To many of his customers, the only thing better than the cuisine at Gennaro’s Pizzeria was the personality of its owner, Gennaro Savastano. According to several long-time residents the owner of Gennaro’s Pizzeria in Glen Head not only produced some of the best pizza on the North Shore, but also always took a genuine interest in the people who lived in the community. Savastano, who died on Jan. 1 after going into cardiac arrest, will be gravely missed for these reasons. He was 70 years old.
Savastano was born in Naples in 1949. Living in post-World War II Italy was tough on most Italians because the war left the country largely impoverished.
Savastano came to the United States by boat in 1969 knowing no one. He lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn and worked in several restaurants over the years. Eventually, he earned enough money to move to Port Washington in the mid-70s, where he met Sandra Percio, another Italian immigrant. The two quickly fell in love and married in 1979, having their son, Gennaro Savastano Jr., a year later.
“They were each other’s world,” Gennaro Jr. said. “They worked together, they laughed together. They laughed from morning to night, and that was normal.”
According to his son, Savastano always wanted to open his own restaurant, saving money for two decades to make his dream come true. His hard work finally paid off on April 1, 1989, when he open Gennaro’s Pizzeria at 689 Glen Cove Ave. in Glen Head.
“In my mind he really was the American dream,” Gennaro Jr. said. “He started with $26 in his pocket and he ended his life as a business owner with a family . . . He won at life.”
For the next 29 years, Savastano and his family manned their small pizza shop, quickly becoming known for their great food.
“He was a fixture in our community for decades,” said Bill Mozer, “and by many people’s estimation, he made the best pizza for hundreds of miles.”
Over time, Gennaro’s Pizzeria became much more than just a place to buy food. Mozer, a long-time Glen Head resident, said Savastano loved when children came into his restaurant. He was always happy to feed them after school or during a hot summer day. Even if a child didn’t have quite enough money to afford a slice, Mozer said Savastano would often serve them just out of kindness.
“The food was great and he was just a wonderful, kind person,” Mozer said. “He was a man bigger than life in our town.”
This love for the North Shore community was apparent from the moment Savastano opened the shop. Gennaro Jr. recalled his father saying often that they had won the lottery with the Glen Head location. Gennaro Jr. worked alongside his father from an early age, watching him wave at the ever-increasing amount of familiar faces who walked by. Over time, the children of the children who used to come by after school started doing the same as their parents. This was one of his father’s favorite parts of the job, Gennaro Jr. said.
Savastano’s health issues first arose when he had a heart attack in 2004. However, Gennaro Jr. said his father “felt like a young man, so he acted like one,” and was back in the restaurant as soon as he was medically able. As he grew older, though, his health caught up to him, and his doctors advised him that he should no longer be working in his late 60s due to further heart issues. Gennaro’s Pizzeria closed in May 2018.
While Savastano may have been done serving the North Shore, the North Shore was not done serving him. Mozer, Marie Spiridigliozzi and Ken Kraft, a member of the Glenwood Landing American Legion Post 336’s board, decided that Savastano deserved a worthy sendoff. They helped to organize a retirement party at the American Legion and worked with Savastano’s family to keep it a secret.
Savastano was surprised by a crowd of roughly 80 people who showered him with praise. Gennaro Jr. said his father told the crowd that a million dollars couldn’t buy the joy he experienced at that moment.
After he died, Savastano’s family, who lived in Port Washington, thought it would be more appropriate to hold his funeral services in Glen Head. “There was something about the people there,” Gennaro Jr. said. “We knew we had to have his services at Whitting [Funeral Home] because they were so much more than customers. From the beginning, they welcomed us into the community like family and they made it so much more about food.”
Much like his impact on the community, Savastano’s services were no small affair, with dozens of people coming out to honor his place on the North Shore. “There were so many people at his wake, there was a long line just to go in and pay respects,” Spiridigliozzi said. “People really loved Gennaro.”
“He was a fixture in the community and he was well-liked,” said Steve Warshaw, president of the Gold Coast Business Association. “There’s nothing bad to say about this guy.”
Gennaro Jr. said the incredible support Savastano received from the community toward the end of his life and even after his death was emblematic of how much he meant to its residents. He said he hopes they understand that his father felt the same way.
“I know that they know how much he loved them,” Gennaro Jr. said. “Family is about more than blood — it’s about people who show up when you need help.”