Syracuse’s beloved pizza joint – popular among local families, college students and professors – stays humble after being featured on a famous site thrillist.com The news was a surprise said Eric Ockert, a representative from Varsity. “We didn’t contact them, they didn’t contact us,” he said. “They probably know about us through word of mouth.”
First-timer Rich Colf, a veteran from the nearby Syracuse Veteran Affairs Medical Center, says “A nurse told me about this place,” as he sits at the table outside with his friend waiting for his brother who went in to order some pizzas. He liked the environment of chilling outside while watching students and people passing by living their lives.
Surprisingly, the place now famed for its pizzas did not start off as a pizza joint. Jerry Dellas began with a lunch cart in the local area saving up money to buy the current property of where Varsity is now located. Originally opened as a coffee shop and deli in 1926, the business turned into a cafeteria-styled pizza joint in 1971. Elli Darmoyslis, who has been with Varsity for 43 years, is in charge of the pizza department and can still be seen from the outside window hard at work making pizzas almost everyday.
The name of the establishment is actually just Varsity, but given the popularity of its pizzas – thanks to its secret recipe sauce – people now refer to the place as Varsity Pizza. On a regular day, the pizza joint will make up to 200 pizzas with 8 slices each, while on a game day the number could double. That is 3200 slices! On a regular day there are three staff members on standby at the pizzas counter, while on game days they put in 5-6 people to serve the flood of customers and have earlier preparation to fulfill the pizzas demand. The line will stretch across two aisles in the joint on a game day, sometimes over flowing to outside. It’s a “controlled chaos,” Ockert said about their regular game days. The oxymoron could actually be the reason why customers keep coming back. People like the hype on game days, but no one likes it out of control.
The decoration is also a big factor in creating the strong sports ambience. When entering the pizza joint, there are universities’ names on flags around the room near the ceiling. The flags on the walls are basketball teams and the flags above the food counter are football teams. The ones that are hung upside down signify the victory that Syracuse University team won the game against them in the current year. With home games, if Syracuse team won, the marching band will parade down to Varsity to celebrate the triumph.
In addition, to make the customers feel at home when coming back to the restaurant every time, they have not changed the framed photos of various athletes in different sports since the 1980’s. This makes the alumni who visit the place feels nostalgic every time they come by. Federal force officer Dave Marquis, who graduated from Syracuse University in 1996, still comes back to Varsity every time he’s in the area. “I like the ambiance. And it’s convenient, I order pizzas every time.” His love for pizzas has passed on to the next generation as his young daughter is found finishing up a slice, and wearing Syracuse jumper.
A self-service system is what people usually expect for a cafeteria-themed restaurant. But it’s different here. Besides being welcoming staff, they bus the tables as well. The customers can just leave after finishing the meal without worrying where to put the trays and plates away.
Everything seems to add up pretty well except for one thing that they still can’t get it right, and it’s no secret – the napkins. With six napkins dispenser around the place, Ockert said the most popular question he gets asked is where to get the napkins. With one or two dispensers attached to the poles in almost every corner, it is a wonder why customers still can’t see them.
One thing that the customers can definitely see is how the place has not changed. Its charm and originality are still intact. It’s a place where you hangout with friends or come back years after with your family or children to reminisce the younger days. Currently, in its 90th year and still running; what makes this place so successful and beloved by its customers all come down to one thing, as said by a repeat customer Shalisa Manley: “the pizza’s better.”