More than just another pizza place
... truly an institution
by Joseph P. Guzzo
I got to wondering what exactly is an institution? There’s the Smithsonian Institute filled with all kinds of items of notoriety. But must something or someone be world famous to be worthy of this title. I digress whilst I check the dictionary.
One of my favorite stories to tell is where I was on the Grand Opening of Caruso’s Pizza in Melrose. The year was 1968, I was in the eighth grade in Coolidge School. Word was out that Caruso’s was giving out free slices of pizza for the grand opening. Naturally as soon as the bell rang at 2:30 everyone flocked to get their free slice. The High School got out at the same time. Crowds started to gather, and soon you could not get in the store. The crowd filled the sidewalk and spilled into the street. So there I was stuck in the middle of a sea of anxious teenagers determined to get my free slice of pizza. I don’t think Mike Caruso had anticipated this barrage of starving teenagers. When many gave up I squirmed, pushed, and inched my way forward. Finally after about a half hour I made it to the door, victory was soon mine. Then just as I got into the store, after giving out a couple of hundred slices Mike Caruso had enough, “that’s it no more free pizza” he yelled at the top of his lungs. I was defeated. Ah but the punch line of my story, a slice of pizza cost twenty cents.
Back in the 60’s Mike Caruso had about twenty pizza shops scattered in different cities and towns. But for one reason or another he started to close or sell off all of the stores except one. He chose to keep his favorite store in Melrose, and many are glad he did. The store has been a fixture in Melrose for over forty years.
Many don’t even remember what was there before Caruso’s. I can recall the closed Mary A. Livermore School, now a parking lot. The Pond View Restaurant, the only “restaurant” in Melrose, and the Charles E. Black variety store on the corner.
Prior to getting a drivers license, Caruso’s was like a safe haven for me and my buddies. A place to get out of the rain, or soak up some heat in the winter. I remember it like it was yesterday; the warmth, the smell, and the sounds, as the juke box played "Touch Me" by The Doors. Just a stop on our journey growing up.
During the aftermath of the Blizzard of 78, many were out walking, mainly because you couldn’t drive, and just about everything was closed. A group of us walked down Main St. and approached Caruso’s and there was Mike behind the window waving. I had my Polaroid so I took some pictures of Mike and he gave us some slices. It was a moment in history.
Over the years you got to know the people that worked there. Like Delio, Marino, and Vinny. Every time I came in the store Vinny would raise his arm and say “whay Mr. Gutz,” I felt like Norm in 'Cheers'. And there is Mike's good friend Mike the Barber. He’s been next door from the beginning.
There were also personal moments. Once speaking of my late former father-in-law, Mike needed to show me something. We went into the kitchen, and he started to look for something. At first he could not find it muttering some choice words in Italian thinking someone had moved it. Then he found it, it was a trowel. “See this?” “George gave this to me,” he paused and said, “I miss George.” It was just a trowel but it was special to him. That’s just one example. There are countless people that have formed personal friendships with Mike over the years.
The place really hasn’t changed much in all these years. The only thing new is newer photos crowding the hundreds of old photos and memorabilia. Photos of Mike with his good friend Delio and his band playing at numerous fund raisers for many worthy causes. Politicians, clergy, nieces and nephews. Mike in the old country when he was a Policeman on his motorcycle. And friends, Mike has made so many friends it would be impossible to count them all. And each would have their own special story about Mike and his pizza place.
Institution: “a person or thing long established in a place.” Mike Caruso and his restaurant are both Melrose institutions.
December 4, 2009