Vento’s serves slices through decades of East Liberty



Opening the door to a small pizzeria on 420 North Highland Avenue in East Liberty is like opening a time capsule. A pungent smell of garlic fills the small dining room. Photos of Frank Sinatra, Franco Harris, the late Mayor Bob O’Conner and Pittsburgh icons from many eras line the walls. There is a continuous clack from the lottery machine. And infusing it all is the boisterous conversation of the regulars and the warmth from the stoves, where pizzas bake to perfection.

Vento’s is a 63-year-old tradition in East Liberty, one of the few family-owned establishments still thriving. While the pizzeria has remained unchanged in its values, the community has not been as fortunate. In fact, when the East End began to develop, it was actually a patchwork of smaller neighborhoods, now long-forgotten. Vento’s owner Alberto Vento (Big Al to all) remembers, though. He remembers opening his first shop in the area of Friendship once known as Frog Town.

“I never left,” Big Al says. “We were all poor in the ’50s. When I returned from the Korean War and decided to open my first shop at 204 St. Clair Street in Frogtown, [it was] a small section dominated by 60 percent Whites, and 40 percent Negros, but the love and respect we had for one another was immense — a tight knit community.”

East Liberty is just recovering from decades of flight and civic neglect. The area lost more than one million square feet of commercial space and half its population by 1980. A long period of ill-fated “urban redevelopment” spread blight throughout the community and crime rates soared.

But during Vento’s infancy the community was booming, one of the leading commerce centers in the state of Pennsylvania.


“If you didn’t do it in East Liberty then you didn’t do it— on any given Saturday night Penn Avenue would be filled with five to six hundred people,” Big Al says.


East Liberty and neighboring Homestead were once home to some of the biggest names in Pittsburgh, including Carnegie, Heinz, Hunt, King, Lockart, Mellon and Westinghouse. In its heyday, East Liberty was home to several movie houses, department stores – including the first Sears & Roebuck Company store in Pittsburgh – an Islay’s, Stagno’s Bakers, a roller skating rink and numerous retail shops. East Liberty was reportedly one of the richest suburbs in the state.

The streets were lined with cars, and the lights shined bright from the theaters.

“The rich had their chauffeurs drive them from shop to shop all along Penn Avenue,” Big Al recalls with a proud grin.

During that era dreamers came to East Liberty to rub elbows with the rich and make names for themselves. But with the turn of the decade the community hit unimaginable lows.

The redevelopment came first, forcing Vento’s and several other surrounding shops to the other side of town.

“They moved me in 1954 to Maragarette, a side street with about twenty other little shops, putting meright in between a deli and television repair shop,” he says. “It didn’t last long and by 1960 I had moved to Highland Avenue.”

While still adjusting to the move, the riots of the 1960s hit East Liberty like a wrecking ball. Racial discord between Italians and blacks reached a fever pitch in April 1968, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

East Liberty’s African Americans vented their frustrations against white homes and businesses in the area, many of them Italian-owned. Rioters busted windows and stole from the shops they once supported – leaving many businesses in shattered ruins.

“I was the one and only shop that stayed here to feed the community,” says Big Al. “Ain’t nobody broke none of my windows. They came, they eat and they leave.”

The dark years would leave the neighborhood barren. According to some estimates, East Liberty was home to roughly 575 businesses in the 1950s, and by 1979 only 98 businesses remained. Businesses remained closed, and lots vacant for much of the decade.

video by Anthony Del Sardo

Yet during the turmoil, Vento’s established itself as more than just a pizza shop and grew into a neighborhood institution. Feeding the shop’s reoccurring customers and friends was the easy part for Big Al; successfully running a business in a once thriving area that has gone through decades of urban redevelopment and growing racial tension proved to be the greatest challenge.

By the close of the 1970s, the East Liberty Italian business district was on steady decline.

Big Al, along with local business owner Tony Stagno, found a cause that would reinvigorate Italian pride back into the community without offense. Both devoted Steeler fans, they took an immediate liking to Franco Harris, the Steelers’ rookie fullback. Franco was an African American who also shared their Italian heritage due to his mixed-decent. They decided to recruit an Italian “army of support” to cheer on Franco and the team on game days at Three Rivers Stadium. “Franco’s Italian Army” was born (Sinatra later became an honorary member and posed for a famous photo with Harris while wearing a helmet emblazoned with the name of the Army).

Throughout the 1972 season, Franco’s Italian Army became famous for its antics on and off the field.

The group would station itself at the 40-yard line, wearing helmets and parading around the field.
“To this day some of the brothers I helped still reach out from time to time, their kids too, and it’s all sincere stuff, no humbug – that’s my pay day, my hug and kiss on the cheek,” says Big Al. “I just feel really blessed to have survived this community.” So did Franco’s Army: It is memorialized in Vento’s popular “Italian Army Sandwich.”

Big Al also begat Little Al, who strolls in as his father reminisces. “When I was in college, me and my two sisters worked here,” Little Al says. “The neighborhood was different during that time – it was mainly Jewish, Black and Italian but everybody knew Vento’s: Home of the Italian Army.”

Little Al, now 58 years-old, married with children and grandchildren of his own, continues the tradition.

Little Al runs the small rectangular kitchen which consumes the back of the pizzeria; he serves as owner, cook and community leader. Regulars who enter the pizzeria know both him and his father by name.

“The bond between establishment and community remains tight throughout the years,” says Little Al.

“Back in the days we never wrote anything down- we did everything over the counter, there were no receipts, it was all ‘Hey Tom what do you need? Are you getting the regular today?’”

Vento’s, forced to move three times in the name of progress, now sits in the shadows of the sprawling Home Depot.

In the late 1990s, leaders like Big Al took an even greater stake in East Liberty, and brought a sense of urgency to tackling old problems plaguing the area.

They led an effort to reclaim streets that had been bypassed by the community-choking Penn Circle, and steadily, hotels, restaurants and cultural hubs have sprung up throughout the community.

“I get up in the morning not thinking ‘here is opportunity to sell my place,’” Little Al says. Instead, he revels in “the love and respect I have for some of my customers. My dad built that family relationship.”

The shop fills up. Orders are made. Time to get back to work. Little Al heads back to the kitchen and stirs a fresh pot of tomato sauce and preps garnishes for sandwiches.

Big Al chuckles as he collects a pizza from the counter and walks out of the cramped, cluttered back office. “East Liberty is getting back to normal, and I’d like to be here, God willing, to see it when it turns again.”