ATLANTIC CITY — Tony’s Baltimore Grill at Iowa and Atlantic Avenues is not the kind of joint you’d typically associate with an art show. Sure, the sausage pizza is itself a work of art, night after night, for 95 years, and that old school anchovy-forward antipasto trends toward perfection.
Sure, there’s the red glow of that 24-hour bar, curving around to offer both privacy and collegiality, the red Naugahyde bar booths, the red-and-black checkerboard tile floors, the old mounted jukeboxes at every table in the dining room, the one-size pie that recalls the lids of old pretzel tins, the view into the kitchen past the women taking phoned-in orders, Nino behind the bar, all the first dates that started at Tony’s, and the nights that ended there.
All a certain Atlantic City type of beauty.
But actual art?
That’s where the new Union Hall Arts comes in, with its studio installed in the old glaziers union hall just next door (you’ve walked by it but never noticed), with live figure drawing classes, and, opening Friday, “The Pizza Box Show.”
There are 60 works of art, all painted directly on the iconic Tony’s pizza boxes or incorporating the boxes into the art. Collectors were invited to a preview on Thursday.
The lively and inventive exhibition features all of its works for sale for $150 and up (the pizza itself is $12.95 for a plain). Some artists took the challenge more literally than others, rendering A.C.-themed or pizza-themed works, while others used the box merely as an oddly shaped canvas.
“No instructions,” said Union Hall cofounder Jim Dessicino, a sculptor who held his wedding reception at Tony’s. “Just use the pizza box.”
In That Red Glow by Amanda Auble, that distinctive Tony’s red vibe is re-created over two people huddled over the rounded corner of the bar.
In Whale Box on Balloons by Eduardo Jimenez, an industrial designer, the Tony’s boxes are in strips formed into a whale, the black writing still visible. Jimenez collects trash from the beach, including the balloons in the piece. (He used the “O” from the pizza box for the whale’s eyeball).
‘It broke your heart’
Meanwhile, next door, the new owners of Tony’s have been performing some radical art of their own. Turns out, they’re old-school purists.
“It broke your heart,” said Union Hall cofounder Zach Kazten of the laminate flooring that pretty much ruined the whole Tony’s vibe. “One night, [the owner] said to me, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ and he ripped out the floors that night.”
The new owner, Nolan Aspell of Hainesport, did not respond to requests for interviews, apparently preferring to let the actions, and their social media accounts, do the preaching. But, oh, what a sermon!
First, they brought back the floors, those iconic black and red checks, which the previous owners had ripped out and replaced with blond wood-like planks. Then, the old coat hooks and sconces.
Next, the bar booths. Sure, the old red ones were ripped in spots. But the old owners replaced them with black leather. The new owners, who bought the place in 2021 for just under $1 million, brought back the old red, stitched with care by Heather Shawne.
“Red Naugahyde is the color and texture of our clients childhood,” Tony’s posted on Instagram. “In the middle of dinner service on Saturday we changed out our black booths & reinstalled a missing part of our soul. Why? It couldn’t wait another second.”
They even brought back the old pay phone, though it doesn’t work.
Phrenology and pizza toppings
Dave Quaile, the Philly pizza maker known as Freelance, cut up one of Tony’s pizza boxes but used his own box as the basis for the art. The rest of the works are strictly Tony’s boxes.
“It was a challenge,” said German Acosta, an Atlantic City sculptor, whose pizza box work is called Leslie. “I used the pizza box as a frame. It’s a good thing what they’re doing, the gallery and Tony’s Baltimore Grill; it’s a good foundation for people around here.”
In Know Thyself by Randi Meekins, perhaps the most relatable, a phrenology skull is divided into sections, each representing something on Tony’s menu: pineapple and ravioli are among the largest sections, with spaghetti, meatballs, and pizza close behind.
Heather Deegan Hires opened up two boxes for a relief piece of a torso mannequin she calls Ode to Dali, which has the painter’s mustache tickling a slice of pepperoni pizza whose dripping cheese is going into the mouth of a woman emerging from a flower.
In Consumables, by welder Katie Howie, welding materials are used in a self-portrait on the box.
Some of the artists are regulars in Union Hall Arts drawing classes held at the studio, and Dessicino, who also runs the Rome Art Residencies, says he sees a sort of “Atlantic City style” showing up in their work.
“They have this flat, abstract thing going on,” Dessicino said. “They didn’t all know each other a few months ago, and they’re having a conversation. It’s really cool.”
“A lot of people are really proud of where they’re from. You can see that in the artwork. They’re also happy to make the connection between the studio and this restaurant.”
Val Feo took two boxes to turn into a canvas for an abstract portrait, while her mom, Helen, used a simple pen (the most natural medium for a pizza box, arguably), to cover an open box with a cast of local characters she called Atlantic City Buzz. They draw at the studio every Wednesday.
Paris in the ‘20s?
Tony’s has been at the corner of Atlantic and Iowa since 1954, when a fire at the original Connecticut Avenue location forced them to move into the old Paddy McGahn’s Piano Bar. Its pizza boxes feature the basic menu printed in black.
Dessicino and Katzen, who has worked on other projects with the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, as well as the Back Sov Skatepark, were brought together after both met Tony’s new owner, who was looking to make connections in the Atlantic City community.
Dessicino said he’d been unable to find an affordable space for his studio idea, and Tony’s made it happen. They reworked the glazier union’s logo to replace the two men holding a piece of glass with the Liberty Bell on it to be two men holding a canvas with Atlantic City’s Albany Avenue Monument on it.
The studio’s life drawing classes have become very popular, scheduled to accommodate the many artists who are also working in the hospitality industry,
Their endeavor is only helped by the proximity to Tony’s.
“It was very important in trying to build a grassroots arts scene in Atlantic City,” Dessicino said. “There’s always a bar connected to every new art movement.”
He even approves of the recent addition of outside seating on Atlantic Avenue, a bit of a departure for Tony’s, but a gesture toward a more walkable downtown
“There should be street life in Atlantic City,” Dessicino said.
“We’re literally right next door,” Katzen says. “The bar, it’s become a hipster place. We compare it to Paris in the ‘20s. The poets, the artists, 24 hours. Seeing artists, it warms my heart.”
“The Pizza Box Show” is at Union Hall Arts, 2806 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City, through Aug. 24. Hours are Monday and Wednesday 3 to 6 p.m. or by appointment. 609-878-6000 or email@example.com. Tony’s Baltimore Grill is always open.
Staff researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.