Giovanni Finazzo had a hard start in life. His father died when he was three and still living in his native Sicily. His mother then gave her youngest child her husband’s name, Gerolomo. But by the time he got to be known as Jerry, the maker of Sal’s Pizza in Crozet, things had gotten all right.
He was born in Palermo in 1948, a couple of years after the end of World War II, and has two older brothers, one of whom, Joe, lives in Charlottesville, the other in New Jersey, and a sister in Pennsylvania. All are in the restaurant business.
Jerry left school at the age of 9. The wolf was at his family’s door. He had only finished second grade.
“I loved school,” he recalled, “but our system did not provide for the poor. I had to work. I worked in a barbershop, shining shoes, brushing off clothes.”
Looking for work, the family moved to Switzerland when Jerry was 16. A few years later, he arrived in New York City on Christmas Eve in 1969. His brother Carlos had come over to the States two years before. Now the rest of his family followed. Jerry got his first job in the U.S., a construction laborer, the next week. He began learning English just by listening to Americans talk.
“When I was working my mother said, ‘If you ever cash a check before you bring it home I will cut your testicle.’ I did it once and I got beat for it. Left and right. There was no excuse. She had a reason. Like everybody says, this is the land of opportunity. There’s no reason to work and have nothing to show for it.”
He got a job in a pizza shop and worked for free in order to learn the business. “My older brother had the idea to buy a pizzeria,” he explained. “My mother didn’t know. I had worked for five weeks and I didn’t come home with any money. So she beat me again. I had blood all over my face. So my brother explained. My mother was worried I would waste money on prostitutes. There was a lot of that around.”
Meanwhile he had learned how to make a pizza crust the right way.
“After six weeks I left the shop and got a job in another pizza shop. I wanted to learn more and I had to learn the language. In that shop there was nobody that spoke Italian. Then a 13-year-old in a neighboring shop was shot and killed in a $36 robbery. I quit. I went by that shop two weeks later and it was boarded up, closed down.”
His brothers Joe and Carlos bought a pizzeria in New Jersey in 1972. His mother had been saving his money for him, and when the subject of whether Jerry could go in on it came up, his mother said yes, he had enough money. Until he married, his mother controlled his money. He met his wife Paula, who is Danish, while he was in Jersey. “It will be 40 years in February,” he said happily. “I’m lucky. I would never change it.”
“My mother was right,” Jerry admitted. “I would have wasted my income. My mother and my grandfather both gave me good advice.
“Those years were tough,” Jerry said.
“Jersey was OK. I sold my shares to my brothers. Meanwhile the shopping center they were in went bankrupt and they lost everything. No customers came to the area. I found out who my friends were: I didn’t have any. Everybody was afraid I was going to ask them for money.”
In 1977 Jerry and Joe came to Charlottesville and opened a pizzeria in Shoppers World on Rt. 29.
“The shop couldn’t generate the rent,” Jerry remembered. “Then we got swim teams to start coming in. We did everything in our power to make things the way they were supposed to be.”
After 10 years in Charlottesville, Jerry came to Crozet in 1987 on his own and took over a restaurant space then known as Joel’s Place. Crozet Pizza was the only place around making pizzas.
“Oh, yes. I’m happy about that. In all my experiences in the pizza business, Crozet has the greatest people I’ve ever known. That’s why I don’t want to retire.” He’s 64 now and it’s on his mind. Jerry has three daughters, all married—Tina, Elizabeth (who goes by Tiz), who both work at the restaurant with him, and Amanda, who is a teacher—and four grandchildren with another due soon.
The Crozet Shopping Center was owned then by Frank Wood, who is now dead.
“He was one of the greatest men,” said Jerry. “I liked everything about him. His word was more than a contract. People said to me, ‘That’s how he is.’ We made a deal and he wrote it in a letter. I had to give him two months’ notice if I wasn’t making a living. He felt like people had helped him and he wanted to pass on help.”
Jerry put in new equipment and redecorated. He still changes the look of the restaurant every four or five years.
“The customer is the owner of the restaurant,” he said. “They are the ones who give me my living.
“It took a while to get established. I don’t judge people. That’s who I am. I put everything I’ve got into it.” He worked 13-hour days for years and really only saw his kids on Sundays.
Nine years ago he came down with throat cancer. He survived, but radiation treatments gave him the dry-sounding voice he has now. He lost 75 pounds and also his teeth to radiation. Standing close to the oven is hard on his throat still, he said, but he no longer has to take medicines for it.
He smoked, “but that had nothing to do with it,” he said dismissively.
“I had no strength to lift the water to make dough,” he recalled about being sick. He was home for four months on a diet of milkshakes and mashed potatoes.
Finally he regained some weight and now he eats fish, ravioli and lasagna. He said his favorite pizza is sfpincione: anchovies, tomato sauce and onions with no cheese. “I used to put lots of stuff on it. Now it’s one or two items.”
Though the pizza is clearly what Sal’s is known for, the restaurant also serves popular Italian dishes.
“Most people who come in know me and my family,” said Jerry. “I appreciate their support over the years. I can’t stay home. I can’t retire. I’m too old to move to Crozet.” (He has lived in Earlysville since he first moved to the area.)
Jerry is unfailingly generous to local charitable causes. Recently customers could donate part of the bill to their local church, for example. “When I see people trying to raise money, I’m with them 100 percent because I know what it is like to have to raise money. Tiz has a lot to do with this. She brings me ideas.
“I never take advice from people who are younger than I am. I look in people’s faces and I can tell if they have suffered. As a boy I spent every night with my grandfather. I’ve seen everything he told me about.
“I love my country—Italy—but here has more. Here you have to work for it, but there, however much you work, you still have nothing.”
Like virtually all Italian men, he is an inveterate watcher of soccer games and had the Italian professional league’s games playing on the TV in the pizzeria all the time until one day when a customer asked if the announcers were speaking Mexican. He switched to watching the British Premier League. There’s a small TV behind the counter that can be seen from the oven and he will shut off the game in the main dining room if it seems to be bothering customers, but he keeps watching.
His Crozet friends Speedy Hale and Randy Layman have gone to Italy with him. Jerry goes home every year. “I can’t tell you how much fun we had,” he said.
Now he is enjoying being a grandfather. He teared up at the thought of it. “I think I’m a good dad and a good granddad,” he said. “I love my grandchildren. From the first one, I’ve been on top of the world.
“I’ve never made any real money. I don’t care about it. I get to see my grandkids.”
Sal’s is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sundays. It’s closed on Mondays. The restaurant employs nine people on weekdays and 11 on weekends.