Giuseppe "Joe" Aiello was the epitome of the hard-working, thick-accented immigrant who became a successful American businessman, but thousands of Pittsburghers know him for another achievement over the last 35 years: He gave them irresistible pizza.
Ex-Pittsburghers are known to come back years later and mix with Allderdice and Central Catholic students, Squirrel Hill families, and others at the plain-looking Murray Avenue pizza joint with anything but plain food inside (although a slice of plain pizza with Mr. Aiello's trademark tangy sauce tasted just fine, too).
Whether spinning dough in the storefront window, bantering easily with customers or chiding any employees taking it easy on the job ("You got time to lean, you got time to clean") Mr. Aiello had his imprint all over the place. That was the case ever since he left work in 1978 at another longtime pizza institution, Mineo's, to open his shop just a few doors farther up Murray Avenue.
A rivalry has existed ever since between both the restaurants and their devoted camps of followers, with family members sometimes forced to take sides in heated debate over not just toppings but where to order takeout.
Mr. Aiello, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in October, died Monday night in his Shaler home. He was 71.
The restaurant's website notes he came to the U.S. from Palermo, Sicily, in 1967. He was in his mid-20s, knew little English and had just $13 in his pocket. More than money, he had a gift and affection for cooking that his grandmother had instilled in him as a boy. He learned from her how to knead dough and make bread.
Once he began running his own pizza business, he would start his days in early morning, making dough by hand while eschewing the time-saving mixers of modern competitors. He used tomatoes imported from Italy. He grated his Wisconsin cheese himself. Always-fresh toppings and ingredients, including tomatoes and peppers from his own garden, created award-winning pies.
Mr. Aiello's personality was just as winning. Customers loved his energy and humor, with the thick accent adding to the charm.
He had no interest in a fancy, sit-down restaurant, though he did want one that was always clean. Students and others can gather in plain booths in the rear of the restaurant, but it's often busier at the counter with a crowd coming in for takeout orders until past midnight. In recent years, Mr. Aiello would be long gone by that time of the night, but consistency was no problem -- his sons Michael and Peter have taken over.
"He made a successful business, and I'm going to continue to run it the same way he taught me to run it," Michael said. "Nothing's going to change."
Scott Feldman, a pizza proprietor in Maryland who grew up in Squirrel Hill and learned the business while working for Mr. Aiello, so admired him that he named his restaurant, Giuseppi's, in his honor.
"You have people who search their whole lives for a success formula. He developed one," Mr. Feldman said.
"You either have or don't have personality, and when you have it like Joe, it's an asset. People used to love to go in to talk to him," he said. "They talk about New York pizza and Chicago pizza and all that, and I came to understand after a while that the quality of the product Joe put out was the best. He always used the best cheeses, the best sauce, and he taught me you make everything fresh."
Other pizza shops that have abounded in Squirrel Hill since he opened 35 years ago have drawn traffic with discount coupons. Aiello's, virtually unchanged over the years, never has used those. Nor does it make deliveries. Nor does it take debit or credit cards. It's all about the product.
Mr. Feldman recalled that someone once placed a large takeout order for many pizzas and expected a discount, which Mr. Aiello refused to offer. When the customer asked what he was receiving, in that case, in return for placing such a large order, Mr. Aiello told him with a laugh: "You get good pizza, that's what you get!"
Tributes to Mr. Aiello and his pizza began filling social media Tuesday as word of his death spread. They included:
"Man, what a Pgh icon. We'll miss ya, Mr. Aiello!"
"Aiello's Pizza rules, and it's all because of Joe. He yelled at me once because I was later than I said I would be when picking up a pizza. I was startled, but he was worried about the quality of the pie."
"Best pizza in town, and always greeted you with a smile. RIP Joe! Your soul will live on in your pizza!"
In addition to sons Michael, of Shaler, and Peter, of Dormont, Mr. Aiello is survived by his wife, Madeline; two daughters, Cathy Willis and Dianna Guido, both of Shaler; and 10 grandchildren. Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at McCabe Brothers Funeral Home, 6214 Walnut St., Shadyside.
A Mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. Friday at St. Maria Goretti Parish, 4712 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255. First Published May 14, 2013 5:15 PM