Ovens cool at Vincent's Pizza Park after 60 years

Popular eatery set for sheriff's sale

For many customers of Vincent's Pizza Park, the original home of the lusciously greasy "Vinnie Pie" piled high with handfuls of pepperoni and mushrooms, Friday night has been pizza night since they were old enough to form a memory.

Dad brought it, dripping, home for the family after work. Teenage friends ate it together after the football game. Later, with jobs and kids of their own, the shop's customers bought it for their family and friends, too.

But not this Friday, and maybe not ever again. That's because the doors to Vincent's Pizza Park are closed, the ovens are cold and the contents of the shop started by Vincent Chianese in 1950 -- down to the laminate tables and the $485 left in the cash register -- are scheduled for sheriff's sale on Tuesday for failure to pay the rent.

"No!" said Liberty resident Larry Santucci, looking bereft as he pulled off Ardmore Boulevard into the restaurant's dusty parking lot and saw the locked pizza shop. "That breaks my heart. This pizza was worth every mile I had to drive for it."

So sad, said his wife, Beverly.

"He had it for all those years and they couldn't pay the bills," she said, shaking her head.

On Thursday, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas ordered the North Braddock restaurant closed at the request of the business' owner, Mr. Chianese's daughter, Toni Zollner. The occupants, B&C Pizza Inc., have leased the building since 2003 and were required to operate as a licensed Vincent's Pizza Park, according to Ms. Zollner's complaint.

But the licensees, one of whom is Mr. Chianese's longtime business partner John Bellissimo, stopped paying the necessary royalties almost immediately after Mr. Chianese died in March 2010, according to Ms. Zollner's lawyer, Frank Rapp.

Owed $42,000 in unpaid royalties, Ms. Zollner terminated the license agreement in October, but B&C Pizza continued operating.

Also owed at least one month's back rent, Ms. Zollner then used her power as the property's landlord to petition the court to close the restaurant.

Ms. Zollner declined to be interviewed, but "she told me she believes in her heart she's doing what her father would have wanted," Mr. Rapp said.

And a last-minute rescue or resolution isn't impossible, he said. There's still Monday to work things out.

"I don't think it's fair to say this is the demise of the Vinnie Pie at the Ardmore location," Mr. Rapp said. "I think it's too early to come to the conclusion there's never going to be another Vinnie Pie."

The location in North Braddock near the Forest Hills line was the only one Mr. Chianese operated, although his company had agreements for locations in Plum, Penn Hills and North Huntingdon to use his business name.

Mr. Chianese's pizza -- like the man himself -- found fame and die-hard customer loyalty in its extravagance, its outrageousness, its uniqueness. Standing behind the glass windows separating the ovens from the customers, Mr. Chianese tossed and twirled his dough into huge, downy beds for the luxury of sauce and cheese and chunks of pepperoni he tossed on by the handful. White shirt partially open, chest hair blooming forth, with a big gold medallion resplendant around his neck, and a .38-caliber pistol tucked into his back pocket, Mr. Chianese ruled his pizzeria like a kingdom.

"Is there a menu?" one customer asked a waitress within earshot of Mr. Chianese.

"We got pizza -- you want small, medium or large?" Mr. Chianese yelled.

His product was part of the appeal, said Tom Petzinger Jr., a Squirrel Hill resident and former Wall Street Journal columnist who found Vincent's Pizza Park so appealing that he wrote about it and proceeded to introduce it to his closest friends. But so was the sense of familiarity, even tradition, that suffused his shop.

"The thing that dawned on me, talking to customers, was that people had family experiences there that were sort of warm and fuzzy," he said. "It's easy to imagine Westinghouse running hot, it's a blue-collar place and Friday night comes around and mom and dad go out with the kids. It's time to relax, it's time to be a parent, time to be a kid and then delivered in front of you is this giant, gnarly, misshapen pizza."

Not everyone was so enamored, though. His wife and former Wall Street Journal colleague, Paulette Thomas, for one.

"I would notice the bathrooms were dirty and Vincent smoking a cigarette and the ash falling onto the pizza, and his shirt open and the flour on his chest hair, and I wasn't that enthusiastic," she said.

Customers laughed Friday at those and other eccentricities of a man and a pizza shop they have loved from childhood. Many say they are hoping for the best, for some way for the doors to reopen to save a business that deserves to be saved.

Reggie Chambers Jr., whose family has been friends with Mr. Chianese and his family for decades, grew up with that pizza, too. He loved it, big and sloppy and oozing with a sense of plenty. And like other customers, Mr. Chambers is hoping for a happy legacy for Mr. Chianese, who recruited him to run a barbecue joint in the building next door and taught him how to make it a success.

You have three chances to win over a customer, Mr. Chianese told him. Keep a clean restaurant, provide good service and serve good food. And don't let other people, including customers, tell you what to do.

"He told me people are always going to complain, but you do it the right way, you do it ethically, you do it your way and you don't pay any attention to them," Mr. Chambers said.

homepage - neigh_east - dining

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com. First Published May 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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