Hopes were not high as Jeff and I approached the pizzeria. Jeff is a food lover, food blogger, food hunter and recently converted tour guide (check him out at his awesome food website). He created the Real Pizza of New York mobile app, which helps users find the standout pizzerias on NYC. It’s legit. As we are cut from the same cloth, Jeff and I sometimes check out pizzerias together. Last month, Jeff and I met on Arthur Ave in the Bronx to check out a recently-converted coal-fired bakery to see how the pizza-o-meter registered. After our main course, Jeff mentioned another place in the neighborhood that might be worth a visit. The name Pugsley’s didn’t ring a bell, but somebody had apparently told me about it because it was right there on my hit list. It was right there at the bottom — lowest priority possible.
When we turned onto 191st Street there was not a single business in site. I started to doubt Jeff’s sense of direction (even though it’s thousands of times better than mine) when we stumbled upon a sign from the heavens. Well, it was technically on the ground but it most certainly was a sign. The image of a slice within a circle was carved into the sidewalk cement. Either this was the place or someone was dealing illegal slices nearby.
The building is set back several meters and looks nothing like any pizzeria in the city; it felt like the Fratelli’s restaurant from the Goonies. We crept up the stairs, afraid of an imagined alarm system set to warn Bronxonians when a couple of pizza junkies were snooping about. But no alarm went off by the time we opened the front door. Instead, we were welcomed by the most beautiful site I’ve ever seen in a pizzeria.
The interior was like nothing I had ever seen. There weren’t any checkered tablecloths. No statuettes of mustachioed Italian men. No typical signage or menus. I don’t even remember seeing an oven in there. It’s more like an interactive piece of folk art than an eatery, but several indicators revealed that there was indeed some food to be had. Handmade signage adorns all walls, surfaces, empty spaces, crowded spaces, etc. But instead of offering combos and food deals, the signage merely uses food as a subplot to the main concern of this pizzeria: happiness.
The root of it all is the joint’s proprietor, Sal. As he tells it, Sal left Italy to play the Woodstock festival with his band in 1969 and never went back. If you hang around long enough, you just may catch an impromptu saxophone performance. Sal runs the pizzeria with his family and they are all incorporated into the fiber of the place. We started talking and before we knew, it Sal was taking us on a full tour of the building. There’s an air duct painted in honor of the Challenger accident. Sal used wooden beams from the basement to construct a mini chapel-like space for seating. Musical notes that adorn the benches and walls all spell words or melodies that have personal meaning to Sal. Floor tiles spell out names of family members. You can spend a month in there and still not find all the Easter eggs. It’s absolutely wonderful!
You’ll notice I’m not even showing you a picture of the pizza. It isn’t bad, but Pugsley’s is much than just a place to eat. As I mentioned earlier, the signage posted all around the joint isn’t so much intended to move product as it is to deliver a message. There’s an unwavering feeling of support in this place that puts students and other customers (although I imagine 98% of customers are students) above anything else.
Just as pizza is the ultimate comfort food, Pugsley’s is the ultimate comfort pizzeria. If I had a pizzeria like this in college, I don’t think I would have ever gone home.
But to think of Pugsley’s as merely a college town pizzeria would not be doing it justice. You really have to go there to feel the incredible sense of family, but I’ll leave you with this picture of Sal and the clan, whose smiles are the real secret of Pugsley’s success.