His children can’t agree on when the photo was taken.
“It was that first year,” said Pete.
“No, I think it was the early 70’s,” insisted Jean Ann, the oldest.
In the faded, orange-tinged picture, their father, Ken Camilli, wears a white apron and a confident smile, a happy man with the world not on a string, but balanced on the wooden pizza paddle in his hand.
It looks like a Ken’s Special with homemade sausage, green peppers and onions, distributed with math-major precision.
The day before their father’s funeral last week, three of his four grown children: Jean Ann, John and Pete — Joe was on his way from Colorado — are sitting at a table in the family’s Lake Park pizza joint paging through a photo album.
Their late mother must have started it shortly after their dad opened Camilli’s Pizza in a shopping strip in 1968.
Remember how long our hair was? How crazy it got in here after high school football games? How mom would wait for him in the restaurant every night, even when we closed at 1 a.m.? How Dad would always tell pizza guys at other restaurants to put the pie back in for “30 more seconds?”
Ken Camilli, the Lake Park pizza man, who died April 13 at age 84, from complications of a stroke, insisted on a crunchy crust.
A family business
Time has tried to stand still in this neighborhood pizza joint in an old shopping strip on Park Avenue.
Mostly, it has succeeded.
At Camilli’s, customers sit on dinged bentwood chairs at the Formica tables. They come for “real” Chicago pizza, the kind with a thin, crispy crust, not too much sauce; plenty of cheese. It’s always cut in squares, never slices, served with a pile of flimsy paper plates.
The dough, with a hint of whole wheat for crunch, is still mixed in Ken’s original Hobart mixer, rolled into balls on the old knife-pocked dough table and flattened in the original dough roller.
“Heaven finally has some good pizza,” a friend wrote on his online obituary page.
If you lived in Lake Park, Riviera Beach or North Palm Beach in the last four or five decades, you probably know all about Camilli’s Pizza.
“We have former residents who stop here even before they visit their grandchildren,” said Pete.
Three generations of Camilli’s have worked at the restaurant, sometimes serving three generations of customers.
His children describe their father as gentle and generous, cherished by his friends and family, a born story teller who loved people.
And they loved him back.
“Dad never met a stranger,” said daughter, Jean Ann. “On the bench at the mall or walking through Costco’s, he always found a new friend.”
In his 20s, Pete, a computer engineer at the U.S. Navy’s West Palm Beach Autec office, managed the restaurant.
“Dad never passed a homeless person without reaching into his pocket and giving them some money,” he said.
When customers pulled the inevitable “I forgot my wallet” routine, “Dad looked them in the eye and gently told them to enjoy the pizza and bring the money the next time they came in. They usually did,” said Pete.
Father to four kids, Ken and his wife, Delores, who died two years ago, were parental figures to dozens of teenage employees through the years.
Some lived with them for a while, when they had no other place to go. Others just hung out, absorbing the warmth and love radiating from Ken and Delores.
Some just came for the pizza.
“My mother would mother them and my father would tell them to save their money,” said John, another of Camilli’s sons. He and his wife, Lilly, run the restaurant now.
Allison Washart, now 47, grew up next door to the Camilli family. She worked at the restaurant through high school and college. She even met her husband, Joe, at the restaurant.
Until the recession dried up people’s pizza money, the couple ran their own Camilli’s Pizza shop in Royal Palm Beach.
“Ken taught me everything about how to treat people,” said Washart, who today works in the marketing department for Testa’s Restaurant in Palm Beach. “I used his lessons every day.”
His lessons were too simple to be found in complicated business books about moving cheese, leaning in and thinking out of boxes.
“Work hard and be honest” is the way John summed up his father’s business philosophy.
And treat everybody like family, something John and Lilly took to heart.
When their daughter, Hannah, was in high school, her friend, Charriotte, and Charriotte’s little brother, Alexander, moved in with them.
“I started taking them to church and after a while, Lilly didn’t want to take them home,” said John.
They were devastated a year ago when Charriotte, 8 months pregnant, died shortly after her first wedding anniversary, from complications due to lupus.
Shortly afterward, they adopted Alexander, now 9, and destined to become another Camilli manning the oven at Camilli’s.
Never stop working
Ken Camilli was born in the wild, cold country of Minnesota’s iron range, not far from the Canadian border. He was an Italian with a Minnesota accent.
In the 1950s, an uncle went to Chicago and came home with a recipe for thin crust pizza, opening 20 pizza parlors across northern Minnesota. After three years as a college math major, Camilli opened his own shop in Duluth.
But his children say he longed for warmth and sunshine. In 1967, he and Delores headed south with four kids between 12 and 15.
At the time, Lake Park was cute and small. Close to Singer Island’s beach, it had a thriving downtown and a hankering for good pizza. Camilli’s pies were a hit from the start. Then, a small cheese pizza was $1.50; today it’s $10.75.
All the boys spent time working at the restaurant
“I was too shy,” said Jean Anne, who owns Imperial Frame Gallery in North Palm Beach.
A passel of grandchildren have also passed through to beef up their college funds. Pete’s son, Chase, 17, is the current grandchild-in-residence.
Until earlier this month, Camilli spent Sunday mornings ushering at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Riviera Beach. Every morning, he ran restaurant errands, picking up meat for the sausage and making bank deposits. Every night at 9:30 or 10, he’d call to ask, “How’s business?”
No one in the family knows how to relax, Lilly said.
A server with a pizza fresh out of the oven cautiously approaches the table of Camillis.
John takes one look.
“Put it back in for 30 more seconds,” he orders.
His siblings crack up.
“Dad would be so proud,” said Jean Ann.