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Pizzeria DaVinci’s 20 year legacy

By Kathy Brown.

(Nov. 21, 2021) — Drew Sassi opened his first Pizzeria DaVinci in Killingworth 20 years ago, in 2001. “I was born and raised in Killingworth so it was an easy choice,” said Drew. Then came Moodus and Rockfall in 2004, and Higganum and Avon in 2010.

2008 Front row L to R: Eric Yocca, Courtney Palumbo, Chris Bova, Pete Zadroney
Back L to R: Sal Zichichi, Pete Lieberman

Landon, Drew’s wife, thought this would be a fun “hometown” story since all of the DaVinci owners were born and raised in HK, including Drew, who graduated HKHS in ’94. “Such an amazing community that has shown us so much support, especially through last year!”

“Being from a small town, it was so important for me to hire local kids and be present in the community,” said Drew, and that’s just what he has done.

Drew with Doug Felton at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas
“I met Doug [Felton] 23 years ago when I would see him biking around Killingworth with his fishing pole on the back, at 15 years old,” Drew said. “I asked him if he wanted a job and he never looked back. Doug is like my first-born child at this point.” In 2004, Doug went with Drew to Rockfall to run that location. “I would come by [the store] on Doug’s days off, and he would be mowing the lawn!” said Drew. Doug also helped manage the Moodus store.

Then they opened Avon together as partners. “In true Doug fashion, he put everything into the store and became the official 100% owner last year,” said Drew.

Chris Bova
Chris Bova was introduced into the DaVinci family at age 14; his mother owned a dog grooming shop next door. One day Chris came into DaVinci’s for a slice of pizza, and Drew said, “How about a job instead?” As the story goes, “That very moment, Drew got me behind the line and was training me to make pies just like that,” said Chris.
“Chris is such a special person, with the best heart,” said Drew. “You can’t be in a bad mood around Chris. He’s like the annoying little brother I never wanted. Just last night he was sending Landon videos from about 15 years ago of the pranks we all used to pull on each other.”
Though Chris has been the face of the Killingworth DaVinci for over a decade, he has only been the owner since 2017 when he officially bought the store. He resides in Killingworth with his wife and son, and “has future aspirations of opening another DaVinci one day,” said Chris.
Emily DeNicola

Emily DeNicola began at the Hebron location of Pizzeria DaVinci in 2009. “I fell in love with it pretty quickly,” said Emily, “and spent as much time as I possibly could working and learning what I needed to know. My goal was to become the youngest PDV owner in company history.”

“In 2016, external events forced me to take a little break from the pizza life,” Emily explained. “In 2019, I returned with a roaring fire inside to finish what I had started.”
“Emily approached me for a job in 2019 for part time at the Moodus location,” said Drew. “I wasn’t even hiring at the time, but I knew I couldn’t pass.  We actually created a position for her.” Drew offered Emily the head management position in the Higganum store.
“Originally, the deal was that I spend two years in the Higganum location, structuring it the way my other two PDV locations were structured, and then I would go on to open my own,” said Emily. “As time went on, plans changed… into my wildest dreams! I was offered a partnership with Drew and Landon in the Pizzeria Da Vinci brand. As a partner, my role is to search for, open, and establish new Pizzeria Da Vinci locations and oversee them as they grow.”
Drew and Landon’s son Phoenix eating in Higganum (pre-pandemic)

“Everything really does happen for a reason,” said Drew, “because Covid hit five months later, and because of cancer I was advised to stay out of the restaurants and Emily kept everything running.”

“As the pandemic has thrown new challenges from every angle, we have seen a lot of setbacks in our goals to expand the brand,” said Emily. “I will remain in the Higganum location until we have the staff to run it without me; at which point, our venture to expand will be my main focus.”

“She runs circles around me and everyone else,” said Drew. “We always laugh because some of our security cameras can’t even keep up with Emily!”

Hunter Czaja
Hunter Czaja is the most recent member of the DaVinci family. “Hunter started working for me at 16 in Higganum,” explained Drew. “My wife always says I am hardest on the employees I see the most potential in, and that isn’t truer with anyone than it is Hunter. I have been doing this a long time and have worked with a lot of amazing kids. I can’t think of anyone who is more of a team player than Hunter.”
“I love his work ethic and kindness, but I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever met someone with more integrity,” Drew went on to say. “He has such a unique leadership style; he’s like everyone’s big brother. If I call him with accolades, he always credits the team, and if I call him with criticism, he puts the blame on himself as their leader.
“Landon and I were given the opportunity to buy back the Moodus location from my former brother-in-law in 2019,” explained Drew. “I almost turned it down because I was stretched thin and Landon suggested a partnership with Hunter. He accepted and never looked back. He will officially be the sole owner of Moodus in 2024.”

2008 – L to R:  Tim Hendrix, Courtney Palumno, Drew Sassi, Linda Suravich, Peter Zachrodney
“The Pizzeria Da Vinci brand is everything to me, always has been, always will be,” said Emily. “I look forward to your next article, maybe titled… ‘How Pizzeria Da Vinci went from 8 locations to 800 in just 10 years.'”
“The family bond that we all have is what has made the last 20 years so special,” explained Drew. “I didn’t have kids until later in life, so my employees were definitely my surrogate kids. One introduced me to my wife, one was even in the room when we had our first child. These are just a few of the wonderful employees who have turned into family over the years.”
Photos provided by Drew Sassi.

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