Owner Niki Custer began working at the pizzeria when she was 12
|After selling Cicchitti’s East Coast Pizzeria in 2000, Niki Custer has reacquired the business and is moving it from Ferndale back to downtown Bellingham, where it was a fixture during the 1990s.|
The Cicchitti’s saga is populated with a husband and wife, the eight children between them, four locations and thousands of hungry customers. But it begins and ends with one dedicated daughter.
Niki Custer began dishwashing at Cicchitti’s East Coast Pizzeria when she was 12.
At age 13, she quickly learned how to run the cash register when an employee didn’t show on a busy Friday night.
At 15, she mastered the operation of the pizza oven, and learned how to do payroll at 16.
While other kids trained for after-school sports, toiled away on yearbook staff or got sent to detention, Niki helped her parents manage the business, missed school to have a child when she was 16 and then made up the credits so she could graduate with the rest of her class by the end of senior year.
“Niki really was the lifeblood of the place,” Debbie Cicchitti, her mom and co-owner of the original pizzeria, recalled.
The story began in 1983 with the red-checkered tabletops of Tom and Debbie Cicchitti’s pizzeria on State Street, but it has persisted through various incarnations with Niki’s resolve, as a red-aproned, pre-teen dishwasher to the manager in charge of it all.
And the story almost ended when the most recent Cicchitti’s location closed in Ferndale in June, except that Niki will take the reins (after a few years’ hiatus) and reopen the pizzeria on Railroad Avenue this fall.
‘If we weren’t in school, we were there’
As a kindergartner when her mother and stepfather opened the first Cicchitti’s (where Rudy’s Pizzeria is now located), Niki remembers playing inside one of the restaurant’s cabinets with her younger sister, Tana, while her parents passed pizzas through a sliding glass window to Buck’s Tavern, (the location of the former 3B Tavern).
“They had built a cabinet up to the front window. There was a little tiny door, I don’t know what it was for, and there were shelves on either side and we were just little enough that we’d lay up there like it was a bunk bed and we’d play in there,” she said of the hiding spot. “We’d get in trouble because we’d leave food in there.”
Niki recalled this situation from her impeccably clean house while two of her four children patiently occupied themselves with quiet tasks down the hall.
Makeup-less, in a white t-shirt, jeans and bare feet, with long brown hair and round, brown eyes, Niki looks both younger and wiser than her 30 years.
“In the beginning, if we weren’t in school, we were there,” she said. “We ate pizza the whole time. We drank lots of swamp water — where you take a cup and you put a little bit of each pop in there — and pizza, and that was pretty much all we ate. I’m sure (mom) cooked dinner whenever we could go home, and every once in a while my stepdad would complain and she’d bring something (to the restaurant) that she’d made (at home), but we’d still go, ‘I want pizza!’”
“They all had their little jobs they’d do,” Debbie said of her children.
All eight of Debbie and Tom’s children have worked at Cicchitti’s at some point in their lives.
“If they were going to play the video games (at the restaurant), they had to work for it,” she joked.
‘The billiard hall sank everything’
Niki grew up living and breathing Cicchitti’s.
By the time she was pregnant with her first daughter in 1995 at age 16, Tom and Debbie — both avid pool players — decided to open a second Cicchitti’s/billiard hall on Cornwall Avenue, and Niki took charge of it.
Meanwhile, the State Street location began to falter.
“The building was falling apart,” Niki said. “Something went wrong with the power. And then we were sitting there having lunch, and the ceiling fell.”
So the family decided to move the State Street business over to Holly Street (where House of Orient is now located), while the billiard hall began to suffer as well.
The billiard hall had 12 pool tables, but did not offer beer, wine or smoking. Tom and Debbie began taking time off to play pool tournaments in Reno, and Niki ran both locations while caring for her young daughter and getting a divorce. Along with some serious financial problems, this was an unfortunate combination of events that catalyzed a downturn for both locations.
“The billiard hall sank everything,” said Niki, who was 18 at the time. “They took out too big of a loan. The overhead was too high. I was the only one there. I was getting divorced,” she said. “In the beginning we had two-hour waits on pizza. It went too fast … we opened up and there was a line. There was a line forever. I remember just looking at people after awhile … ‘you did what? You ordered food?’ Well then (business) really pulled back because people were like, ‘I don’t want to go some place that takes two hours.’”
The billiard hall closed at the end of 1998, and Cicchitti’s on Holly Street followed the black ball soon after.
A year later, after paying all the back rent to their Holly Street landlord, Bob Hall, Niki reopened Cicchitti’s on Holly Street, owned and operated it for a year and then sold it to her half sister, Shannon Schildt. She continued running the business, and then ran into health problems while giving birth to her second child.
“I just about died. I had a C-section and they cut my appendix by accident, which gave me peritonitis,” she said.
Today, Niki maintains equanimity about her sometimes-difficult childhood and early adulthood.
“It was hard,” she said. “I did it though. I went back to school and graduated with my class.
“It’s helped me now,” she said as an afterthought. “Because I’ve got a lot of life experience under my belt.”
While Niki is self-effacingly modest about her life, Debbie gushes about her daughter’s accomplishments.
“Niki was amazing,” she said of her daughter’s 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily schedule to make up school credits after having her first child. “She got really good grades. She didn’t want to get her GED; she wanted to earn her diploma. She passed with flying colors. The teachers loved her. She was a huge success story.”
But for the time being, Niki was done with the pizza business.
She recovered from her pregnancy complications after moving in with her mom and then began working as a bookkeeper.
Meanwhile, Schildt operated the Holly Street location and then sold it to a long-time employee, Tyler Custer (no relation to Niki), who moved it to Ferndale in 2004.
‘I’d hate to see it go’
Cicchitti’s in Ferndale closed in June, and the owner called Niki.
“He said the business was going downhill very fast, and asked if I’d be interested in taking it over,” she said.
Since 2000, Niki had worked as a bookkeeper at a construction company and, more recently, from home as a stay-at-home mom.
The call became cause for a family meeting.
“We discussed whether we should just shut it down. The whole family had little comments here and there amongst all of us about how it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster the past few years,” she said.
Niki said she would frequently get calls at home from acquaintances, asking when she’s going to bring Cicchitti’s back.
“I just decided that it has been a landmark in town that shouldn’t go away,” she said. “I’d hate to see it go.”
Niki took a deep breath and found a space on Railroad Avenue — the former location of Otion.
The new pizzeria will be called, simply, Cicchitti’s Pizza, and Niki wants it to be as similar to the original as possible.
That means checkered tablecloths, beer and wine and a corner for old arcade games — but no pool tables.
It means the family’s East Coast, Italian pizza recipes that call for handfuls (instead of cups) of dough, and crescent-shaped sprinkles (instead of tablespoons) of salt, recipes that craft slices so thin and long “you can take a piece, fold it in half and walk out the door,” Niki said.
Her brother and sister, Joshua and Tana, as well as her stepfather will all work short shifts with her.
Niki is not worried by the 1427 Railroad Ave. location’s previous struggles with panhandling and loitering. She said she thinks the city has done a good job of cleaning up the area and thinks that end of Railroad is the next big thing for downtown.
“It’s the last vacant area downtown, it’s going to get filled up,” she said, citing her neighbor, Café Adagio, which recently moved into the space on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Champion Street.
“I’m tickled pink, I think she’s going to do great,” Debbie said. “I love Cicchitti’s. I love the pizza. I love the restaurant business. And I do like to have a place to eat.”
Even Niki’s kids are in on it.
“My 13-year-old daughter wants a job, but I think she wants to skip the dishwashing position,” Niki chuckled. “My two middle kids want to wait tables, and my youngest son just wants to make friends with the guy who’s bringing in the video games.”
Niki plans to open the new location sometime this fall, and her whole family is rallying behind her.
“Niki is one of the most hard-working, honest people I’ve ever known,” Debbie said. “She has a lot of identity with Cicchitti’s. She grew up there.”
|Niki and her brother Joshua in front of the State Street Cicchitti’s in the early 1980s.|