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Slice of Success: How two ASU alumni are building an empire one pizza at a time


If there are two places in the world that know pizza, it’s Italy and New York.

Elements from both of those illustrious culinary hubs are baked into each pie that Grimaldi’s Pizzeria makes.

Although the first Grimaldi’s was established in Brooklyn in the ‘90s, the first restaurant in the southwest opened in Scottsdale in 2003. The successful pizza chain now has 50 restaurants in 14 states, including eight around the Valley.

The idea for Arizona’s first Grimaldi’s started on ASU’s Tempe campus when Joey Ciolli and Eric Greenwald met while pledging the same fraternity. The pair had an instant bond through their ties back home on the East Coast.

Ciolli and Greenwald, who have backgrounds in construction and business, literally built the restaurant from the ground up. Their mission was to create authentic New York pizza, but also to cultivate an inclusive environment.

“We wanted to create a restaurant you could walk into in a suit and tie, but also feel comfortable coming in straight from spring training or a Cardinals game,” says Ciolli.

Greenwald says they also wanted to pay homage to the city that started it all.

“When you walk in, you get that old school feeling of being back in New York,” he says.

Each restaurant evokes this vibe through authentic red and white checkered tablecloths, chandeliers crafted out of wine bottles and a Sinatra-centric soundtrack.

Grimaldi’s is also known for its giant coal-brick oven, which is centrally displayed in the restaurant. Patrons can watch through a glass partition as their pizza is being made.

Although the oven is now a signature part of the Grimaldi’s brand, it wasn’t always an effortless success. When the Scottsdale location opened on Valentine’s Day 2003, it took too long to fire up the 1,000-degree oven, so they were only able to serve salads and dessert.

Today, the pizzeria still sticks to what its good at—thin crust pizzas, salads and traditional Italian desserts like cannolis and cheesecake.

And they take it very seriously.

According to Ciolli, Grimaldi’s just perfected their gluten-free crust, a two-year endeavor that included a lot of research and trial and error.

The eatery’s executive chef, Cory Latucca, frequently travels to Italy to source ingredients like tomatoes and olive oil. One of his most recent trips rendered an exclusive blend of red wine for the restaurant with the renowned Rocca delle Macie vineyard in Tuscany.

The wine, dubbed Mille Gradi, marries merlot, syrah and sangiovese and was produced to pair perfectly with any of Grimaldi’s dynamic menu items, from the heartiest meat-topped pizza to the light kale salad.

Mille Gradi is Italian for “1,000 degrees,” an ode to the temperature of Grimaldi’s signature coal-brick oven.

“Cory spent a week in Italy, went to three different vineyards and tasted a lot of wine,” says Greenwald. “He was looking for something that had drinkability with our pizzas and salads…something easy on the palate, yet distinct.”


Ciolli and Greenwald agree that a successful pizza enterprise doesn’t happen overnight.

“You have to start from the bottom,” says Greenwald.  

Ciolli agrees, adding that they’ve worked hard to build their brand, and the team that represents it.

“We’ve seen people start out as bus boys, who are now in higher management,” he says.

So, what’s the secret? Ciolli says part of it is striving for constant improvement.

“Every time we open a restaurant in a new state, that becomes the new standard, the highest standard,” he says. “And we continue to raise it.”

Ciolli and Greenwald, who served as the managers for the first Scottsdale location, say they were really hands-on and attentive when it came to promoting Grimaldi’s signature service.

“We want to give every customer a five-star experience, from the time they walk up to the hostess from the time they leave and that same host or hostess smiles and thanks them for coming in,” Ciolli says.

That service doesn’t go unnoticed. In 2016, Grimaldi’s won the Five Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

“The key to success is three things: people, product and service,” adds Greenwald.

Grimaldi’s is dedicated to stellar service, great food and friendly staff. In fact, Ciolli doesn’t even refer to his place of work as an office.

“We call it the Restaurant Support Center,” he laughs.

What’s on the menu for the future? According to Ciolli and Greenwald, it’s global expansion. In 2017, the duo plans to bring the same level of quality that Grimaldi’s is famous for to Dubai, Madrid and Panama.

“The same product goes everywhere,” says Ciolli. “It’s the same in Florida as it is in Arizona, and as it was in the first coal oven under the Brooklyn Bridge.”


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