In 1954, Gaspare (Jack) Fallucca and his wife, Providenza (Zina), immigrated to the United States, bringing with them cherished family recipes and the Italian tradition of family and food. In 1964, Jack and Zina opened an Italian bakery on Milwaukee’s east side, selling Italian breads, cookies and cannoli. They then acquired the hardware store next door and expanded the lot into a pizzeria named Palermo Villa, Inc.

Later, an owner of a local grocery chain urged Jack and Zina to enter the frozen food business. So, they began creating frozen pizza bread and pizzas, sold under the Palermo’s brand name, in an old bakery that was eventually renovated into a manufacturing facility.

The innovation continued to flow—in 1989, Palermo’s developed the first rising crust pizza, in 1993 the first premium private label pizza and in 2003 the first ultra-thin crust pizza.

Today, Palermo Villa is said to be one of the leading private label frozen pizza manufacturers in the nation, taking in about $300 million annually and placing No. 22 in Refrigerated & Frozen FoodsTop 150 Frozen Foods Processors report (March 2016 issue). And, its 250,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility produces 48 SKUs (for more on the plant, go to How Palermo's Slices Through the Sea of Sameness).

These are just a few reasons why Palermo Villa received Refrigerated & Frozen Foods’ 2016 Frozen Foods Processor of the Year.

Click here to see photos!

Restaurant operator turned frozen foods processor

Speed and innovation are key traits that make Palermo’s different from others in the frozen pizza category, says Giacomo Fallucca, president and CEO, and one of Jack and Zina’s three sons.

“Palermo’s is also one of the only major frozen pizza manufacturers with an authentic Italian heritage that is going on its third generation of family leadership. This passion comes through in every product we produce,” adds Giacomo. “For example, Sasquatch went from idea to on the shelf in less than six months. Our innovation track record is second to none. With the launches of Screamin’ Sicilian and Urban Pie, we’ve been the primary driver of creating the super-premium segment in frozen pizza.”

The Screamin’ Sicilian brand is said to be the first true super-premium frozen pizza on the market.

“Our idea was to create a frozen pizza experience like no other, blending the appeal found in a quality craft beer with bold tastes, then package it with an over-the-top attitude,” says Mike Pytlinski, senior brand director. “We start with a hearty crust baked in a marble hearth oven imported from Italy, and then top it with custom sauce blends, lots of Wisconsin cheeses and super-sized ingredients like fire-roasted vegetables, Italian meatballs, fresh mozzarella, rough-chopped pepperoni and Italian sausage.”

The Screamin’ Sicilian brand is also designed to reignite Millennial interest in frozen pizza, says Pytlinski.

“Our research showed this group had abandoned the category for other tastes. The brand has achieved strong shares in many leading retailers, and has helped energize a flat category by bringing Millennials and other new users back into frozen pizza and getting consumers to expand their category purchases,” he adds.

Palermo’s recently introduced Palermo’s Thin Crust, a value-brand pizza with quality ingredients that allows families to stock up on what some homes considered a key food staple. In addition to making pizza more accessible, Palermo’s also regularly donates pizzas to food pantries and non-profit organizations.

“Palermo’s is a small company with a big heart. Investing in the community with a quiet but passionate approach focused on causes that help alleviate hunger and support inner-city youth,” says Laurie Fallucca, chief creative officer. “This year, we expect to donate a million pizzas to help those struggling with hunger.”

To make a “big” footprint in the frozen pizza category, Palermo’s collaborated with Walmart, Bentonville, Ark., to develop Sasquatch Pizza Co.

 “In early summer 2015, inspired by our success with Screamin’ Sicilian, Walmart approached Palermo’s with a request to create a unique brand that would allow them to better compete with the larger offerings at pizzerias and appeal to larger households,” says Nick Fallucca, vice president of marketing and R&D. “We collaboratively developed the idea for a Sasquatch pizza, as that was a ‘big’ character with a ‘big’ appetite. We then quickly developed products, packaging and communications that reflected that brand image. The product launched at the end of 2015, and has filled a strategic role for Walmart. Most importantly, our family and Millennial consumers absolutely love Sasquatch Pizza Co.’s big bold taste and fun packaging.”

In March, Palermo’s expanded outside the frozen pizza case and into the frozen sandwich category with Screamin’ Sicilian Stromboli.

“We saw the same opportunity to create a super-premium item in the frozen sandwich category that we did in frozen pizza,” says Nick. “Like pizza, that category has been flat the past few years among younger consumers, and offered little innovation and had a reputation for average quality. We set out to create the absolute highest-quality sandwich that reflects the Screamin’ Sicilian promise of an ‘over-the-top experience’ with loads of high-quality ingredients.”

To stay on trend and give consumers what they want—and don’t really know they’re missing— Palermo’s constantly keeps track of consumer trends in grocery, restaurants and the world in general, adds Nick.

“Our new product process balances the entrepreneurial zeal that has defined Palermo’s for the last 50-plus years with the consumer rigor of many large consumer packaged goods companies,” he adds. “Our team members travel the country and globe in search of new food ideas. As a leading private label provider, we also benefit from very strong retail partnerships, allowing us to have our finger on the consumer pulse from many sources. We’ll develop many new concepts from these insights and quantitatively test them to identify the top ideas. We further refine those and regularly perform qualitative and quantitative consumer testing prior to launch.”

Click here to see photos!

Seeing is believing

For Palermo’s consumers, seeing is believing. In fact, in the course of developing Screamin’ Sicilian and Urban Pie, consumers noted that they preferred actually seeing the premium toppings vs. generic pictures of cooked pizzas on the pizza boxes.

“So, we created a wide, clear opening on the box to show off these premium products, and consumers have reacted very positively,” says Laurie. “The designs of both products are also unique to the category. We’ve used craft paper stock for Screamin’ Sicilian to reflect the craft nature of the product, and the graphics reflect the brand’s over-the-top personality. For Urban Pie, we wanted to take consumers on a culinary journey to a restaurant in some of the country’s well-known neighborhoods. Thus, the graphics reflect the feel of the specials one might find on the chalkboard of one of those restaurants, and the variety names were chosen to reflect those well-known locations.”

In addition to premium packaging that provides transparency, Palermo’s research reveals that the trend of “premium-ization” is here to stay.

“In countless categories like beverages, burgers and even in pizza restaurants, our research has revealed that consumers are willing to pay a premium (or even a super-premium) price for products that truly deliver a premium experience,” says Pytlinski. “We had not seen this trend in frozen pizza until we brought Screamin’ Sicilian and Urban Pie to the market.” 

And, despite consumer backlash to frozen foods, especially frozen pizza, the trend toward cleaner ingredients helps Palermo’s snag a piece of the consumer pie, so to speak.

“There is a trend toward foods with cleaner ingredients,” says Giacomo. “Earlier this year, we reformulated our entire Primo Thin line, so it contained no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Consumers also see frozen pizza as an indulgence and crave great taste.”

As for the future of Palermo’s, it’s one of growth, innovation and giving back, adds Giacomo.

“In order to continue giving back to our local community, Palermo’s needs to continue to grow. In order to grow, Palermo’s needs to innovate,” he says. “The consumer packaged goods business is ever changing, so Palermo’s has to stay one or two steps ahead of trends and the competition. One of the areas where we believe it is crucial to innovate is in clean ingredients and processes. Not only is this important to the consumer, but it is also important, as we try to provide a healthier product as well.”