Remembering Vesuvio’s pizza and its connection to Toronto sports

Vesuvio Pizza and Spaghetti House on the west side of Toronto is closing its doors after 63 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Grange)

Sports and pizza, pizza and sports. They go together like hands and gloves, ebony and ivory, beer and… pizza.

If you don’t happen to live or have lived in the west end of Toronto, you might not know about Vesuvio Pizza and Spaghetti House. But if you’ve been lucky in life, you’ve experienced something like it:

A simple local restaurant where the food was good, the service friendly, the prices modest and the memories priceless.

A place where you visited or ordered takeout from that would make everyone happy and end all the arguments.

You’d go there after the game to celebrate or forget, or order from there on the way home from a practice when you were too tired to think about making something to eat.

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For me and my family that’s Vesuvio’s, an institution in the west end of Toronto since the four Pugliese brothers opened their doors in 1957.

Ettore Pugliese is the only brother left now that Dominic, Corrado and Attilio have passed.

And on Monday, Vesuvio’s will be gone too, a victim of time and a pandemic, closing after 63 years. With no one to take over the business, retirement was in the offing — but COVID-19 took the timing of the decision out of their hands.

“It was the final a nail on the coffin,” said Ettore, 81, who has been self-isolating with his wife of 46 years, Pierra, in their Etobicoke home. “You never know what’s gonna happen. Incredible.”

The Pugliese brothers founded Vesuvio Pizza and Spaghetti House in 1957. (Photo courtesy: Ettore Pugliese)

Vesuvio’s wasn’t a sports bar by any stretch. There was a little TV in corner of the takeout section and another couple over the bar in the dining room next door.

But it was a sports place, the rhythms of the business tied to the sports calendar like the tide to the moon.

Saturdays and Wednesdays nights?

Hockey nights.

Sundays? Football.

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The Raptors’ playoff run last season gave Vesuvio’s two months of steady business. Leafs playoff games were always a boon, even if the intensity was short-lived.

The Pugliese’s sporting allegiances ran a little counter to local tradition.

When they first emigrated from their home near Naples, Italy — Vesuvio’s was a tribute to Mount Vesuvius, which loomed over their hometown — it wasn’t to Toronto but to Aliquippa, PA., a steel town about 50 k.m. outside of Pittsburgh that was a magnet for immigrants in the boom following World War II.

The brothers knew only soccer at the time, but as Aliquippa shut down on Friday nights every fall, they came to fall in love with the American version of football, following the fortunes of local NFL legends Mike Ditka and later Tony Dorsett. Just down the highway was Beaver Falls, home to Joe Namath, and not much further was East Brady, home to Buffalo Bills Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly.

Logically Ettore became a Pittsburgh Steelers fan – “ah, the Steel Curtain,” he says – and until recently took an annual trip to Pittsburgh to take in a game.

But the pizza business always came first. Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year and even with the Steelers making eight appearances in the spectacle since Vesuvio’s opened, the priorities were always clear.

“I would always work,” says Ettore. “For the Super Bowl it was always all hands on deck. Everybody would work, you would just watch the game sparingly.”

Former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Tie Domi says he ate pizza from Vesuvio’s three times a week. (Winslow Townson/AP)

And while the Leafs might drive business, Pugliese says his hockey heart was always with the Boston Bruins, a divorce from local tradition that stemmed from former Leafs boss Punch Imlach showing preferences by not drafting players of Italian heritage in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“The Bruins had Phil Esposito and then Bobby Orr came along and it was beautiful,” says Ettore.

But that didn’t stop some well-known Leafs from pledging allegiance to Vesuvio’s.

Tie Domi lived on Ryding Avenue growing up – the railway tracks in his backyard, George Bell Arena across the street and Vesuvio’s around the corner and forever in his heart.

“We had birthdays, anniversaries, engagements there, it was part of our family tradition,” says Domi, whose father would stop there when he wasn’t having coffee and playing cards at the Albanian social club down the street. “We grew up in that place.

“I used to play shinny with my cousins and then order pizza. My cousins — Jack and Errol – were telling me about the time I ate a whole pizza by myself, I was nine years old. We would eat Vesuvio’s three times a week.”

Domi wasn’t the most prominent Junction tough guy to enjoy a meal at Vesuvio’s, though.

One of the most memorable evenings from nearly 23,000 nights at the office for Ettore came in the early days of April 1966, when Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo came for dinner with his young family for their first night out after Chuvalo went 15 rounds with Muhammed Ali at Maple Leaf Gardens in a bid for the world heavyweight title. Chuvalo never hit the canvas in his career, even in two fights against the legendary heavyweight.

“George and his wife and the family came in a couple of days later, after the Ali fight and his face was like an eggplant,” says Ettore.

“He told me: ‘It doesn’t matter how many times he hit me, I would go back’ — those are nice things to remember.”

The feeling is mutual.

“Vesuvio’s was the prominent business in the Junction for so long. Even the sign itself, it was iconic. George loved it,” says Mitch Chuvalo, George’s son.

A veteran of 93 professional fights over 22 years, George Chuvalo retired in 1978 as a five-time Canadian champion, having fought for the world title three times. His parents lived in the neighbourhood long after their famous son moved on, and George would visit Vesuvio’s regularly.

Canadian boxing legend George Chuvalo took his family to Vesuvio Pizza and Spaghetti House weeks after he faced Muhammad Ali in a 15-round bout at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966. (AP Photo)

He’s 82 now and in declining health, but a glimpse of his favourite pizza spot can still bring a smile.

“I still live near there,” says Mitch. “I’ll (bring) George through the Junction and we would stop in for sure. It would stir memories; it was good for him and people in the neighbourhood would say, ‘Hi’. He loved to feel the connection.”

That connection is one Vesuvio’s has made with its customers over the years, and spans decades.

Toronto Raptors analyst Leo Rautins grew up on Keele Street, just south of the Dundas West strip. He has been in self-isolation at his home in Florida since COVID-19 put much of North America on lockdown.

Not being able to get back to Vesuvio’s before it closes is a regret.

“I grew up in an old European family, where my dad would be, ‘Why go out to eat when the food is better at home?’” says Rautins, the first Canadian taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. “And we didn’t have a lot of money to be wining and dining.

“An extravagance was getting takeout from Vesuvio’s. For me growing up, that was my only exposure to getting something to eat that my mom or my grandma didn’t make…Vesuvio’s Pizza was a big deal.”

After playing professionally in Europe and then living in the United States for several post-retirement years before moving back to downtown Toronto, Rautins was reunited with the restaurant that figured so prominently in his childhood after his father died.

“When my dad passed away five years ago now, the funeral home was in the west end and I was driving around aimlessly, going through the old ‘hood, and I see Vesuvio’s. I’m like, ‘Are you (expletive) me?’” says Rautins.

“I couldn’t believe it was still there.

“Sammy [his youngest son] was at [school] and I sent him a picture and a message and said, ‘We’re going to dinner here.’ I couldn’t wait to pick him up after school.

“It was crazy. I’m sitting there looking at these people who were there when I was kid, and I fell in love with the place again.

“I would take the boys there all the time. Sometimes you get disappointed when you come back to something after a long time, but it was amazing.”

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

Even at home in isolation with his wife, Ettore can feel the emotion 63 years in business can evoke. The calls and messages haven’t stopped. There are thousands of testimonials on the restaurant’s Facebook page, recalling family dinners, first dates, engagements and celebrations.

The dining room closed when the pandemic hit, but once Vesuvio’s announced they were closing early last week, it’s as if eight decades of customers have been trying to get one last fix.

The lineup for takeout – with everyone at a respectful six-foot distance – has extended all the way down Dundas and around the block, with customers waiting nearly four hours.

The city had to put up traffic pylons so physical distance guidelines could be followed and pedestrians could still pass the line safely.

Overwhelmed by demand, Vesuvio’s shut down its delivery and phone service – in-person only – and cut down its hours while limiting customers to two pies per order.

Sports fans and pizza fans — and sports fans who love their pizza — are a dedicated lot.

Vesuvio’s brought out the best in both, and in return delivered a piping hot pie, and generations of warm memories.

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