Sal Natale Serves Love Amidst the Pandemic at Pugsley Pizza


Sal Natale founded Pugsley Pizza in 1986. (Courtesy of Facebook)

In 1986, Sal Natale built a brand-new pizza store in a building that used to belong to a blacksmith in the junkyard of a lot on East 191st Street in the Bronx. Natale had little money, and the pizzeria was mid-construction when a hurricane hit the area. Struggling to remain hopeful, Natale channeled his experience into a sprawling wall decoration- a hand-painted wooden rainbow that reads, “Do not fear the storm, it will go by — wait for the rainbow, it will decorate the sky.”

This is how Natale has decorated the entirety of Pugsley Pizza- with little pieces of the world around him. “Everything that I built is somebody that I know,” Natale says. The walls are lost beneath handmade knickknacks, photos and letters from customers brightly painted phrases and graffitied signatures.

But the rainbow remains his favorite decoration, and the hopeful mindset it reflects has gotten him through many tough times since its creation, including this year’s pandemic.

Pugsley Pizza is a small business next to Fordham University, run by Sal, his wife Pina and his son and daughter. Normally bustling with students and New Yorkers alike, Pugsley has been markedly quieter over the past year. Natale says the store’s business has been half of what it normally is. They have begun selling frozen pizzas,sauces and additional merchandise to help increase sales.

However, even worse for Sal has been the dullness of day-to-day life without Fordham students. In non-pandemic times, Pugsley was the late-night pizza destination of choice for students who would fill the tables, sing karaoke and cheer loudly when a worker rang the gong behind the counter (for birthdays or when someone ordered a whole pie). On some nights, Natale would serenade the crowd with a saxophone solo. 

Natale says that serving pizza nowadays is like playing football with nobody in the stands. “The college students, they’re our fans,” he says. “It’s you that makes it Pugsley.” 

When students returned home mid-semester last year, he found himself wondering if he would ever hang another note or photograph amongst his collection on the walls. “What helped me through was I prayed, and I thought positive and I believed it was a temporary thing that we’ve got to go through,” he says. 

Despite the economic hardships of the past year, Pugsley has remained open with many thanks to its loyal patrons. Dia Camino, who has been going to Pugsley since she was a kid, began making special trips to the Bronx during the pandemic to shop for groceries and buy pizza, even though she lives 40 minutes away. 

“It’s like going to someone’s house to get pizza,” Camino says. “They welcome you in that really nice family way. It’s nice to talk even on the personal level with them.”

Martina Johnson also frequents Pugsley not only for the pizza but for the experience. She particularly enjoys Natale’s saxophone solos and quick, unsolicited wisdoms. “Ol’ Sal and his family are hard-working people, always laughing and spreading their smiles through their orders,” she says. Johnson calls Natale the good type of crazy — the type that she always wants more of in her life, especially in tough times like now.

Natale can already see his rainbow at the end of this storm of a pandemic. It looks like a new outdoor beer garden, jazz nights and the return of Fordham students and customers. “It will be like a breath of fresh air,” he says. “Like new life.”