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Pisanello's Pizza: 50 years as a local favorite

Families spend their lunch at Pisanello's Pizza Sunday, Oct. 6.

When Jim Jacobs moved to Mount Pleasant from Bowling Green, Ohio in 1969 to run Pisanello’s Pizza on Main Street, CMU students could check shotguns in at their dorms and use them to hunt pheasants south of Broomfield Road, where everything was “country,” he said.

Jacobs, 71, has seen the town, and the pizza industry, grow around his pizzeria, which marked its 50th year as a Mount Pleasant staple.

Pizza was only just entering the mainstream when Jacobs was growing up in Bowling Green.

“I remember coming home when I was a kid, saying to my mom, ‘What’s for dinner?’” Jacobs said. “She said pizza pie and I go, ‘What the heck is that?’”

Soon a pizza stand began to appear near football games, and when Jacobs was 16 he got work at the Pisanello’s Pizza in Bowling Green. The restaurant was opened in 1964 by Gerald Liss, who was given the rights to the Pisanello’s name when the founder, a descendant of Naples immigrants, retired soon after the restaurant opened.

The chain expanded to Mount Pleasant in 1969 when one of Jacobs’ coworkers got an itch to leave Bowling Green and “try something new.” Nestled in a college town, the restaurant did good business, but its first two owners had trouble keeping money in the cash drawer, Jacobs said. With unpaid rent piling up, the landlord locked the door and the location remained empty for about six months.

Meanwhile Jacobs, who was 21 and married with a child, was growing tired of working for Liss and was considering taking a manager position at a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in Bowling Green. 

“[Liss] was very upset,” Jacobs said. “I’d learned the pizza business from him, and I’d be a competitor of him.” Liss offered him the Mount Pleasant location, and two weeks later Jacobs was in Mount Pleasant commencing the two months of renovation that would lead to the pizzeria’s re-opening in late September.

The rebooted restaurant “did well right off the bat,” Jacobs said, but in time, a growing presence of national pizza chains in Mount Pleasant cut into the business. In search of something to spice up his location, Jacobs visited a Pisanello’s in Ohio which had set up an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet and took the idea back home, where it became one of his pizzeria’s signature features, growing his profits by about 40 percent.

Pizzas await hungry customers on the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at Pisanello's Pizza on Main Street, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019.

Pisanello’s Pizza became so popular that by 2014, there were some days that the restaurant was filled to capacity. Jacobs expanded the pizzeria into an adjacent space he had previously rented out to numerous tenants, spending about $300,000 to renovate it and creating room for more large groups to patronize his restaurant.

Jacobs said his success can be credited to an uncomplicated business philosophy.

“Quality of the food and service, those are the two main things,” he said. “Hire good people, treat them right. It’s pretty simple, really. It’s amazing how many businesses can’t grasp that concept.”

Mount Pleasant resident Jody Sherwood has been a regular at Pisanello’s Pizza for about 30 years. Her husband travels across the United States for his job, she said, and despite how many pizzerias they’ve tried, Pisanello’s remains her favorite.

“We’ve had pizza from across the entire country, and we come here,” Sherwood said.

Kathy Recker, a lifelong Mount Pleasant resident, remembers Pisanello’s Pizza as the first restaurant she ever ate pizza at about 50 years ago, around the time the restaurant first opened. Recker still visits Pisanello’s and relies on them for their quick deliveries and dependable taste.

The Mount Pleasant location remains the only location in Michigan, the remaining 19 being primarily in northern Ohio.

Pisanello’s Pizza opens every day at 11 a.m. Their lunch buffet runs from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and they can be reached for delivery orders at 989-773-9906 or on their website.