to research and see what other people are doing as far as what kind of toppings they’re offering. Just do your research.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.