Pudgy's Pizzeria is hopping. Pudgy's pepperoni pizza is piping hot.
I'm watching the steam rise from the deep-dish Pudgy pie, taking in this small pizza joint in a suburban strip mall. On the walls hang posters of Pudgy's beloved Chicago teams and a mural that Pudgy's daughter, Amy, painted of Pudgy's native Chicago. Behind the counter stands Pudgy's wife, Beth. Pasted onto the sole arcade game is a child's restaurant review, declaring Pudgy's the best.
But nowhere in this 50-seat room is the larger-than-life namesake.
Phil Cerra picked up his nickname, “Pudgy,” as a child and it stuck: through his Chicago coming-of-age, his Creighton University education and his adulthood selling everything from hot dogs to cars. Ten years ago, he finally landed his dream: opening a pizza joint.
It's a seven-day-a-week job that this incorrigibly social man, now 60, figured he'd have into his 80s.
So where on a busy Wednesday is Pudgy?
At Lakeside Hospital. Getting a blood transfusion.
I visit him there, and Pudgy instantly puts me at ease.
He has terminal cancer and little time left.
Pudgy tears up at what his absence will mean to his wife of nearly 34 years, his daughters Abigail, a defense attorney for the State of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and Amy, an art teacher at Benson High. A third daughter, Ellen, died at age 16, making this family all too familiar with untimely loss.
Then he cracks wise about the Cubs (hates 'em), the Sox (they suck this year) and the proper way to serve a hot dog (without ketchup).
“You just want to make people happy,” he said, sharing his restaurant-running philosophy. “When they're happy, we're happy. They keep coming back. They get to have a nice dinner. I get to come to work another day.”
I find myself laughing at Pudgy's salty language, at his nasally Chicaaago accent, which he acknowledged he plays up for effect in accent-less Omaha, and at his direct and yet poignant way of telling stories.
About coming to Omaha from the City of Broad Shoulders: “I'm a city kid. One day we're going to see my friend in Nebraska City. We're driving down there. I tell them, 'Stop the car!' I got out and had never seen so many stars.”
About being the grandson of Italian immigrants, about making pizza: he grins conspiratorially and whispers, “I don't know how to cook!”
About getting the devastating news in April — 2½ years after a boil on his hip turned out to be soft-tissue sarcoma, leading to surgeries and rounds of chemo and radiation — that he had weeks, months tops.
About the trip to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors agreed that he could try the new drug that his Omaha oncologist suggested, but that there was nothing they could do. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs.
Phil and Beth cried the whole drive home from Rochester, Minn. They talked. They planned. They would try the new drug.
But first, they would go to Italy.
“I wanted to celebrate my illness,” Pudgy says.
So they booked the trip and went to Europe around Memorial Day. They lounged on the sands of the French Riviera. They walked through the Colosseum. They threw coins in the Fountain of Trevi.
When they returned, Phil tried the chemo and Beth pulled double duty, teaching English at Metropolitan Community College and running Pudgy's, near 168th and Harrison Streets. The chemo wiped Phil out. He would sleep for 24 hours, wake up and want to sleep for another 24 hours. The regimen didn't work. And Phil didn't return to Pudgy's.
Customers wrote cards. They prayed.
“There'd be a line to the door of people waiting to pick up pizzas — almost every person asking about him,” Beth said. “I hate to call them customers. They're really friends.”
Some have known him since he sold hot dogs in downtown Omaha.
The “friends” bussed their own tables and asked Beth about Phil and told Beth they wanted to help. They would sit with Phil, they would run errands, they would be willing to listen when the time comes.
One of them, Mark Kramer, said he felt a connection to Phil and Beth. A semiregular, he used to come to Pudgy's with his late wife, Paula, who had cancer. Kramer was amazed that Pudgy talked little of his own cancer but asked a lot about Paula, once sending home a slice of lemon marscarpone cake for her to try, on the house.
Kramer said the mark of good people is how they treat strangers.
When I shared Kramer's story with Pudgy, he shrugged it off.
“I made good pizza,” he said. “And I was good to people. And people like me. And that's what was important to me.”
When I ask Beth about this, she tells me Phil — she is one of the few who doesn't call him Pudgy — was “really healthy before this stupid cancer.”
“We always thought it would be me who went first,” said Beth, who is 55. “It just changes. It just changes. It changes everything.”
She knows what the future holds for her husband. She doesn't know what it will bring to Pudgy's.
“He's the cog,” Beth says, choking up. “He's the cog in the wheel. He's everything.”
She plans to keep the restaurant open for now. When Pudgy is gone, Beth wants Pudgy's to continue.
And sitting here, with all these symbols of Chicago, with the scents of baking dough and to-die-for red sauce, with the hum from the kitchen hood over three pizza ovens, Pudgy may not be here, at Pudgy's.
But he's present.