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DeBartolos plan Florida pizza expansion

Three daughters of developer and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. have invested in a New York pizza chain that plans to expand into shopping centers, airports and other high-traffic locations nationwide.

Lisa DeBartolo, Tiffanie DeBartolo and Nikki DeBartolo Heldfond formed a partnership with the family behind the Famous Famiglia pizza chain, which now has 25 locations, most in the Northeast.

The partnership plans to own or franchise 150 restaurants in five years, said Paul Kolaj, whose family opened the first Famous Famiglia in Manhattan 17 years ago and serves as chief executive of the new Famiglia DeBartolo LLC. Financial terms were not disclosed.

"The DeBartolo family brings very valuable relationships, especially in the shopping center industry . . . and capital, of course," Kolaj said.

The partnership is the model for a new strategy the DeBartolos are pursuing, said Jerry DeNicholas, chief executive of DeBartolo Property Group, the family's property development business headquartered in Tampa.

The DeBartolos want to invest in regional service businesses that need financing and real estate development expertise to grow, he said. "There's a wealth of strength here to help entrepreneurs expand their opportunities," DeNicholas said.

Member of the DeBartolo family, who descend from Italian immigrants, appreciate the Kolaj family's roots. Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. built an empire of shopping malls from the 1960s to the 1980s that included Tyrone Square in St. Petersburg and University Square in Tampa.

Four Kolaj brothers and their mother, Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, emigrated from a camp in Italy to the South Bronx in 1969. They worked in pizza parlors before scraping up money to start their own restaurant.

They now own eight Famous Famiglias and franchise 17 others, Kolaj said. The restaurants are in all three New York area airports, Yankee Stadium, GM Renaissance Center in Detroit and at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Famous Famiglia promotes itself as the true New York-style pizza. It's the official pizza of the New York Yankees. The company ships water from the Big Apple to locations outside the city so all the pies have a crust with the same texture and taste.

The blueprint is to expand into more "captive market locations" _ shopping center food courts, airports and other busy facilities that typically lease space to only one pizza place, Kolaj said.

Famous Famiglia's Web site targets 22 states, including Florida, for expansion. The plans kicked into high gear after Kolaj met Eddie DeBartolo at the International Shopping Center Convention and they worked out the partnership. "We can accelerate the business model," Kolaj said. "If it was a 10-year plan, we can do it in five or seven years."

The DeBartolos likely will own or oversee franchises in seven southeastern states, he said. They expect to have a regional office and training center in Tampa and have letters of intent to build Famous Famiglias in two Tampa Bay area malls, Kolaj said.

"We love Florida," Kolaj said. "There are a lot of great airports and malls and universities _ and a lot of transplanted New Yorkers that will be loyal customers."

Lisa DeBartolo, 34, and Nikki DeBartolo Heldfond, 28, have a little food business experience. They opened a branch of Ed & Eddie's Homemade Ice Cream, a business their father and partner Edward Muransky hope to franchise, on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa last fall.

The sisters work for the DeBartolo Family Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money and distributes it to Tampa Bay area charitable organizations.

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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