Is there pizza in heaven? If so, Jim Agatucci is serving it with a smile
Jim Agatucci looked at me as if I were nuts.
This was a few years back, when he was in semi-retirement from Agatucci’s pizzeria restaurant. His son Tony and nephew Danny had taken over as fourth-generation owners, but Jim liked to pop in and help out, especially in the kitchen.
It’s always been a hot place. Really hot. And cramped, not much bigger than some household kitchens. A mass of pots boil mountains of pasta as massive ovens bake hundreds of pizzas a night. Workers weave tightly among each other, shirts and brows wet with sweat.
That night, it was hotter than hell. But Jim Agatucci thought it was heaven.
“I love the heat,” he told me with a smile, as always clad in a white apron.
I suggested that after 50-odd years at the joint, perhaps he could find a more comfortable spot to work. The idea befuddled him. Leave the kitchen? Crazy talk.
“I love to work,” he told me, smiling even wider. “I love the job.”
And that’s why people loved Jim Agatucci, who wanted nothing more in life than to work hard for his business, customers and family, smiling all the way.
Peoria should appreciate Jim Agatucci as a guardian of tradition
He died in late January at age 86. It seems almost impossible that he no longer can be found at his namesake restaurant. Even in his last years, he’d spend many a late afternoon at the end of the bar — near the cooler and phone, where all the orders and action happen — chomping away at a small pie while chatting with regulars. The scene was a mainstay, one of many at the iconic eatery.
For instance, on a wall near the entrance, there’s a clock that runs in reverse, a gag that can fool newcomers. But it belies the quiet charm of Agatucci’s as a throwback to a simpler time. It’s almost as if that backwards clock is a gauge to a workaday time machine, one that also just happens to be a pizzeria.
In 1926, Jim’s like-named grandfather started a grocery along a dirt road (now 2607 N. University St.), serving homemade hooch in the basement during Prohibition, with judges and lawyers among the clientele. When alcohol became legal again, he got a city liquor license — No. 13, which turned out to be lucky business-wise, as it’s the oldest license in Peoria today — and set up a small bar, on the side selling chili and sandwiches.
The next generation — Jim’s dad, Frank, and Uncle Nick — made food a focus, switching the menu to chicken, pasta and (in a first for Peoria) pizza. Aside from a rare expansions and remodeling at the eatery, everything pretty much stayed the same, even as ownership switched to the third generation, with Jim taking over in the kitchen and brother Jerry manning the bar.
I don’t think Jim feared change. But to him, it just didn’t seem to make sense to fiddle around with steady business.
For example, not too long ago when the bar sported just one small TV, regulars pestered him to add another set, so they’d have a choice beyond just one baseball game to watch. Jim disliked the idea.
“What if Cardinals and Cubs fans watch their team at the same time?” he moaned aloud. “What if they argue and get into fistfights? We don’t want that.”
Another time, son Tony suggested they start serving chicken wings.
“What do we need those for?” his dad blurted. “If they eat chicken wings, they won’t order pizza.”
Lo and behold, the joint added a second TV and chicken wings, both of which continue today. Baseball fans there remain unbloodied, and the place still sells a fair number of pizzas.
Still, Peoria should appreciate Jim Agatucci as a guardian of tradition, especially in a town with scant few heritage restaurants. That’s why Agatucci’s is the go-to destination for family reunions, as well as with ex-Peorians returning to town for business, funerals and other demands. And during the holidays, the place is jammed from Thanksgiving Eve to New Year’s Eve.
You want to come back to Peoria? You come back to Agatucci’s.
And Jim was a great part of that lure. Sure, he’d be busy for long stretches while sweating through his apron in the kitchen. But he’d always find time to poke his head into the restaurant to say hello to familiar faces — and new ones, especially little ones. If a child looked bored, Jim would come to a table with a lump of pizza dough to play with, instantly sparking smiles, not just with the kid but Jim as well.
Over the decades, Jim called in sick to work maybe a couple of times. One night, he just missed getting squished when a police cruiser got smacked by another car and bashed into the eatery. The driver of the other car was a 16-year-old Agatucci’s employee, who got ticketed for the wreck, which caused the eatery to close for six weeks for repairs. But the kid kept his job, and Jim went back to work.
Gone but not forgotten, Jim Agatucci has taken his apron and smile to the next level
I’m not sure where Jim got his work ethic, but it’s likely it was inherited from his forebears, plus his days painstakingly making maps with the Army during the Korean War. Mostly, though, I think he just liked working. After all, the restaurant allowed him and wife Jeanne — who also sometimes worked there — to raise three kids and make Peoria a better place.
I’m not sure if there’s pizza in heaven. I sure hope so. Maybe there’s top-notch pizzeria there with a fiery-hot kitchen.
I like to picture Jim Agatucci in there, as always with his white apron. And a smile. Always a smile.