Upper Darby >> If ever there was a picture of the American Dream, Secane resident Andrew Cocco is it. Now a well-known, local entrepreneur whose name has become linked to successful pizza restaurants and other real estate investments throughout Delaware and Chester counties, Cocco traveled to America from the hills of Ferentino, Italy, as a young boy and began his own shoe shine business with only $5 that he borrowed from his father and lots of hard work, courage and determination.
The successful businessman, whose friends call him “Andy,” chronicles his interesting real-life journey in a recently published book, “It’s a Hell of a Life!”
From growing up in a humble, Socialist family during World War II to his immigration to America, where he went on to become a successful John Hancock corporate executive and pizza store owner, the contents of the 275-page book explores Cocco’s life path, accompanied by many photos, charts and other information that make the story easy-to-read for all ages.
Available through Amazon and at Cocco’s restaurants, “It’s a Hell of a Life!” was released during the celebration of Cocco’s Pizza’s 40th anniversary this year. The book was written by Sandra Clitter of Media, who met Cocco while eating lunch at a Cocco’s Pizza restaurant. As the sociable Cocco often does with his customers, he would talk and tell stories about his life. Finally, he asked her one day, “Are you writing this down?” and according to Clitter, that is basically how the book began to take form. They developed a friendship as she wrote down his stories.
“I was more of a transcriber or recorder,” Clitter said modestly in a recent interview. “I wrote things down exactly as Mr. Cocco told them to me and then just compiled them into a book for him. His story was so intriguing that some days I would have to remind myself to keep writing. I would stop to listen because I would get fully engaged in all of these incredibly interesting stories!”
Written in a light, conversational style, the reader can almost hear the 83-year-old Cocco reminiscing about his jobs, his marriage, his children and his earlier upbringing with his siblings and other relatives. Along the way, the reader gets a first-hand experience view of history, geography, value formation and life lessons.
Each little anecdote is told in a folksy, down-to-earth way as if Cocco is sitting in a room with the reader, having a conversation. He talks about his parents, grandparents and siblings, back in the Old Country. His parents, Pietro and Barbara, lived in a house with 16 other family members. In 1943, his brother bopped him in the eye during a pillow fight and he had to leave the small village of Ferentino to see a doctor in Rome. It was the first that he left his hometown since his birth in 1933. In Rome, he saw things he could never have imagined like electricity, telephones, faucets, indoor plumbing, music, newspapers, cars, airplanes and kids on bicycles and roller skates.
Cocco’s life changed during World War II when Mussolini aligned himself with the Germans and was forced from power in Italy in 1948. Bombings and war became an everyday backdrop of life for Cocco.
“After a while, I actually started heading across the countryside to get a better view of the bombings,” Cocco wrote. “They were such a part of life that I treated them as my entertainment, rather than being frightened by the war. If I had worn a watch, I would have set it at 10 a.m., as the B-25 or B-26 planes flew overhead every day.”
The Cocco family fled with the clothes on their back and a few possessions that they could carry after Germans forcefully came to occupy their home. In 1948, the family boarded a ship to America, arriving at Ellis Island and then settling in the “Hell’s Kitchen” section of New York City. Cocco said he never had an actual bathroom until their first home here. His father, who had come over years earlier to work, was already an American citizen so that also made Andrew a citizen by birthright.
Enzo, who later changed his name to Andrew after arriving in NYC, said that he decided to write a book about his life to make remind people how great America is and that they should never lose sight of what a wonderful nation it is here.
“Nowhere on earth could a kid who didn’t have a good education grow up and achieve all of the things that I achieved,” Cocco wrote. “I love the United States. I love the American flag. I love what it stands for and I love what it allowed me to do. I couldn’t have accomplished everything that I have accomplished anywhere else in the world. It just wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.”
Cocco expanded his shoe shine corner business, sold newspapers and became the sole breadwinner for the family after his father was hospitalized with tuberculosis. The family eventually moved down to the Overbrook section of Philadelphia, at the urging of friends who lived there, because the cost of living was lower. Cocco pumped gas, signed up for vocational school, met his wife Sara at a St. Donato’s dance and got drafted. Instead of serving in the Army for two years, Cocco enlisted in the Air Force for four and ending up serving for eight. After moving around, Cocco was stationed in Fort Worth, Texas after training as an airplane mechanic. He came home for his sweetheart Sara, married her in 1954 in Philadelphia, honeymooned in Wildwood and brought her back to Texas to live. Cocco purchased an $1800 trailer as their first home so the couple would not have to pay rent. When he sold it for close to the same price, he said, his bug for real estate investing was born.
By the time he moved back to the Philadelphia area, his son Andy was already born. Son Michael followed, along with daughters Lisa and Linda. He took a job in a wire factory and in 1959, the couple purchased their first home in Secane, where Cocco still resides today.
“Sara made it clear that she didn’t want to raise our kids in a driveway in the city,” Cocco laughed. “She wanted a yard where they could play.”
At the suggestion of his neighbor George Gothier, Cocco began selling insurance. From knocking door-to-door selling policies in his early years, Cocco advanced all the way up to district manager at the John Hancock Chestnut Street office. Along the way, he made many friends, learned to golf a good game, and began dabbling in real estate.
In the 1970s, his children were graduating and entering college and careers. Andy became a pharmacist, which he still is today. Linda went to St. Joseph University and works in IT at DuPont and Lisa became a nurse. Michael became the businessman, following in his father’s footsteps.
While in high school, Michael worked in Pepe’s Pizza in Glenolden and liked the pizza business. Andrew wanted him to get his own place. Together, they purchased what is the original Cocco’s Pizza on Chester Pike in Norwood in 1978. The book tells the whole story, of the kinks that had to be ironed out to make the business successful and how the father-son business partners went on to purchase their second location at 540 Oak Avenue in the Primos section of Upper Darby which is still thriving today.
From there, the Coccos purchased What’s The Scoop next door in Primos, as well as all the laundromat and warehouse on the property. Today, Michael Cocco operates the Cocco’s Pizza restaurant, and Michael and his wife of 32 years, Theresa, run the Gelateria next door, where Theresa makes all their gelato and baked goods from scratch.
The Cocco name has become synonymous with pizza in Delaware County and the older Cocco said people are often surprised to hear Andrew, to this day, has never made a pizza.
“Michael has worked hard to build this business into what it is today,” the proud father stated. “We are a good team. I am really good with numbers and Michael is a genuine people person. He loves people!”
Michael, a member of the Ridley High School Class of 1975, proudly awards a Cocco’s Scholarship to a student from Interboro or Ridley High School each year. Michael and his family are active members of the community. The Cocco’s restaurant often holds spirit nights and other fundraisers for local schools and other community organizations.
Andrew said he and Michael have a keen eye for observing those who are hard workers and can make a go at owning their own businesses. They have set some of those employees up in their own Cocco’s Pizza shops.
“I always make sure the right people are behind the Cocco’s name,” Andrew remarked. “I didn’t believe in myself or have too many people who really encouraged me when I was younger so I try to give self-confidence to those starting in business and let them know that I believe in them.”
The Coccos still fully own and operate the original Cocco’s Pizza in Norwood at 1 Chester Pike in Norwood, as well as the Primos location at 540 Oak Ave. and the Gelateria. at 550 Oak Avenue. The rest of the Cocco’s restaurants have expanded beyond the limits of the family. Individual owners can operate the franchises as they wish and can set their own menu and give their places individual flairs, but they must purchase their dough, sauce and cheese from the Cocco’s family so that customers get a consistent Cocco’s Pizza at all of the restaurants. Cocco’s Pizza restaurants are in Primos, Norwood, Brookhaven, Aston, Folsom, Downingtown, Drexel Hill, Linwood and Springfield.
“We want our owners to be successful,” Cocco explained. “We help them in every way possible. Their restaurants are bearing our name so their success is a reflection on us.”
The entire franchise opportunity is outlined, with charts and details in the new book.
“I have to bring it back to America again,” Cocco said. “Where else could you imagine a young boy, with little education or money, growing up to lead such a wonderful life? Yes, I worked hard, but where else could I have turned $5 that my father lent me into over a dozen, solid, real estate investments and more than five active businesses—the number change continually. We buy real estate. We sell real estate. We buy businesses. We sell businesses. We get businesses back. We open new businesses and we close some—but luckily that doesn’t happen too often.”
Andrew retired from the insurance business after 31 years at John Hancock in 1988. He and Sara traveled the world, visiting 32 states and almost fifty countries. They bought a vacation home up on Lake Champlain in New York where they enjoyed many years with family and friends. Cocco even owned a race horse at one time. The successful businessman returned to his roots in Ferentino, Italy a total of forty times. His book includes the retelling of the touching last time that he went to see his mother Barbara before she passed away in 1986.
Andrew invested in other real estate and spent many hours on the greens playing his favorite sport, where he can still be found today. After retirement, he built all of his grandchildren wooden rocking horses after they were born. The book intertwines all of these extra little facts about Cocco’s life among the major ups and downs that make up one’s colorful journey through life.
His loving wife of 62 years passed away last year. Sara had encouraged him to write the book and had lived to see it written, but not published.
“Originally, I wanted my grandson, who’s a professor of English, to write my book,” Cocco laughed. “But my wife said, ‘Knowing you for sixty some years, I know the only way you will ever get this done is if you write it yourself!”
Cocco said his wife liked and approved of the job that Clitter did as the writer, and felt it was an accurate version of their family’s story.
It’s a Hell of a Life gets into details about Cocco’s family relationships, his friendships and how he seized opportunities. He calls them “forks in the road of his life” because they changed his future.
With four children, ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Andrew says it is important to let the younger generations know how lucky they are to live in America and to teach them love and respect of this country. According to Andrew, every Cocco’s Pizza restaurant has a flag flying high out front.
“I wrote this book because I want all Americans to realize how lucky they are to live in the greatest country on earth. It really bothers me when I see people not respecting our flag, not respecting our country. People often take it for granted,” Cocco said sadly but with great hope. “I want kids to read my book so that they will see, with common sense and hard work, anything can be accomplished here!”