One of Pittsburgh's favorite sons, Dan Marino, will be in town this weekend tossing around something locals may not associate with the former Central Catholic High/University of Pittsburgh/Miami Dolphins quarterback: pizza.
Mr. Marino is one of the equity partners in a Florida-based restaurant group that's in rapid growth mode, expanding to 30 restaurants with several openings this year alone.
On Saturday, Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza is set to open its first Pittsburgh-area location with a site in the Settlers Ridge development in Robinson. A second location is planned next year in Monroeville.
While Mr. Marino's sports celebrity status will draw attention -- media interviews are planned for today and the chain's Facebook page is posting video of great moments in his career -- the real name in Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza is Anthony Bruno, a New York native who worked with his dad for 20 years at Anthony's Runway 84 restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., before opening the first pizza joint in 2002.
Mr. Marino had been a customer at the original restaurant, and the two men became friends. When Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza planned to open a second location a few years later, Mr. Marino invested in the restaurant built in Weston, Fla., where he lived.
The coal-burning oven technique that is one of Anthony's claims to differentiation isn't new, Mr. Bruno said. He credited immigrants to New York in the last century with figuring out the cheap fuel could burn hotter than wood and create less smoke. Whether coal will be perceived as a novelty in Southwestern Pennsylvania remains to be seen.
In addition, Mr. Bruno touts his restaurant's salads and chicken wings. The average dinner ticket runs about $17, with the average lunch about $11 per person.
In 2010, Anthony's had $37 million in sales, up more than 60 percent from the previous year, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food consulting group.
The chain's continuing growth this year came about in part because people in-house were ready to step in to run new locations, Mr. Bruno said. "This was a good year for us," he said, adding that next year might see fewer openings.
One of the keys to a well-performing restaurant is real estate, he said. "Good locations are still hard to find."
Wherever locations are chosen -- from New Jersey to Las Vegas -- Mr. Marino tries to show up to lend his marketing power to get the ball moving.
In Pittsburgh's case, he was in the region twice to scout sites with Mr. Bruno, and he thinks Oakland and Wexford might be good places for future locations. His brother-in-law, KDKA broadcaster Larry Richert, is also involved in bringing the restaurants here.
Anthony's has gotten bigger than Mr. Marino expected back when he got into the business with his friend.
"When we first started, I think our goal was just to get it started and have fun with it and see where it went," Mr. Marino said, in a separate phone interview. He said he hadn't really known if the restaurants would take off, but now the concept is proving it can work in different markets.
Sports figures seem to be a natural fit for the restaurant business, as anyone who has dined at (Mike) Ditka's restaurant in Robinson or the Jerome Bettis Grille 36 on the North Shore might know. Mr. Marino used to have restaurants with his name on them, too, although he said this one is Mr. Bruno's creation.
Asked why the athlete-restaurant connection seems so popular, Mr. Marino stopped and thought and then said, "I don't know," with a laugh. Perhaps consumers buy into the idea that guys who compete athletically know something about good food.
And even Hall of Famers have to make a living. Mr. Marino earlier this year also put his name on a line of nutritional supplements from VitaCore Health Products.
The former Pittsburgher, regularly in front of football fans in his role as a studio analyst for CBS coverage of the NFL, still draws a crowd. "You go anywhere with him, it's incredible," Mr. Bruno said. That makes for great restaurant openings, he said.
After that, he said, it's up to the staff to make something people want to eat.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or 412-263-2018.