Murder By Pizza—This is the story of Mario Fresco as only he can tell – from his boyhood passion for pizza; his elite pizza training; and the events empowering him to become a pizza mogul, running his own shop and calling all the shots. From the lessons he learned at the Secret Traditional Pizza Academy, to the lessons he ignored from the same school. In this comedy, he sheds light on his uncompromising resolution to make pizza his own way, in the face of impossible odds.
Mario gives us a first-hand account of his relationship woes, the restaurant industry, the coercive tactics used against him, the pizza murder and trial, and his ultimate escape from jail – in this powerful and hilarious book of revenge.
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*** If you have a great pizza story of your own, please consider making a submission to the non-fiction pizza anthology that I am complying***
Enjoy the first few chapters:
Chapter 1—Learning by Example
“Pizza can be equally enjoyed by both children and adults”—Uncle Franky
I am not the pizza killer. Let me explain…
We moved to Canada after my parents had trouble settling in America. The move was coordinated so Papa could help with my uncle’s new pizza shop in Toronto’s Little Italy. Despite enjoying Brooklyn, my Mama permitted the move because she understood the importance of family, and made a decision that she felt was best for all of us.
As for me, I had no vote, but showed my support nonetheless. I knew I would be allowed to work in the family pizzeria—but it could only happen if we moved.
I was proud there was a pizzeria in our family, and said so to all my new schoolmates. One day, Uncle Franky brought a few dozen pizzas to my school as a surprise. It was quite funny—the boxes blocked his face, but I recognized his apron, which he never removed. That day I saw the power that pizza had over the other kids. I don’t think the teacher was impressed, though. It definitely wasn’t part of her lesson plan.
When recruiting my Papa, I think Uncle Franky assumed his older brother would bring trade secrets from the Brooklyn pizzeria where he had worked. Uncle Franky was a little disappointed to realize Papa’s pizza-making skills were less than refined.
Instead of working in the kitchen, as originally intended, my Uncle gave Papa work on the book- keeping side. This turned out to be not such a bad idea, as Papa thrived in this role. Papa always wanted to be a great pizza chef, but it’s true he never had what it took. People are either born with it, or they are not. Training can take you only so far.
The pizzeria sold pizza by the slice or full pies in sizes large and extra-large. The tables and chairs were white plastic, patio grade. Most table cloths were red and white checkered, in standard North American-Italian fashion. In the summer, Franky would set up a few tables outside—right on the sidewalk. Even after the bylaw inspectors told him to remove them, he kept them up. I liked that attitude.
Besides pizza and coffee, fresh bread from the oven was also a customer favourite. After stuffing themselves with pizza, customers would often buy a loaf on their way out—or they would use the excuse of picking up bread as an opportunity to have a slice. The espresso bar inside provided a place for Italian-Canadians of all ages to congregate. Over a smoke they’d talk union politics, weather, or soccer finals. Of course, they would also brag about their children, grandchildren, and gardens.
Most customers at Franky’s were of Mediterranean descent, though naturally, all were welcome. An elderly Ukrainian man who frequented the restaurant would often tousle my hair and suggest I take careful notes on the whole production, as one day I could run my own pizza shop. I liked the faith he had in me. Once he asked: “What makes an objectively good pizza?” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but I do now.
Franky had a large electric pizza oven. I later realized the limitations of electric ovens. Wood aroma and soot add an outstanding complement to pizza, which can’t otherwise be achieved. Using a real fire takes a lot more skill, as it’s hard to control the temperature. If it’s used incorrectly, a pizza can burn in an instant.
At Franky’s, every pizza was soaked with the same tomato sauce: a family recipe originating in the Old Country. We kids helped produce it every few months. We made vats of it, and Mama would jar it. It was a family bonding time. For my brother, sister, and cousins, this was the only time they ever helped out at the pizzeria. This showed the contrast between us, as I helped out however I could. I was always selected to stir the bubbling sauce cauldron with the big wooden spoon: a pleasure for any chef.
I remember Papa smiling at me during these times, and Franky prodding his own children to do more. Sauce is the blood of pizza, and I learned the basics at a young age.
I saw how the sauce was missing something, and I knew it could be improved. One time, I secretly pinched in more basil than the recipe asked. Despite the basil bringing out more flavour, Franky was upset and threw it all away.
“Sorry, Zio,” I pleaded. I pretended to have made a mistake. Some people are just not open to change.
“Pay attention to details, boy. You just cost the business a whole lot’a with your blunder. I have much to teach you.”
Beyond sauce production, I started other kitchen work at age thirteen—mostly slicing and dicing. I did this on Sunday evenings, even though it prevented me from participating in Sunday dinner at home. I ate pizza as my wage.
I wasn’t just a pair of hands scrubbing trays; I was regarded as highly as the paid kitchen help, such as Salvatore, a neighbourhood teenager with a big heart and a knack for Italian cuisine.
On my fourteenth birthday, Uncle Franky called me into the cold storage room, the place where he usually made important business decisions. “Mario, boy, you’re’a show’n some real promise, and your enthusiasm is special.” I smiled hearing this. “I talked with your father and he agreed you’re ready for more work. What do you say?”
“Yes, Uncle, yes, I am!”
“Okay, I think you’re the only other Fresco showing pizza promise, but I ain’t prodding the others anymore, because there’s nothing worse than having a chef who doesn’t want to be one. Those are the type of people who you don’t want preparing your food, boy.”
My responsibilities thus expanded, but, to my dismay, I still wasn’t actually cooking the pizzas. I was now working two days a week and received some welcomed, but modest, pay. Making money made me feel like a man.
By age fifteen, I finally was a full-blown pizza chef, entrusted with manning the oven and serving pizzas to the customers. I mastered every pizza on the menu, and soon began to realize how limited a selection we offered. Customers should be able to order a pizza that corresponds to whatever mood they are in: happy, sad, hungry, depressed, or celebratory.
I often saw ways to improve things within the restaurant. I didn’t initially provide suggestions, so as to not step out of line, and so I kept these ideas mostly to myself, despite some idle musings I made to Salvatore.
But after building some confidence and maturity, I began voicing my business suggestions to Franky and Papa. They liked my suggestion of correcting the spelling on the menu. As they were both born in Italy, English was their second language, and they struggled with it.
Also, I felt Franky began increasingly smothering the pizzas in sauce—applying more than necessary. In response to some customers calling the pizza ‘saucy’, I suggested we use less and allow customers to order extra sauce, free of charge, if they noticed and preferred a saucier pie.
“Good boy, Mario. You’re’a showing plenty’a pizza promise,” he told me after speaking with some old-time customers. And Papa liked the money saved by using less sauce.
About six months later, I sought to strike lucky again with another suggestion. I told Franky how I noticed Nuvo Nu Pizza, a competitor down the street, was serving a pie with ‘white sauce’ composed of a simple olive oil, sautéed garlic, and a parmesan cheese spread.
Through their window, it looked absolutely wonderful, and the concept of it rocked my understanding of pizza. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to taste it. Despite the pocket change I earned, I simply didn’t have enough money to spend on other food, especially when I received all the pizza I could eat from Franky.
I suggested we do a similar white sauce option. “But what about all the tomatoes I get you kids to help me with? Mario, you are a thinker, but a pizza needs tomato sauce. Plus, we are famous for our sauce,” he replied. “White sauce is a fad that’a won’t last. We have signature pies—different is not always good, boy, learn that now.”
For the following three years I made pizzas exactly the way that I was told, but, at last, the day came which allowed me to express myself through pizza. I had my first opportunity to run the restaurant (with Salvatore), and I whole-heartedly embraced it. Franky and my Papa were leaving to Italy for a month to attend to a sick relative, and I was left in charge!
My girlfriend’s name was Maria and she was absolutely wonderful. Those already familiar with my story will note this is the same Maria who later tried to destroy me.
But at this point, things between us were going well, although she complained I worked too much. Dedication to pizza has always come at a cost to me.
Maria was an Italian-Irish mix. She was short with faint freckles, and dark hair usually worn in a ponytail. I told her I needed to work, and that one day we would have our own pizzeria. This excited her, and so she seemingly understood why I put in the long hours.
Maria liked writing and wanted to work as a journalist. She also enjoyed cooking. She joked that one day we would both come home from a busy day and fight over who would make dinner. It was cute when she talked about these things. She would squint and unknowingly grin when projecting how our future could be. It is a shame this never happened.
To show my dedication to her, I had bought her a gold-coloured Promise Ring on our first-year anniversary. But I wasn’t always so romantic. During our second anniversary, we had a big fight. I forgot to make Valentine’s Day plans, because I was actually working the Valentine’s Day crowd at Franky’s. She got really upset at this. She burst into the restaurant, teary-eyed, and called me a jerk in front of all the customers.
“Mario, you only think of yourself. You are not a normal guy! My other girlfriends are all out with their boyfriends while I’m at home, all dressed up, waiting for you. And where are you? You are working—AS USUAL!” she yelled.
Two weeks into Franky and Papa’s leave, I experienced what was, at the time, the most important day of my life.
I was taking orders, preparing pizza, and presenting delicious fresh pies to customers. A waitress, a kitchen helper, and Salvatore were all working as well. The oven was on full tilt, radiating heat and aroma. The dough was constantly being mixed and kneaded. The sauce was stewing in a huge pot. Ingredients were being chopped, and pizza creations were tossed together in pure pizza magic.
After a particularly slushy winter, patrons were celebrating the start of summer and everyone was happy. The patio was open and lucky customers embraced the opportunity of eating pizza in the evening sun.
The more pizzas I made, the more the customers wanted. It was as if the whole population of Little Italy had an unquenching craving for my pizza. Seeing the smiles on their faces as I put the dishes in front of them always delighted me. People always smile for a fresh pizza. There is so much power in pizza.
At the height of the evening, I ran out of mushrooms.
Panic set in, as this could’ve been a tragedy. I sent Salvatore to get some more from a local grocer. He brought back twenty-five pounds of portabellas. I have no idea why he bought so many. They were on sale, or something, he said. They were different in colour and size than our regular supplier provided, but I was sure they’d do the trick. I also knew I would have to use them up. If Papa found out I over-ordered supplies, he’d be annoyed.
I wrote on the chalkboard sign out front: “Mushroom, Cheese, Anchovy Pie—Extraordinaire.” I was going to try to bake through the mushrooms’ abundance.
I part-sautéed the mushrooms. I pinched in rosemary, thyme, and sauce, and stirred. Next, I dolloped the whole mixture onto the raw dough, covered it in cheese, and threw it all into the oven to seal. After baking, I placed anchovy fillets directly on the steaming pizzas. The heat allowed diffusion of the anchovy flavour further into the pizza. Finishing, I placed fresh basil and diced cherry tomatoes atop. Customers were in awe when their order was presented to them. The colour composition was beyond imaginable.
Once the first customer tried the special mushroom and anchovy pizza, dozens of orders followed. The smell was stupendous.
A tall middle-aged man, in a cream-coloured trench coat with a black top hat and a leather briefcase, entered the restaurant while I was at the height of my game. He stood confidently, but appeared out of place amongst the commotion. He looked as though he’d come out of the rain, though it was not raining outside. The restaurant buzzed around him while he quietly observed. I seemed the only one to notice him.
I looked away after making brief eye contact with him, and returned to what I was doing: making delicious pizzas. He waited until we engaged again, and then took a few steps closer to watch me work.
Slightly annoyed, I said, “Sir, I’m not taking orders at the moment, please see the waitress.” I gestured toward her and a pile of laminated menus. “Or, you could try our mushroom extraordinaire anchovy pizza—it’s on special. Not on the menu.”
“Yes, I will have that,” he said with conviction.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to do as instructed, I washed the pizza goo from my hands and wrote his order on a chit. The man proceeded to sit at a small table in the middle of the restaurant. I noticed how he intently examined the details of the space. His head was always at a different angle. He was examining the clientele too.
When his mushroom pie was served to him, he sat and inhaled the aroma for some time. Next he took a picture of the pizza, which I thought was odd for a grown man to do. Once cool enough to eat, he picked up his knife and fork and addressed the dish.
He negotiated the whole thing with utensils. Most customers only used a knife and fork for the first few piping hot bites, but not him. Every bite he took was five seconds apart from the one before. He continued methodically in this manner until it was all gone. Sitting contently, he wiped both sides of his mouth with the napkin, and then brushed the crust debris from his pants to the floor.
The waitress brought him his cheque. Instead of paying and leaving, he opened his briefcase and took out a notepad and pen. I continued watching. I almost lost focus on the oven, which could have been a terrible mistake. He sat blankly for a few moments, then, as if something clicked, he began to write quite fiercely.
He tore the page from the notepad and looked contently at the message he scribed. Now standing, he replaced his top hat and proceeded to walk straight towards me, handing me the folded page. “We were absolutely right, kid, truly an excellent pizza,” he said in a professional tone.
Before I could respond, he turned to leave.
The dinner crowd was still strong, and I didn’t have time to read the note. I slipped it into my pocket and, after a few moments—I almost forgot about it. I had more immediate issues to handle: another three orders were ‘fresh up’ and I didn’t want anything to interrupt the sense of power I was feeling.
Chapter 2—An Invitation
“It only takes a few minutes to eat a pizza, but the memory of a truly great pizza can last a lifetime” —Salvatore
I got home late. After standing next to a blasting oven all evening, I needed a shower. Undressing, I emptied the contents of my pockets—receipt paper and scattered coins—onto my dresser, not thinking twice about the note. After I cleaned up, I jumped into bed and slept like a log.
I don’t usually remember dreams, but I quite vividly remember mine from that night. I was much older and married to Maria. I didn’t have my own pizzeria; I was still working at Franky’s. Instead of using fresh mushrooms, I opened a can that had been on the kitchen shelf for years. It was dusty and the yellowed label was ripping.
As I opened it, I heard a hiss and noticed a pungent smell. Flicking the lid off, I shrieked and freaked as I noticed hundreds of worms oozing and crawling over each other in a greyish-brown mucus sauce. In a panic, I flung the can against the wall, and the worms splashed and splattered around the sink. They began to slime their way out of the can and crawl all over the floor at a fairly quick rate.
I ran out of the kitchen and told Franky, but, when we went back into the kitchen together, the worms were gone. There was no trace of them—just mushrooms spilt on the floor. He looked at me with disapproval.
Gasping into consciousness, I woke up to a bed drenched in sweat. I tossed and turned all night afterward until I remembered about the note from the odd man. I snatched it up and read it by moonlight.
It was addressed to Mario Fresco. How did he know my name? Written in clean cursive writing, it read:
Delicious pizza, kid. Truly wonderful. But your skills could be improved… This is an invitation of a lifetime. Meet me at the Ontario Food Terminal at 1900 hours tomorrow, and I will make you an offer that you cannot refuse.
– Mr. M.
I was curious as to what he was implying, but the secrecy of the situation seemed creepy. I hoped it wasn’t a hoax or something to waste my time. I also had to ask someone what 1900 hours meant.
Many thoughts raced through my head. What does he have to say to me that he couldn’t have told me when he was in the shop? I thought long and hard about this invitation. I was not keen on driving across the city for a little game, but the note had me curious. What did he have to say about my pizza skills?
After much deliberation, I figured I’d meet the man, but wouldn’t accept a job offer. I went into work early to tell Salvatore I’d have to excuse myself for an unexpected appointment. He could run the restaurant with the help of the other staff. Because it was a Monday, we weren’t expecting a crowd like the night before.
Driving west with my Papa’s car, into the sun, I exited Little Italy and ventured towards Etobicoke, where the Food Terminal was located. I unrolled my window and turned up the radio. I put my sunglasses on and felt good. I was clipping along at a high speed and catching all the greens.
I found a perfect parking spot. Stepping out of my car, I suddenly felt nervous. Realizing I was still wearing my pizza apron, I took it off and tossed it onto the passenger seat, releasing a cloud of flour into the air. Noticing myself in the mirror, I fixed my hair, which was messed from the wind. I made some adjustments to my clothes, and stood tall. At that moment, I had the unmistakable premonition that I was drastically changing the course of my life.
There were several large delivery trucks leaving the terminal and workers were walking towards the streetcar tracks—probably a shift change. Then I saw the man I was meeting. He stood out in his trench coat and top hat. He looked friendlier, more normal. I strolled towards him.
“Hey Sonny, you made it,” he said joyfully as I approached. “I’m Mr. Marinara.”
We shook hands, and he looked directly into my eyes. “Are you interested in refining those pizza skills? I am going to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean really something special. I am talking about an opportunity for the most promising pizza chefs in the world—where the elite of the elite meet.”
I wasn’t expecting him to say anything like that. “Are you offering me a job?” I was confused.
“No, no, no. I am offering a first-class pizza education! A tremendous opportunity!”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a recruiter for the Secret Traditional Pizza Academy.”
“I’m glad you don’t know what I am talking about. It means our secret has been kept. I represent a private pizza school.”
“I don’t get it.”
“We provide elite pizza training. Our alumni include the crème de la crème of great chefs: people such as Guy Manger, Sammy Mozzarella Senior, and, of course, The Alphonso.”
These names didn’t make a big impact on me. “I already work. I already make pizza, Mr. Marinara, sir. I learn plenty at my uncle’s pizzeria, and the customers are always satisfied—they come back for more.”
“You could learn more.”
“No offence, but I think you’re wasting my time. I drove forty minutes and took time off work to meet you—all because of this mysterious note you gave me. Seriously, what’s this all about?” At this point, I was getting agitated.
“Like I said, I am a recruiter—and the matter we are discussing is highly secretive. I was not in a position to talk to you about this anywhere but on my own turf. We keep the secret closely guarded.”
“Fine. Tell me about this ‘secret school’.”
“You won’t have the full facts until you enroll. I can only provide basic info now. We specialize in traditional pizzas, but are quite open to innovations based on advances in oven technology and ingredient availability, but we don’t depart much from tradition. We know what we do and we do it well. Our mission is to keep pizza classy across the entire world.”
“We’ve been watching you, and that’s why we approached you.”
“How and why have you been watching me?”
“Let’s just say we were keeping an eye on your uncle. I wasn’t going to mention this, but your Uncle Franky was also offered a scholarship—like you are now.”
“He was?” I asked, incredulously. “He never mentioned that.”
“It is good to see he has maintained the secret,” Mr. Marinara responded.
“Is that where he learned to make pizza?”
“Mario, to be blunt, your Uncle didn’t graduate. He couldn’t hack it—but we think the outcome will be much different for you.”
“Wait a minute, you’re claiming my uncle—Zio Franky—wasn’t good enough for your little private school? Come on; I don’t believe that for a second.”
Clearing his throat, Mr. Marinara responded: “It is true, but, again, we think it will be different for you. Does your Uncle Franky make good pizza? Sure he does—much better than the ‘average’ chef—and his heart is in the pizza, but, if you haven’t already realized it, he can’t quite cut it. He is not elite, but you could be.”
“He taught me all I know about pizza.”
“Tell me then: why did the best pizza ever made at Franky’s Pizzeria happen when he was on vacation? You have promise, Sonny, but you have a long way to go as well. Your crust was undercooked, and your sauce was bland. We can fix that tenfold.”
“What exactly are you offering?”
“Our school is offering you a four-month full scholarship at our secret pizza campus. After four months of intensive pizza training, you will be reinvented.”
“To be clear, I don’t have to pay anything?”
“You won’t pay any tuition. However, once you graduate, our Alumni Affairs officers will expect donations to the pizza fund. We do have bills to pay, but don’t worry about that now. You’ll be able to open the best pizzeria in any of the available cities, and money will be no object. Your business will be unstoppable. Making donations to the school will seem an honourable endeavour. You will see.”
“Can you tell me more about this school?”
“Our school is very prestigious and exclusive. There is camaraderie, and the alumni form a tight fraternity of excellence. There are regular reunions and award ceremonies—fun activities at our retreats, and we enjoy fabulous pizza. It’s a lifestyle. You’ll find out more if you accept. What do you say?” He grinned, knowing I took the bait. “This is the only time we are going to offer you this amazing opportunity. Do you understand?”
“It’s Mr. Marinara. Think long and hard about your choice, Mario. If you want in, meet here tomorrow at 500 hours sharp. There will be a white Ford delivery van waiting. Pack a suitcase for an extended absence. Give your family an excuse, and don’t mention our meeting to anyone.”