Grace: Friends saluted Phil Cerra, Pudgy's Pizzeria owner, right before he lost his battle with cancer - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 10:01 am
Grace: Friends saluted Phil Cerra, Pudgy's Pizzeria owner, right before he lost his battle with cancer

In his final hours, Omaha's sociable pizza man, Phil Cerra — known to many as “Pudgy” — was surrounded by people.

Friends went to his home Saturday night. They stood around his bed. They poured his favorite cocktail, 7&7, and clinked their glasses, toasting him. They told Pudgy stories. They laughed at the good times. And then they said farewell.

Cancer had stolen nearly all of Phil's faculties. He couldn't see or talk or move. But his wife, Beth, prayed that her husband could somehow hear the joviality, feel the warmth and know he was not alone.

“He just wanted to be loved and to love and to serve people,” Beth said. “He just wanted to make, in his own small way, his own small mark on the world.”

Phil Cerra died early Sunday in his home. A wake service will be held at 7 p.m. tonight and a funeral at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church, 16701 S St.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Phil was born in Chicago, where he became known as “Pudgy.”

“In Chicaaago,” he once told me, in his pronounced nasally accent, “nicknames are big.”
His was unflattering: “Doughboy.”

“I was short, fat, white and slow,” Phil had explained. “I told my friends, 'We're going to come up with a better name.' I've been 'Pudgy' ever since I was 16 years old.”

His mother, his wife and the IRS, he said, were the ones who called him by his given name, Phil.

Phil landed in Omaha to attend Creighton University, where he majored in chemistry, intending to become a pharmacist.

But he had a change of heart. He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and went into business, selling cars, insurance and even hot dogs downtown before opening his dream, a pizzeria, 10 years ago.

He made Omaha his home, marrying Beth about 34 years ago. The couple had three daughters: Abi, Amy and Ellen. Ellen died at 16.

Phil had two speeds, his wife said, on and off. He was on whenever he was awake, talking and joshing and lifting the spirits of those around him. His motor shut down only when he closed his eyes and went to sleep at night.

Cancer changed all that, of course. He was diagnosed three years ago with soft-tissue sarcoma. He fought the disease with surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. But in April, the cancer had progressed to his lungs, and he was given months to live.

Phil and Beth took a trip to the French Riviera in May, and then in June tried an experimental treatment. It failed.

Through it all, his 50-seat pizza joint near 168th and Harrison Streets kept running mainly due to a dedicated staff, his wife's hard work and a loyal clientele that swears Pudgy's deep-dish is the best Chicago pie to be had in Omaha.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Phil drew his last breath early Sunday. Hours later, Pudgy's opened for business.

“Nobody knew yet he had died,” Beth said, explaining why the crew opened the doors. “We had all the dough defrosted.”

That evening, after Pudgy's closed for the week, Beth drove to the restaurant alone. To check on things like the freezer, the oven. To see if she could be there.

“My daughters said, 'Don't go over there. It will be too sad,' ” Beth said. “You know what? When I walked in the door, it felt like home.”

In the restaurant her husband had built, surrounded by the posters of all his favorite Chicago sports teams, she felt him and felt pride in what he had built.

“My husband DID this,” she said. “I felt him watching me. I'll be damned if I'm going to let Pudgy's die.”

The restaurant reopens Saturday.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
State Department moves to delay Keystone XL pipeline decision
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
New UNO center strengthens ties between campus, community
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »