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