Sal LiRosi admitted that when he first saw what his son Michael had tweeted recently — that Sal-E-Boy’s Pizzeria was going out of business — he was angry.
He hadn’t wanted any attention to what he envisioned as a “soft closing” to Sal-E-Boy’s, preferring “to go out quietly.”
It didn’t happen.
Only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in recent weeks, his self-proclaimed “hole-in-the-wall neighborhood pizza” place faced an onslaught of business last Saturday, as LiRosi realized maybe Michael’s posting wasn’t a bad idea after all.
“We all came to work as a family that night, Saturday night,” he said. “I thought I was just going to shake hands, thank my customers … We barely walked in and the phone started ringing.”
Then, the deluge began, with LiRosi remembering one woman in tears, telling the family how she remembered her grandfather taking her there and the good memories she still had.
Sal-E-Boy’s sold out of product May 9, and was closed the next day. A longtime customer, Kyle Owen, not only purchased the last pizza there, but also had Sal autograph the pizza box — and add “King of Southern Blvd.”
“There are challenging times ahead of us, and I just felt it was time to go out on top,” LiRosi said. “This is my baby. I was 19 years old when I started, and I didn’t want to struggle.”
LiRosi’s “baby” was actually an adoption. The pizzeria was originally Zio’s Pizza, and he had been working there, with the owner noticing his work ethic.
“I was just about to graduate TVI in the accounting program,” he said. “The owner was going to work for the post office; he offered me a buyout,” an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Well, actually he could have refused; he was planning to be a CPA at the time.
“He said, ‘Here’s the keys. See what you can do with the place and we’ll talk in six months,'” LiRosi said. “I gave it a shot. … I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
LiRosi, a 1981 graduate of Cibola High, was at the time dating his future wife, Michele, two years younger. She suggested that he should try it for five years.
“When I bought that business, it was pretty much out of business… it was a Chicago-style pizza in a New York town,” LiRosi said. “I had to change everything to meet the New York population (in Rio Rancho).”
“We changed the name, changed the recipes, changed the menu (calzones were added),” LiRosi recalled.
“The first day I made $40. The next day I made $25. And at the time, pizzas were $5.95 apiece,” he recalled. “The word around town was I wasn’t going to make it — the fear of failure made me succeed.”
Back in the 1980s, he recalled, “The walls were full of hand-painted murals and we were a full-service local hangout. Then our family grew. We spent more time in the bleachers at both local high schools watching all four of our children under the stadium lights on Friday nights.”
None of their kids worked at the pizza place; that didn’t matter, because the business helped them pay for college educations for all four.
Little by little, those walls changed.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve slowly covered the walls with photos of our kids and all the local teams and organizations we support,” he said. “Originally we had seating for 22.”
There was a time — before the “Got No Delivery” sign was posted on a window — that he had teens delivering pizzas throughout the city.
“At one point, we had 15 drivers in the ’90s,” he said, adding that the peak years for Sal-E-Boy’s were 1992-97.
But someone determined teenagers delivering pizzas was high-risk and called for much-higher insurance premiums, so carryout was the norm.
Sal-E-Boy’s support has been recognized by high schools and youth groups, and some of the plaques showing thanks are on the walls. Media members and event workers often found Sal-E-Boy’s pizza in the press boxes before games at Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools.
“I enjoy serving the kids, helping the coaches,” he said.
Now, though, “I’m all beat up,” LiRosi said.
Back surgery in 2011 took its toll, as has all the work of fashioning dough into the pies.
What’s next for the shop at 1706 Southern, near Veranda?
“We’re going to sit down with the family, and I’m sure there’s plenty of ideas that we have,” he said. “The corporation is still ongoing.
“Rio Rancho has been amazing,” he said. “There’s nothing like working at home, playing at home, living at home; being involved in the community has been so special to me.
“I’m touched by the love this community has shown me and this business,” he posted on Facebook. “It’s the loyal customers that kept us going for all these years. It’s been an honor to serve Rio Rancho for so many wonderful years.”