First Posted: 9/21/2013
A Pittston original.
That can describe the man and the delicious pizza he served.
Michael Savokinas, co-founder of Savo’s Pizza, forever changing the traditional pizza “pie” into a “tray” (at least around here), died Friday at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital after an illness. He was 71.
“People here are really picky when it comes to pizza,” said local historian Mike Dziak. “But Mike made great pizza. It was a tribute to him and his family.”
Mike’s brother Ray, Savo’s other co-founder, was there the night before he died. “Let’s do it again,” Ray told his brother, his way of saying he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Born Oct. 8, 1941, in Pittston Township, Michael A. Savokinas was a son of the late Joseph and Madeline (Fay) Savokinas.
Mike appeared in the local newspapers early and often.
As a boy, he made money delivering the Wilkes-Barre Record and the Times Leader and was the focus of a series of stories in the paper after winning a contest at age 15.
Savokinas and six other newspaper carriers won a trip to California to visit Disneyland and Hollywood from Aug. 22-28, 1957.
“It was really my first vacation of any kind,” he said several years ago. “We would go to Harveys Lake or something like that, but back then no one really took vacation.”
The contest was to reward the carriers for selling the most new subscriptions.
“I think I got 85 news ones,” he said, noting he was always driven to get more customers, but the contest “pushed me more.” He previously won trips to Hershey Park and New York City from similar contests.
Front-page stories in the Wilkes-Barre Record documented each day of the trip.
They were given a tour of the park by Walt Disney’s secretary and they got to go on “almost every ride.” The group got to meet Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck and toured the sets of Zorro and Old Yeller.
“It was very, very nice,” Savokinas remembered. “It was the biggest thing up to that point.”
Much like today, downtown Pittston was bustling in 1964. Mike was 22 and Ray was 19.
J.C. Penney’s, Kresge’s, Woolworth’s were anchor tenants. Popular stores included Borr & Casey Drugstore, W.T. Grant’s and American Auto. The American Theater stood tall and there were no fewer than eight exclusive women’s shops, a handful of stores selling men’s attire, two grocery markets and even Field’s, a women’s hat store.
Mike and Ray opened Savo’s at the urging of anther pizzeria owner, Pete Be, who moved his business to Exeter.
“Pete told us it would cost us about $800 to open the pizza business,” Mike had said. “Well, it ended up costing us about $8,000. I still scorch Pete about that.” Be died in 2001.
The first year, rent was $100 a month, which included heat and water.
When it opened, Savo’s was popular with high school students after school and on weekends. They also did a booming business with factory workers.
Pizza at Savo’s was 10 cents a slice and soda was nickel. The menu was simple early on: Pizza, foot-long hot dogs, barbecues and hoagies.
Lent is still a busy time at Savo’s.
“Friday was our biggest day,” Mike has said. “I’d say 80 percent of our business was on Fridays. You have to remember that Friday was a fast day for Catholics back then. On some Fridays, we’d get orders for 150 trays before we opened for the day.”
Savo’s was the first to offer unbaked pizza in the region, also one of the first to offer home delivery. The pizza sauce is what makes Savo’s stand out and the recipe hasn’t changed since it was created by Mike and Ray’s mother, Madeline.
In the 1970s, Downtown Pittston took a turn for the worse and urban planners’ sights were set on shopping centers, away from the downtowns and offering plenty of parking.
The Savokinas brothers moved their business to the Pittston Plaza on the newly constructed Pittston Bypass in 1971.
They opened a branch restaurant across from the Midway Shopping Center in Wyoming and ran the concession stand at the Pittston Pool for several years.
In 1975, they closed the Wyoming location, moved their Pittston business within the Pittston Plaza and opened the popular Staircase Lounge with Arthur Bartolai Jr., Mike’s brother-in-law.
Savo’s regularly sponsored Little League teams and football booster clubs. The Savo’s routinely hosted the Pittston Area and Wyoming Area football teams after their traditional Thanksgiving Day game.
In 1977, a fire destroyed the restaurant and lounge, but they were only out of business for six months. In the early 2000s, the Pittston Plaza was converted into a strip mall and Savos’ relocated to their current location. The front of the restaurant is an exact recreation of the original South Main Street Savo’s, painstakingly reconstructed by Mike.
The menu expanded to keep up with Greater Pittston’s ravenous appetite. Specialty pizzas, Buffalo chicken wings, specialty sandwiches, pasta dinners and a kids’ menu were all added.
Savokinas was known to many for his personal warmth.
“He was just a really nice guy,” Dziak said. “He greeted everyone at the restaurant with a smile and warm words.”
Savokinas was a noted local historian, especially of the year 1964, the year he opened. The restaurant is filled with memorabilia and even has half of a 1964 Ford Mustang decorating the front (There used to be a 1964 Cadillac there).
Savokinas was a founding member of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
“He has about 3,000 to 4,000 pictures of downtown Pittston from that era,” Dziak said. “When the Sunday Dispatch was throwing out all their old negatives, Mike was there and had a thousand of them printed.”
Dziak said Savokinas was working an a history book on Main Street in Pittston, but he didn’t think he was able to finish it.
Pat Lizza, who worked at Savo’s for many years, branched out and started his own pizzeria, Lizza’s Mezzo Mezzo on North Main Street, near Duryea, in 2004.
“He was more like a father to me than a boss,” Lizza said. “He encouraged and supported me when I left to start my own place.”
Lizza said Savokinas’ work ethic was solid.
“He was a seven-day-a-week guy,” Lizza said. “He never stopped, but I’m certain that was why he was so successful.”
Former Pittston Mayor Michael Lombardo said Mike’s passing is a loss to the region.
“In the way he was a Greater Pittston historian, he was also my own personal historian,” Lombardo said. “If I mentioned something about the American Theater, like when I ran for mayor, he’d show up a day later with an article from back in day and 20 pictures. And he loved to share stories about the old days.”
Lombardo said he’s tried unsuccessfully to lure Savo’s back to the downtown.
“It’s a tremendous loss for Greater Pittston,” Lombardo said. “He’s a piece of the past that we’re gradually losing.”
Local Elvis tribute artist Shawn Klush, a good friend of Savokinas and former Savo’s worker, was on break from tour in his Pittston home when he heard the news and became noticeably upset.
“I worked at Savo’s for forever and a day,” Klush said. “He and my dad (Eddie Klush) and Jay Duffy were the three amigos.”
Klush started at Savo’s while attending Seton Catholic High School sweeping floor and making sauce and eventually he became a manger.
“He always rolled out the red carpet whenever I came in,” Klush said. “He didn’t have to do that, but he did, and that’s the kind of warm man Mike was.”
Savo’s will continue, with Mike’s wife, the former Georgia Bartolai, running the restaurant and his two sons, Arthur and Michael, and brother Ray, who had previously retired, helping out.
Everyone interviewed said Mike Savokinas was looking forward the 50th anniversary of Savo’s next year and he didn’t make it to see that day.
“We’ve enjoyed the good times and rode out the bad times,” Mike had said.
For Savokinas’ obituary, see Page 36