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.
|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.