Nobody who dined at Mario’s Pizza Palace ever forgot it. The stone cottage at 3836 Park Avenue was sheathed in handmade signs, urging patrons to “Protect Your Health Now!” and “Eat Well and Forget Di-Gel!” Diners crammed themselves into two little front rooms and munched on baked pizza and ravioli, sipped wine from mayonnaise jars, and were serenaded — in Italian, no less — by the feisty owner himself, Mario DePietro.
So many stories were told about (and by) Mario that it’s hard to sort them out: He won the indoor bicycle races at Madison Square Garden in the 1920s. He personally delivered an airplane-shaped chicken (huh?) to Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight. He — and he alone — brought pizza to America from his native Naples, Italy (and for years displayed the battered tub he carried on his head as he walked the streets of New York peddling them).
What was definitely true, however, was Mario’s relentless obsession with healthy living. “Be young, sane, and spry,” proclaimed the menus of the restaurant he opened here in 1949, “and eat Mario’s pizza pie.” He would sit down with diners, beseeching them to stop eating greasy foods that “clogged arteries up like mud in the pipes.” Sweets, he had concluded, somehow kill dozens of youngsters every day. Carrot juice, he insisted, could perform miracles, since it “has the whole 16 elements that your body requires” and — this may indeed be true — “rabbits have better sense than humans.” Skeptics were commanded to feel the “potatoes” in his strong arms, legs, and stomach — something chefs these days rarely demand of their patrons. And I think that’s a shame.
Nobody seemed to be listening. “You can’t teach jackasses anything,” Mario complained to a reporter. “They just turn and kick you.” But his diet for life certainly worked for him. He rode a bike until he was 80, and stayed healthy until his death in 1985. The last time I checked, his little “palace” on Park Avenue, shorn of all those signs, housed a business called the Door Exchange.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES