If you didn't know better, you might think that "Mack & Manco" is how they say "pizza" in Ocean City.

After all, for more than 50 years along the town's famed boardwalk, the name has been synonymous with what is arguably America's favorite fast food.

You need look no further than the three - count 'em, three - Mack & Mancos on a mere four-block stretch in the heart of the wooden esplanade - a feat of market saturation that would make even Starbucks executives gnash their teeth in envy.

The reason for the unusual pizzeria cluster is simple: supply and demand. The stores are needed, said Chuck Bangle, who married into the Manco family and now helps run the mini-chain, "to handle the volume of customers and to accommodate our eat-in and pickup business."

The Mack & Manco Ocean City Boardwalk empire dates to 1956, the year Trenton-based pizzeria owners Anthony Mack and Vincent Manco opened their first outlet on the 900 block. Its success led to a second store on the 700 block a few years later. A third debuted in the early 1980s on the 1200 block. The 900-block store is open year-round; the others, from early May to mid-October.

So, in an age where you can't swing a pepperoni without hitting a pizza joint (including on the Ocean City Boardwalk, where Mack & Manco has a good deal of competition), what sets their pies apart from the pack?

One element, offered Bangle, is the way his pizzas are constructed. Going against the accepted grain, Mack & Manco "piemen," as Bangle calls them, apply the cheese first and then add the tomato sauce. "That way you incorporate the cheese and sauce in every bite."

That difference is tangible.

Perhaps more important to the company's long-term success may be what the public can't see. "Everything is controlled by the family . . . the crust, sauce and cheese," said Bangle.

Employees must work several years to earn the right to make a pizza, he added. "They all start out as waiters. It takes three or four years until they can become piemen and make the pizza themselves."

That attention to detail has struck a chord with generations of clientele. During a recent visit to the Mack & Manco at 918 Boardwalk, Tara Schweibinz, of Bellplain, N.J., said that her family members have "been coming here all our lives."

"You grow up in Ocean City, you love it," proclaimed Beth Lenhardt, who now resides in the northwestern Pennsylvania town of Sheffield.

Lenhardt acknowledged that the prices are a little higher than at many pizzerias, but she suggested that that is probably a function of Ocean City being "a resort town." Not that cost would ever make a difference to a devoted Mack & Manconian like her.

"If we didn't like it," she reasoned, "we wouldn't pay it."

For Kathy Zeigenfus, a second-grade teacher from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., the crust's the thing. "There is something different about how they make their dough," she said. "Maybe there is a secret ingredient that makes it unique."

Maybe. But if there is, don't expect details from Bangle. He prefers not to discuss such proprietary information. On the other hand, he is more than happy to expound on why you'll never see a Mack & Manco in, say, an Iowa shopping mall or downtown Phoenix.

"We have been approached far and wide with [franchise] opportunities," he said. "The reason we don't franchise is to keep our quality and consistency, and to be able to maintain our clean, friendly environment, personal service and attention to detail."

More to the point, there simply aren't enough inner-circle members to staff far-flung operations.

"There is a family member in every store," said Bangle. "You have to come from within. You can't just . . . put a key in the door and be part of the operation."

Bangle is just as adamant about preserving the simplicity of his three boardwalk stores' menu. A fourth outlet, called Mack & Manco Too, in Somers Point, caters to more contemporary tastes with such options as Buffalo chicken pizza and pineapple-topped Hawaiian pizza (as well as chicken wings and tenders). But the Ocean City stores remain stubborn traditionalists, providing little more than the standard pies and soft drinks that they've been serving since the Eisenhower administration.

"Pizza and soda, that's what makes Mack & Manco special," insisted Bangle. "Our most popular item is thin, hand-tossed pizza.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Mack & Manco Pizza, 715 Boardwalk, 918 Boardwalk and 1200 Boardwalk, Ocean City, N.J., 609-399-2548, mackandmancos.com.