Olympic Pizza has been on the corner of Cleveland Street and Massachusetts Avenue for 47 years, owned by three successive Greek families. Tom Vakalfotis purchased it in 1996, and has been running the tiny restaurant for the past 20 years. Businesses have come and gone but Olympic Pizza is still here, and Tom is still using the pizza recipe that was passed down by the previous owners. This makes his faithful customers happy. Some of them have been coming for 2 or 3 generations themselves; “they like this pizza, so I keep it the same” Tom reports with pride. Although the décor inside is sparse – since delivery and take-out are a large part of their business – the feeling is quite the opposite. The atmosphere is warm and enticing as aromas of fresh baked dough and melted cheese waft through your olfactory senses.
Tom came from Thessaloniki, a city in Greece. What bought him here? The need to be successful? Well, perhaps. Tom saw hard times coming for his country despite investment from the newly joined European Union. “The crisis they have [in Greece] today started 45 years ago. [If] I give you eggs to grow chickens, and you use them to make omelets, do you have any chicks? That’s what they do…. They go for the easy life.”
But mostly it was love that drew him. His wife Anastasia – who goes by Sue at Olympic – was born in the same town but left Greece for America at age 7 with her family. During a vacation back home, she and Tom met. He followed her back to the U.S. and they have been happily married for more than 30 years.
Tom has worked hard to establish himself in a new country, starting with learning the language. Growing up in Greece, Tom’s father urged him to study English but “I made fun of the class,” Tom explains; he never guessed his life path would take him to the U.S. Years later, on the plane taking him to his new home, the flight attendant asked if he wanted cream and sugar in his coffee. Not understanding, Tom said “no.” And got served black coffee, which he hates. “Always, I drink sweet my coffee, but I didn’t know” he exclaims in his thick Greek accent, laughing at his younger self. Drinking bitter coffee that day was the price for not having taken his father’s advice, not having taken education seriously. “I never forgot that,” Tom says, “You learn from your own experiences, your own life.”
Starting out as a dishwasher, Tom learned to cook, working in various locations in Watertown and Cambridge. It was a hard life, working 14-hour days. He opened a pizza parlor in Lawrence, MA but the town was too riddled with gun violence and other issues. He did not want to raise his children in that environment. When he had an opportunity to buy Olympic and become part of the Capitol Square neighborhood he didn’t hesitate. In fact, he bought the whole building, and security along with it. He now rents spaces to Barismo, 13 Forest Gallery, Something Sweet without Wheat, a laundromat and a barbershop. The recipe for his success? “You need to respect everybody. If you respect the people, they will come here. Safe neighborhood, trusting. Everyone can come here and everyone will be treated equal.”
Tom’s son Costa – who studied criminal justice – adds his perspective on the store’s safe atmosphere: “Here, everyone’s OK. Even if someone comes in here and let’s say they have a criminal record, and they see a policeman eating here. Doesn’t matter. There’s no problem. Everyone is treated equal.”
When charging $8.05 for an order, Olympic Pizza will sometimes waive the five cents. It’s a small yet meaningful gesture. They won’t be haggling over a few pennies with the neighborhood folks. Some have been ‘regulars’ for decades. Many have become friends, sending Christmas cards and giving gifts to Tom’s kids to celebrate college graduation.
Tom’s children grew up around the pizza shop, watched over by their mother and grandmother. When they were young, his two sons would play soccer outside. Everyone in the neighborhood knew them. They were expected to pitch in and help sustain the family business. “Once we could see over the counter we would pick up the phone, help with the register…we were happy to help” explains Costa. But Tom made sure they did their schoolwork too, and headed for college. “if you came in 9 years ago, you would see this table full of books, my daughter was studying for Bentley. Now she has a masters!" Tom says with pride. Tom’s father had made sure that Tom had gotten an education back in Greece, and Tom was determined to give his kids the same here. As he says: “I want to give something to them that they never lose – education. They never lose that….you have a degree, you have opportunity.”
Tom compares running his business to raising a child, and describes the special challenge of a restaurant: “ You have to learn to cook good, fast, and clean…and you have to do it SMILING!” Tom’s life has been defined by his hard work, by his love of family and his belief in respect. As an immigrant, he is proud of where he has landed. Although he loves the business of feeding others at Olympic Pizza, once home the tables are turned. With a smile on his face, he says adamantly, “If I go to my house I never even touch one egg!”
By Nilou Moochhala