The Sky’s the Limit At Pugsley’s Pizzeria
Answer: Leonardo da Vinci, Italy. Akbar the Great, India. Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia. Salvatore Natale, the Bronx.
Question: Who are Renaissance Men and where did they do their best work?
Okay. That isn’t an actual Jeopardy! question, but if you decide to enter Pugsley’s Pizza in the Fordham area of the Bronx, you would immediately understand why it very well could be. I had an opportunity to sit with Sal Natale, founder, owner, builder of Pugsley’s and discovered that, like the man himself, this pizza parlor defies limiting definitions. “I’m more than a pizza man. I’m a philosopher, a poet, a romantic, a musician, an athlete, a pizza man, and a playboy,” he exclaims.
A former horse stable and junkyard, Pugsley’s Pizza was conceived and constructed in 1985 when Sal decided he wanted more room to make his pizza for the hungry college crowd populating his store. Sal salvaged the four- by four-foot beams from the basement horse stalls and cast aside pieces of marble, disused mirrors and other discarded items to build an eclectic, rustic dining area that reflects his boundless spirit. Everything in the restaurant has a story attached. The overhead ventilation ductwork is in the shape of a missile and its shape is intended to commemorate the space shuttle Challenger. On the back wall is his painting of a rainbow, done in the aftermath of Hurricane Gloria, with the epigraph:
“Do not fear the storm
It will go by.
Wait for the rainbow
It will decorate the sky.”
Four booths demarcated by the heavy beams of the stalls represent the four seasons and the elements of nature. The hand-painted sign on the Spring booth proclaims: “Un fiore bisogno di acqua e sole; un cuore ha bisogno di amore e di affetto.” (A flower needs water and sunshine; a heart needs love and affection). A father sitting with his son, who is attending Fordham University, points out a hand-carved sign by the fireplace that reads,” Give me wood, I’ll give you fire.” Sal tells me the father first brought his son here as a newborn and was now reacquainting him with the room. Pugsley’s breeds that kind of loyalty.
I follow Sal down steps to a room featuring a stage with amps and a drum set and tables scattered about. The room conjures images of a Greenwich Village jazz room or a campus ratskeller. Somewhat cryptically, Sal tells me about late night jam sessions with famous—and not so famous—musicians who pass through, sometimes planned, sometimes not. Sal, a rock-and-roll saxophonist, often joins the sessions and has recently begun to study jazz. “We have shows down here and also open the space for fundraisers,” Sal tells me.
Back upstairs, Sal’s wife Pina is watching their grandson, Sal III, spread some dough on the counter. Sal, Jr. is finishing a pie that he is about to put in the oven. The Natales share their love for each other with their patrons. “Love is it! We want to make you feel good,” Sal says.
Answer: A tall, green-eyed millionaire who loves students or an avenue in Parkchester where Sal first worked as a pizza man.
Question: How did Pugsley’s Pizzeria get its name?
“You decide,” Sal says, laughing as he picks up his saxophone. The small afternoon crowd all come to stop. “Never limit yourself,” the philosopher Sal says, and then musician Sal serenades us with his version of “Over the Rainbow.” The room erupts in applause when he is done, proving romantic Sal’s claim that he and Pugsley’s are much more than a pizza man and his pizzeria.
590 E 191st Street, Bronx, New York
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