On Dec. 1, 1958, the Princeton Township Committee met to discuss a newly passed ordinance that allowed restaurants to sell alcohol on Sundays. There was just one caveat: The booze had to be served with bona fide meals. The debate that ensued that night was covered in a Daily Princetonian article under the headline, “What Is a Meal? Pizza Man, Fairman Disagree.”
“One entree is not a meal. The basis of a meal is several courses of differing types. A bar or tavern which exists primarily to sell alcoholic beverages cannot be confused with a restaurant which primarily sells food,” said R. Kenneth Fairman ’34, a member of the committee. Fairman earned eight varsity letters in basketball, football, and lacrosse, and became the head coach of the men’s basketball team one year after graduating. He went on to serve as the athletics director for 32 years and mayor of Princeton from 1959-63.
Also in attendance was Sebastiano Conte, an immigrant from the Italian island of Ischia and the owner of Conte’s Tavern, which he opened at 339 Witherspoon St. in 1936. “Spaghetti,” said Conte, “is not a meal, unless it is served with meatballs or sausage … . Pizza is a meal no matter how it is served. I [invite] the members of the committee down to my place and if they eat one of my pizzas with mozzarella and anchovies, they will admit it’s a meal.”
The committee members didn’t take Conte up on the offer. They sided with Fairman, and it wasn’t until 1979 that the township deemed the meal clause discriminatory.
By the 1980s, Conte’s had become a second home for Princeton athletics. After nearly every game, coaching staff from the men’s basketball and soccer teams would trek down Witherspoon Street to feast on pies. How did the Conte’s ritual become such a vital part of Princeton athletics? Into the game for the Tigers, Coach Pete Carril.
Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to a Spanish immigrant and steel mill worker who raised him as a single father, Carril stood just 5-foot-7, but his impact on Princeton basketball was colossal. He coached the Tigers from 1967-96 and holds the Princeton record for career victories with a record of 514-261. He coached the team to 13 Ivy League championships and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances. He died in August 2022 at the age of 92.
Carril started going to Conte’s in the ’70s as he was piling up victories on the basketball court. “Conte’s was his place with the guys,” says his daughter, Lisa Carril. “Everyone loved their pizza and he loved going down there. They made him feel like family. He could be himself. It had a special place in his heart.”
As the years passed, Carill started bringing other coaches to the restaurant. One of them, Bob Bradley ’80, would go on to coach the U.S. men’s national soccer team in the 2010 World Cup.
“When I came back to Princeton as a coach [in 1984], Conte’s was a spot some of us would go after Princeton basketball games,” remembers Bradley. “It was a spot where, as a young coach, I learned a lot from being around Pete Carril. Pete would hold court. You knew if you went down there there would be other coaches talking about the game.”
In the ’80s, most major cable networks in the U.S. didn’t broadcast European sports. Conte’s made sure to subscribe to the right channels. “You couldn’t always get games easily back then,” says Bradley. “Whether it was Serie A, or the Italian National Team, or the European Cup as [the UEFA Champions League] was called back then, Conte’s was a place you knew they’d always have the game on.”
When Bradley held a training camp for the U.S. national team on campus leading up to the 2010 World Cup, he made sure to stop in for a pie. “I brought the coaching staff of the national team down to Conte’s so we could all enjoy,” he says. A photo of Bradley and the Conte’s pizza chefs is proudly displayed on the wall of the restaurant to this day.
Howard Levy ’85, who played center on the basketball team and was an assistant coach for the Tigers for 11 years, was another member of Carril’s entourage. Levy is 6-foot-10. In physical stature, he and Carril couldn’t have been more different. In terms of pizza and basketball, they saw eye to eye. “Coach Carril and Conte’s are synonymous in a lot of ways,” he says with a smile. “We’d go after every game. The game wasn’t really over until we finished rehashing it at Conte’s.”
Over time, professors who were fans of the team started joining the coaches for pizza. They included Marvin Bressler, chair of the sociology department; Gene Grossman, chair of the economics department; and Hal Feiveson, professor emeritus in public and international affairs.
“I always got a kick out of the fact that these guys were the top of their field in real important subjects, and they’d be hanging on every word we said about the game,” says Levy. “We had a lot of important conversations. It wasn’t only basketball. You got over the game and you started talking about life. There were a lot of great times spent there and it’s still continuing to this day.”
Current men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson ’98 came to Conte’s with Carril on his recruiting visit as a high-schooler. “I remember exactly what table we were at,” says Henderson. “That’s when Coach would get direct with you about all the things you needed to do better if you wanted to come to Princeton. He’d say ‘We think we like you, but you could dribble better with your left hand and you’re just an OK shooter.’ That honesty was in the fabric of who he was and who we are.”
Henderson recalls that when the pizza would arrive Carril would hold the first slice out in front of his nose to see if the bottom was crisped. “He liked to have it perfectly toasted on the bottom, which Conte’s does so well,” says Henderson. “If it sagged a little bit, he’d get this wry smile.”
Leading up to the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16 last spring, Henderson took the team to Conte’s several Wednesdays in a row. “We started going at the end of the season, which was when we were playing our best basketball too,” says guard Matt Allocco ’24. “Spending that time together really helped our chemistry and continued to build our friendships.”
Allocco, who is known for his relentless work ethic on the court, was impressed by the hustle displayed by the Conte’s staff. “We had a huge group of above-average-size guys so we ate a lot of food. I appreciate them. We worked them hard.”
While the rest of the town has seen restaurants come and go over the years, little has changed at Conte’s. Enter through the door in the back parking lot — never the front, of course — and you’ll find the same gold walls, dim lighting, brown trim, multi-colored speckled floors, and rug-wrapped pillars they’ve had since the 1950s.
The bar, built with red tiles spelling out Conte’s, is the longest in Princeton at 58 feet. On a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night you’ll wait 30 minutes to an hour for a table as the servers, always members of the family or close friends, carry steaming thin crust pies past the noses and eyes of customers waiting to be seated.
Richard Rein ’69 wrote an article published in Town Topics in 1982 titled, “Conte’s Changing Hands, But Little Else, New Owners Promise,” a promise he confirms they’ve kept.
“They haven’t tried to change,” Rein says. “They could’ve tried gimmicks to try and compete with the more upscale-type establishments, but they’ve stayed true to who they are. … I think a big part of that is that they’ve kept it in the family.”
Ciro Baldino, the “new owner” from Rein’s article, still owns the restaurant. He is the nephew of Lou Lucullo, who married Sebastiano Conte’s daughter and ran the restaurant for 15 years. Lucullo was born in Italy and came to Princeton when his father got a job as a groundskeeper for the baseball fields on campus. “You don’t kill the chicken who lays the egg,” says Baldino. “Why change anything when we were doing good to begin with?”
For the family, embracing sports culture, and soccer especially, was natural. “My family is pretty crazy about soccer from our roots in Italy,” says Salvy Baldino, Ciro’s nephew, who played at Princeton High School and went on to coach there. Ciro was also a standout on the Princeton High team in the early ’70s. “We knew Ciro was a good player,” says Bradley. “We knew the Baldinos were soccer people.”
Julie Shackford, who coached the Princeton women’s soccer team from 1995-2014, was a regular at Conte’s. When she gave birth to her first daughter, Kayliegh, in 2001, Ciro Baldino arrived at Princeton Medical Center with a pizza. When twins Cameron and Keegan were born a year later, Baldino showed up with two pies.
“Walking into Conte’s was always like walking home,” she says. “Our staff would sit at the bar dissecting games and eating way too much pizza.”
Bryce Chase ’63, who is in his sixth decade as a coach with the men’s lacrosse program, has been going to Conte’s since his youth growing up in Princeton. “My first pizza was in June or July of 1952,” he says, “It hasn’t changed. There’ve been efforts. People have said, ‘Jesus, move the bar back! Get more tables! Get a broader menu.’ But they haven’t. And thank God for that.
“After a while they get to know you. At a certain point you walk in and as you’re walking up to the bar they’ve already popped the Rolling Rock.” Through the years Rolling Rock has remained the signature beer at Conte’s.
When reached for comment about Chase’s storied pizza eating capabilities, John McPhee ’53, referred to Chase as an “esophageal incinerator.”
Every year, Chase takes the freshman lacrosse players to the restaurant. “I discovered a number of years ago that most of the students weren’t aware it exists,” he says. “The issue was magnified because they don’t deliver. I thought my duty to the freshmen would be to introduce them to Conte’s as part of their welcome to Princeton.”
As Chase notes, Conte’s is off the radar for most Princeton undergraduates. Despite the distance from campus, some undergrads always find their way to the restaurant.
Mo Abdelhamid ’20 was a goalkeeper on the soccer team and remembers visiting Conte’s with four or five teammates from the New York-New Jersey area. “We were what you would call ‘pizza aficionados’ or ‘pizza men,’” he says. “We tried all the places in the area, but our favorite was Conte’s.”
One of those pizza men was Kevin O’Toole ’22, a soccer star for the Tigers who now plays forward in MLS for New York City FC. O’Toole says he went to Conte’s with his girlfriend, Emma Davis ’22, for their first Valentine’s Day date. Davis played for the women’s soccer team at Princeton. “That’s a really special memory. Conte’s is a special place,” says O’Toole.
The pizzas at Conte’s haven’t changed, but everyone seems to have a different Conte’s order. “I like sausage and red peppers. Well-done. Crispy,” says Chase. Bradley adds onions but agrees with Chase on the sausage and peppers. Levy, who raised three children, Lior, Mia, and Noa, in Princeton with his wife, Riva, says the matter is out of his hands. “It’s whatever Lior wants,” he says. “He’ll order ‘the number of people-plus one’ pizzas. We always have way too much.”
On the other hand, Scott Bechler ‘17, a Princeton native who introduced his college friends to Conte’s, can’t get enough. “There’s just something about those pepperonis,” says Bechler. “Those are the crispiest pepperonis I’ve ever had. You can quote me on that.”
In an age when corporate restaurant chains are popping up faster than the public can scarf down their salad bowls, Conte’s is a rarity: A privately owned local establishment firmly grounded in its character and history. The Princeton athletics staff fell in love with the authenticity and the hospitality, and Conte’s grew to be their home.
Let the record show that Sebastiano Conte was right. For the Princeton athletics community and many others, Conte’s is a meal and much more.
Jake Caddeau ’20 is a freelance writer and screenwriter. His current project, Ludlow, is based on the true story of the Ludlow Massacre and Colorado Coalfield War of 1913-14, the deadliest labor strike in U.S. history.