Remembering Al Vento and Franco’s Italian Army

It’s not uncommon for Steelers players to become celebrities. It is uncommon, however, to get famous for being a fan.

Al Vento and Tony Stagno in 1972.

Al Vento, who died Tuesday, was the owner of the decades-old Vento’s Pizza in East Liberty and a founding member of one of Pittsburgh’s most iconic fan clubs: Franco’s Italian Army.

In 1972, Vento and Tony Stagno, another East Liberty business owner, assembled an “army” of Steelers fans to cheer for Franco Harris, a rookie running back of black and Italian descent. The group wore World War II helmet liners, drank Italian wine out of goblets, and feasted on homemade Italian cuisine in the stands. With banners and chants, they urged Harris: “Run, paisano, run!”

Franco Harris and his Italian Army.

Mr. Vento and Mr. Stagno donned Army merchandise, attended charity events with Mr. Harris, and even hopped on a last-minute flight to Palm Springs to induct Frank Sinatra as a one-star general of Franco’s Italian Army. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Army founders brought their own wine, prosciutto, and cheese for the ceremony.

Mr. Vento’s career as a football fan and East Liberty restaurateur is a capsule of Pittsburgh history. He and Mr. Stagno founded the Army at a pivotal moment for the Steelers: the team had a new stadium and was starting to turn around a years-long losing streak.

But the Army also synthesized simmering racial discord that played out in the neighborhood that Mr. Vento called home — his pizzeria survived the riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. At the time, relations between black and Italian residents of East Liberty were adversarial.

In 1974, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Clarke Thomas wrote that black and Italian fans alike joined the Italian Army, despite any existing racial tensions. But some remained skeptical of the Italian community’s claim to the beloved running back.  

By 1977, Roy McHugh of The Pittsburgh Press reported that Franco’s Italian Army fizzled out: Mr. Stagno and Mr. Vento were “tired of being generals.” After four Super Bowl victories, the Army’s “generalissimo” left the Steelers in 1984.

Al Vento in 1999, shortly before the reopening of Vento’s Pizza. (Tony Tye/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

But Vento’s Pizza, a neighborhood favorite, remained, even as East Liberty has gentrified. The opening of Home Depot in 2000 forced the restaurant to move and rebuild about 200 feet south of its previous location. The restaurant’s website reports that Franco’s Italian Army “still stands tall.”  

 

 

A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the city where Frank Sinatra was inducted to Franco’s Italian Army. 

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.

8 Comments

  1. paula bradley
    6/27/2018
    Reply

    great pizza good man he will be missed

  2. Carmen Roberto
    6/27/2018
    Reply

    Great man. God bless his family.

  3. Alphonso Moore
    6/28/2018
    Reply

    Not only was he a Steeler fan he also cheered for my alma mater Peabody High School. That was definitely the place go for lunch period just to eat and hear his story of the pass.

  4. Right after I moved here in 2011, friends of mine took me along to this place that they’d always wanted to try. I didn’t realize until we got there that it was Vento’s Pizza. Al was there that day, and I was like a wide-eyed teenager! I was so excited, and so was the couple who took me – it was like meeting royalty for us. He was utterly charming and took a lot of time to talk to us that afternoon and tell us about Franco and the Italian Army. I have learned that Pittsburghers are like that – open and engaging – but he was above and beyond awesome. I’ll cherish the memory of that afternoon always.

  5. AL Castelli
    6/28/2018
    Reply

    I often bought my lunch from Vento’s when I worked at the Gulf Station at the corner of Hoeveler and Highland back in the mid fifties. The pizza and the frizzle burgers were always my favorite.

  6. Char;lotte Wagner Beukema
    6/28/2018
    Reply

    Barb, I was so sorry to see that your father passed away. I send my deepest sympathy to you and your family.

  7. Nihla Wallace -Sheppard
    6/28/2018
    Reply

    The Peabody Highlanders Facebook site has many tributes posted by students and teachers who loved Big Al. Count me among them.

  8. Penny Wilson
    7/1/2018
    Reply

    He and his family treated everyone the same, like family.
    Never forget your name even after many years.
    I’ve never heard a unkind word spoken of him.
    Not only did we love the food, we loved him.
    You will be missed.
    Rest with God.
    Must love,
    Penny Wilson and family

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *