So Long, Sal Malanga

| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:30

    for all but 13 days a year for nearly 50 years, the door to sal and carmine's upper west side pizzeria was open. in rain, snow and unbearable heat, through brownouts, blackouts and financial crises, sal malanga worked, building perfect no-frills pizza pies in his shop, currently on broadway at west 102nd street.

    more dependable than the postman and almost as predictable as the tide, malanga's simple absence from the shop a few weeks ago was enough to cause concern. it wasn't until june 1, however, that a three-by-five-inch scrap of paper confirmed what some had already dreaded: sal malanga, 76, had died.

    crowds gathered sporadically around the note, which featured a tiny picture of sal. many approached the note knowing full well what it said, mouthing things like "oh my god," and "please no." others reached for their cell phones and called or texted friends with the news.

    dan blednick, 32, called his roommate, who's been eating at the restaurant for years.

    "she was pretty shaken up by it," he said. "sal was a very welcoming guy. he was a little hard to talk to sometimes-he was salty and hardworking-and it took a while to get him to open up. but they made the best pizza around. this is really sad."

    the man in the black and white houndstooth pants is gone. all that's left is the memory of malanga shuffling back and forth between his ancient cash register and his electric oven. he was certainly one of the only pizza makers who had the audacity to jab his arthritic thumb directly into the crust of your slice and hand you change in flour-covered greenbacks.

    born in italy in a small farming town called materdomini, malanga learned to make pizzas from his mother. in a family that raised its own animals and vegetables, he learned the importance of fresh ingredients, a lesson he carried with him to the united states in 1955.

    malanga's first new york shop, which he owned with his father, was on west 95th street. he and his brother carmine co-owned the second incarnation of the shop, seven blocks north of the original. for years, malanga made the trip from new jersey to the upper west side, taking the early shift and opening the shop at 10 a.m. every day. when he died, he left behind a wife, two children, one grandson and an indefatigable, relentless work ethic.

    "i'm sure the first time i went there, the first time i met sal, i was pushed in there in my stroller by my grammy," said david dennis, 45, a lifelong resident of the upper west side. "they always say that for a business in new york, five years is a miracle, and 10 years is an institution. sal managed two institutions in his lifetime-20 years at two different locations. he did it because he never changed. he never changed his hair, his english or how hard he worked. he did it his way."

    even on the pizzeria's darkest day-the day of sal's funeral-when the metal door covered the shop window, there was one hint that things wouldn't change: a sign peaking out over the top of the door read, "closed due to emergency. will re-open tomorrow."

    sure enough, the next day both carmine and luciano, sal's grandson, were behind the counter, tossing pies into the oven, and barking into the phone that of course they don't deliver. they never have.

    as usual, a steady stream of customers flowed in. as some teared up or looked down in disbelief, luciano not only accepted their words and shook their hands but continued to bake pies.

    "i'm glad that people care about him," luciano said as he tossed a slice into the oven. "it's sad that he's not here to keep everything together, but he wanted me to keep doing it.

    "i don't really know what else there is to say," he added, turning to move toward the register. then he stopped and looked back.

    "i'm just glad he told me everything before he went. i'm glad i know what to do."