This year marks the 40th year in business in Gilroy for Sal Oliveri, owner of Pinnochio’s Pizza.
It’s a year he will never forget.
The year began with him nearly losing his life defending his family from a knife-wielding homeless man. In an interview this week, the humble pizza maker, son of Sicilian immigrants, said he is hopeful the year will end better than it started.
Ten days later, Sal and his family calmly reflected on that day, and described a scene of terror and bloody mayhem.
On Jan. 6, during the Saturday evening dinner rush at his restaurant at Church and Welburn, a man rushed in waving a large knife. When he lunged at Sal’s daughter, Gina Oliveri Polhaupessy, Sal and his son-in-law, Duke, leaped into action, pushing the man towards the door.
They ended up on one of the tables, and the man swung the knife towards Sal’s throat. When Sal raised his arm to block the blow, the assailant slashed it with his knife, then fled the store, as Duke was able to lock the door.
Gina was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher throughout the frightening fracas, and the attacker was arrested without incident a blocks away a few minutes later.
“There was blood everywhere,” said Sal. Gina said she at first wondered if her dad had lost his arm in the attack. The wound had cut to the bone in his forearm, Sal said.
“It’s scary when there are customers here, and my family — you don’t want to see anything happen,” said Sal.
His right arm has a brace and heavy bandage from his bicep to his fingers. He has use of his hand, but more surgeries lie ahead before he knows whether he will regain full use of his arm to be able to throw pizza dough as he has for four decades.
Sal’s wife, Vickie, is a Gilroy native. “I’m just glad he is alive,” she said.
She said her mother lives a couple of blocks away, and saw the police cars outside the business. She couldn’t get past the barricades yellow tape.
After Gilroy firefighter paramedics got an IV going, Sal was taken to St. Louise Regional Hospital.
Gina and Vickie said the attacker had been angry and barely coherent, accusing the Italian-American family of being terrorists. He mentioned President Trump and said the Oliveris should be deported, after Vickie had declined to shake his hand a few moments before the attack.
“I’m an American,” Vickie said he had shouted.
“It wasn’t even a robbery,” said Sal, shaking his head.
He grew up first in Detroit, and then Little Italy on New York’s Lower East Side — tough immigrant neighborhoods. But he said he never saw a crime like this.
The Oliveris lived in Morgan Hill for 25 years — Gina graduated from Live Oak High — then moved back to Gilroy when they opened the Church Street location four years ago.
Shortly after moving in, there northside home was burglarized.
On the fateful Saturday, Jan. 6, “I was making pizza, then I heard the commotion.” he said.
“When he came in the door, he opened his knife, then he starts jumping up and down. This guy — you don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s going to hurt someone,” Sal recalled.
“When I saw the knife, I started to call 911, I just froze,” said Gina.
“When I saw the knife, I thought, this is going to end up bad,” said Sal.
“I was worried the customers were going to get hurt — my daughter, my wife. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
“My back was turned and he comes at me, and my dad and husband saw that he was coming at me,” said Gina.
“The first thing in my mind was I am not going to let her get hurt,” recalled Duke. “I don’t care what happens to me.”
Duke escaped uninjured.
The counter at the restaurant is filled with flowers and cards from neighbors, friends and customers.
“This community, this community so great. People have been so great,” said Sal.
Gina said Gilroy officers stopped by the day after the attack, to see how the family was doing.
It is a family business. No employees. Just family.
They treat their customers like family. And this month, their customers responded, words of encouragement, flowers — and of course with orders for the locally famous Oliveri pizza.