At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, Pizza Villa was calm. The phones were silent, the ovens cooling. The workers stood idly, or else lounged in the otherwise empty booths. The cash register stayed shut.
For a weeknight dinner rush at Richardson's best and probably oldest pizza joint, the silence was bizarre. For New Year's Eve, it was unheard of.
The restaurant had run out of pizza almost two hours earlier, just as it had every day for the previous week. Ever since word had leaked that Pizza Villa, a beloved institution, was closing for good on December 31. Those like me who waited until dinnertime Tuesday to get their fix were out of luck.[jump]
The restaurant opened in 1960 and was soon taken over by Don Scott, a chain-smoking Korean War vet. Decades later, around the time he had a massive coronary on the dining room floor, he passed the reins to his son Mark, who has been running it ever since.
Pizza Villa is a bit out of place nowadays, a holdover from a time before Chinese restaurants, sari shops and hookah bars turned its corner of downtown Richardson into a pan-Asian bazaar, and before chain pizzerias exploded on suburban America. The menu has barely changed since the '60s. It still closes every Sunday. Smoking inside is OK. The Scott family will be damned if they're ever going to take credit cards or build a website.
How, then, did they manage to survive for so long in an industry in which the vast majority of businesses collapse after a few months?
It can be tough to explain the allure of Pizza Villa to an outsider. When I worked there, during high school and for a couple of stints after, I had friends who refused to step inside, put off by the haze of cigarette smoke and the way the smell -- a sour mix of tomato sauce, singed provolone cheese and unfiltered Pall Malls -- clung to fabrics and sunk into one's pores. The wooden booths provided minimal physical comfort, and the only attempt at an aesthetic flourish came during the holidays when an itinerant artist would paint a Christmas scene on the front windows.
The cast of characters seemed like they'd been ripped from a short-lived '70s sitcom: Don, whom everyone called Holmes though neither he nor anyone else could remember why, spent his afternoons playing solitaire and waxing endlessly about why he started using provolone over that flavorless mozzarella bullshit; Mrs. Scott, his diminutive but comically hot-tempered Japanese wife; Mark, the son, a proud half-Japanese redneck with a stringy ponytail hanging just below his shoulder blades; and a rotating ensemble of obnoxious high school kids and twenty-something townies whose constant shenanigans would send Mrs. Scott into fits of rage.
The pizza, though, whatever its provenance, was majestic. A thin, hand-made crust, coated with specially seasoned tomato sauce, judiciously layered with cheese and toppings, it baked to a pleasantly savory crispiness. Biting into it, you began to understand why Holmes kept rattling on about provolone cheese.
But lots of places make good pizza. What kept Pizza Villa going for so long -- and what inspired the restaurant's intensely loyal following -- was the Scott family. Their pride in making good pizza and selling it at a fair price was evident and, while their service was never ostentatious, they knew their customers and treated them well. Order a pizza two or three times, and you'd find yourself part of the Pizza Villa fraternity, welcomed by name, inquired after if you were away for too long.
The same went for employees. The pay wasn't magnificent, but it was fair, and the Scotts were devoted to any employee who could work hard and endure some gentle ribbing from Mark. Every Friday and Saturday night after the dinner rush was over, they'd treat everyone to dinner. At Christmas, they'd hand a crisp, $100 bill to each employee.
Often, they were better to employees than they deserved. When, restless and depressed, I took a break from college, they had a job waiting for me. They would have given me a job again after I came back from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail later that year, but I stayed away, first for no explicable reason, then out of guilt for having stayed away for so long.
I missed a lot during my seven-year absence. Holmes died. Mrs. Scott, who lost a leg to diabetes, passed away a few years later. I missed both funerals.
I finally set foot in Pizza Villa again about three months ago, feeling very much like the prodigal son, especially when they shrugged off my absence with a warm greeting, a photocopied program from Mrs. Scott's memorial service and free pizza for me and my two kids.
Little did I know that the seeds of Pizza Villa's demise had already been planted. Though Mark had been in charge of the place for years, the business was in his dad's name. When he died, it passed to Mrs. Scott. When she died, she split it 50/50 between Mark and his brother Wayne.
During my years at Pizza Villa, I never once saw Wayne. Word was he'd stormed out of the place years before during an argument with his dad and never returned. Mark, who's been putting in 70-hour weeks ever since, told me that he wants his brother to give up all or most of his claim to the business. Wayne has refused, leading Mark to shut down.
Pizza Villa's closure may not be permanent. Wayne, once the cash stops flowing, might give in. Mark doesn't expect that to happen, in which case he says he has the will and the cash to start from scratch, probably in the same location (Pizza Villa Inc.'s lease expired on Tuesday), possibly under a new name.
That didn't help me on Tuesday night. With the clock ticking toward 7 p.m., the point my hungry 4-year-old experiences nuclear meltdown, I called in an order to Domino's. The pizza was OK, and it made the kids happy, but as I waited in the narrow, blue-and-red foyer and heard the workers in the back proclaim that the order was ready "for the white guy" up front, I couldn't help but regret not having Pizza Villa.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.