OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Toni Zuccaro snags the first spot in line. "Tony!" she shouts across the boardwalk, waving to her husband, a tub of caramel popcorn tucked under his arm. Toni gazes at the looming lollipop of a street clock: 10:51 a.m.
In minutes, Toni and Tony will be eating Manco & Manco.
Tony quietly approaches and gestures toward his wife's arm. "Why don't you give me the bag?"
He takes the saltwater taffy and his popcorn tub and finds a seat on one of the wooden benches set like church pews next to the new crispy cathedral.
While Tony is along for the ride, Toni is the one dead-set on starting Independence Day with an American favorite.
Around 10:53, Charles "Chuck" Bangle, his dark hair freshly spiked, pushes through the glass front door. "Folks, how we doin' today?"
Toni cups her hand over her leopard-print visor. "Good!" she shouts, wagging her finger at him. "11 or 11:30?"
"11!" Bangle yells over his shoulder as he wades through the throng of shoobies. "We're ready for ya!"
"We're having steak and Jameson in there," he jokes. "We're going to open the doors shortly."
Considering recent events, it is amazing the doors opened at all. The new Ninth Street pizza palace — Manco's third boardwalk location and now its flagship store — was built inside the former Strand movie theater. Its bold and broad marquee cuts an imposing presence on the boardwalk, much like its popular owner, who opened the store on June 29 with borrowed time. Bangle will start serving a 15-month prison term in September after pleading guilty to evading nearly $92,000 in federal taxes a few years back. The start of his sentence was delayed so he could help complete the multimillion-dollar opening during the summer rush.
That's how big this pizza is in Ocean City: The owner of the boardwalk pizza empire can't go to jail because he has to ensure the new flagship store succeeds.
Behind Toni, the people in line fidget. A ponytailed mother dances with her daughter, sending the teen's beaded red, white, and blue necklaces twirling. A young father, tailing his baby girl as she circles the street clock, pipes up: "Better be good, I've been waiting for 20 minutes."
They're all willing to wait for it. Not just pizza, but Shore pizza. Location matters when you take that first bite into the piping hot gob of oil, cheese, and tomato sauce just feet from the beach and miles from everyday troubles.
People routinely stop and ask: "What time they open up?" The line, in unison, calls out "11." The askers look at the clock and throw up their arms, roll their eyes, groan.
Bangle returns, now coolly sipping a cup of coffee. "Couple minutes, folks."
The kids start scheming: "The back entrance is probably unlocked."
The moms start confessing: "I'm ready to go back. I was secretly drinking on the beach all day yesterday."
Toni checks the clock: 11:01 a.m.
"They're late!" She yells. "Hello!"
Toni and Tony usually vacation in Cape May, but they made an exception this year for a special stay in Somers Point. Of course, Toni doesn't complain much about the wait. "I've been in here all week."
It's impressive how far some Manco superfans will drive just for a taste of the good stuff.
"My daughter lives in West Islip, New York, and she will drive the three hours all the way here," Toni says. "You know what? When you have good food, you don't mind driving."
Bangle props open the front door at 11:11. "Hallelujah," says Toni, waving Tony over from his bench. They're the first customers inside.
Tony and Toni grab seats at the expansive new counter, and order a pie for two.
The fresh slices are thin and crispy, just enough oil to count as breakfast, washed down with just enough Mountain Dew to count as lunch.
Hey, when you're vacationing in a dry, family-first town, is there any better indulgence than a fresh slice of pizza?
Tony takes a bite and nods.
Toni lightly smacks him. "See that, honey!"