Odds are, if you’ve eaten a Nic-o-Boli at Nicola Pizza in the past 40 years, Byron Mutchler made it.
Hired full-time in January 1978, Mutchler is the restaurant’s head cook. He estimates – somewhat facetiously, but somewhat seriously – he’s made a million Nic-o-Bolis over the past four decades.
“If I had a nickel for every one I’ve made...,” Mutchler said laughing, before realizing that he probably does.
Nicola Pizza was founded in 1971 by Joan and Nick Caggiano Sr. Soon after, Nick created the Nic-o-Boli. Mutchler, 59, said he learned his Nic-o-Boli-making technique from Nick.
“I’ve been making them the same way for the last 40 years,” he said, adding that his favorite is pepperoni, sausage and onion.
“It’s all in the way I fold the dough. A lot of employees have tried to imitate the technique without much success. I just try to be consistent.”
He may not get the culinary acclaim of some other area restaurant cooks, but to watch Mutchler make a Nic-o-Boli is to see a craftsman at work. Taking a prepared ball of dough, he uses his hands to get the ball semi-flat before putting it through the roller. After plating the dough on a tray, he reads the hand-written shorthand on the order sheet and gets to work. He doesn’t need measuring equipment because his hands know from experience how much of each ingredient is needed. He takes a ladle of sauce, and with a quick flick of the wrist, he drops the perfect amount. Once all the ingredients are piled in, he folds the dough quickly, stretching it to the point where holes are almost created, but not quite. He finishes each Nic-o-Boli off with a few quick pats to make it uniform in shape. Mutchler said he knows by looking at the browning of the crust how much longer a Nic-o-Boli has to cook before being ready.
They may look somewhat different, but Mutchler said he doesn’t think a Nic-o-Boli tastes any different from one cook to the next. Not everyone agrees though, because, he said, some customers swear by his craftsmanship.
“Sometimes, when I’m back in the kitchen, customers will tell the waitresses, and they want Byron to cook the Nic-o-Boli,” he said.
If the orders are easy – plain or with just a couple toppings – Mutchler said he can make six Nic-o-Bolis at once. He said he used to be able to do more, but his “brain doesn’t work as well as it used to.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but Mutchler was almost one of the restaurant’s short-timer employees instead of one of its longest tenured. Mutchler said a friend of his worked at the restaurant, and asked if he wanted to help cover a few shifts for a weekend in the spring of 1977. Afterward, Mutchler said, Nick said he appreciated the hard work and offered him a job for summer, but that fell through after too many employees from previous summers came back. Then, out of the blue, Mutchler said, he received a phone call around 8 p.m. on a January night.
“Nick asked if I still needed a job,” said Mutchler. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Good. Come in tomorrow.’”
Mutchler was born in Seaford and graduated from Laurel High School in 1977. He said as a kid, he and his family would make it to the beach a few times a summer with his grandmother. She loved eating at Gus and Gus, he said.
Mutchler’s wife Patricia is as much an institution of Nicola Pizza as he is. She’s been working as a waitress at the restaurant since December 1977. The couple have been married since 1986.
The restaurant didn’t serve alcohol when Mutchler first began working, but he said that didn’t stop people from having a good time. He can remember a line of customers that went from the register to the door at 3 a.m. The bar crowds used to be so rowdy, he said. There was a liquor store next door, and people would bring alcohol in, he said. One time, he said, a person pulled up with a wagon and a keg.
“That’s when Joan said, ‘That’s where I draw the line,’” he said.
In addition to the thousands of satisfied customers, over the years, Mutchler has cooked for a number of well-known individuals, including George H.W. Bush and Chelsea Clinton.
Nowadays, Mutchler works an 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift, five days a week, but there was a time when he worked strictly nights.
“I’ve never really been a morning person,” he said. “There have been many times when I’ve left this place, and the sun has been coming up.”
In the dog days of summer, Mutchler said the kitchen can get over 100 degrees. He said most of the time he keeps his cool when the day’s dinner slam is on. But, he said laughing, the pressure will build, and he’ll pop his cork.
“Sometimes it’s just one of those days,” he said.
Mutchler said he’s worked with a lot of interesting people over the years - especially the foreign exchange students who come to Rehoboth for the summer.
“It’s just interesting to learn about their cultures,” he said, listing South Africa, European and South American countries.
Mutchler is well known at Nicola Pizza, but he’s also a guy who more likes to hunt and fish – which he said, “but I don’t get to do them enough.” Mutchler also enjoys taking photographs; a few of his photos have been featured in the Cape Gazette’s Community Photography Showcase.
Photography is relaxing, he said. “It’s fun trying to capture a moment on film,” he said.
He said he’s been taking pictures since he was a young man, beginning with a Polaroid instamatic.
“I had that for a long time,” Mutchler said.
Mutchler can trace his family in the Seaford/Laurel area all the way back to 1750. He said there’s documentation of a family member named Obadyah Hastings paying taxes in British currency.
“You can’t get much more local than that,” Mutchler said.
Mutchler kind of just shrugged his shoulders when asked why he’s stayed at Nicola Pizza all these years. He said it probably has something to do with the family that’s been created.
“I’ve sort of found a home here,” he said, adding that when Joan died a little over a year ago it was a honor to be one of the pallbearers at her funeral. “She was Nicola Pizza. People came here because they wanted to see her.”