'Pizza Mike' of Jonathan's Pizza cooks up civic support and charity
'Pizza Mike' of Jonathan's Pizza cooks up civic support and charity
From the Albany Times Union: Mike Urgo has a broken heart, literally. He has endured 15 operations and procedures over the past decade — including two open-heart surgeries and the placement of a defibrillator and a pacemaker — to keep his ticker ticking, but that has not stopped him from opening his heart to his Albany community and giving charitably to local organizations.
Known as "Pizza Mike" to most who know him, Urgo opened Jonathan's Pizza at 31 North Pearl St. in Albany 45 years ago, after moving to Hudson Falls from New York City as part of his then-job with Pitney Bowes. His office was located in Albany and he felt, "There was never a place to eat in Albany," he said.
He found the building on North Pearl, which was then owned by Mayor Erastus Corning II, and approached a friend who owned three pizzerias in New York City about partnering in a new pizzeria in Albany's downtown. "I had six months no rent on the building. [My friend] gave me the pizza equipment for free. I always felt with that, I had to give back."
Nearly immediately after opening the pizza shop, Urgo went about giving back to the surrounding community through what he did best — making pizza. For 10 years starting in the 1970s, Urgo hosted Christmas parties for people with Down's Syndrome — a condition shared by his nephew. From 1975 to 2000, he hired a Santa impersonator to walk around downtown Albany and bring a bit of holiday cheer to workers and residents for two to three hours a day leading up to Christmas Eve. Urgo would often drive around the neighborhoods near the pizzeria and would hand out $5 and $10 bills to children to help families during the holidays.
In 1976, Urgo approached Mayor Corning's office about hosting a street festival like those of his childhood on Sullivan Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. His efforts netted a festival that consumed two city blocks and lasted five days to celebrate Italian culture and downtown living.
The success of that festival led Urgo to think bigger, and in 1986 he approached Mayor Thomas Whalen's office in his position as head of the Downtown Merchants Association with an idea for a music-driven festival weekly in Albany's downtown. His goal was to boost business for downtown retailers, department stores, bars and eateries, while also providing a bit of entertainment for workers who would normally depart downtown by 5 p.m.
In 1987, Thursday Five Alive — now known as Alive at Five — was launched on North Pearl Street between State Street and Clinton Avenue. Urgo used his own funds to advertise in Metroland magazine for bands and performers, and The Refrigerators were the first act to perform. "The reason I have it in the street is when (workers) leave their office, they hear the music, and people stay downtown," said Urgo. His initial expectation of 300-400 people quickly ballooned to 2,000 people, and the event was moved to Broadway.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Urgo continued to support Albany organizations through Jonathan's PIzza. Hundreds of 30-cut pizzas have been donated to Albany High School, with hundreds more going to local hospitals, schools and the state summer picnic. He also allowed groups like the Women's Club of Albany to host bake sales at the pizza shop and would offer food at discount for school fundraisers.
"To be honest with you, pizza isn't the hardest item in the world. It's not expensive," said Urgo. Despite that, Urgo says he charges as much as a quarter more per slice for his pizza because he uses top-quality ingredients to make the pizza and sauce recipes that were brought to America from Naples by his grandfather. Urgo's father became known for the recipe when he would serve pizza on the weekends from his candy shop in New York City, but Urgo said, "I improved everything," in order to make what he calls, "the best pizza."
"I've had a lot of customers and I've known a lot of people, but 80 percent of them are dead," Urgo said. "The customers today are completely different. They say, 'Pizza is pizza.' They worry about a nickel or a dime. A lot of people don't care about quality," he said. He recounted the numerous federal judges, district attorneys and legislators that would cross his threshold for a slice of pizza, but he treated all customers the same, as long as they were able to recognize a good slice of pizza when they tasted one, he joked.
For a period in the 1980s, he and his wife, Toni (Antonella) owned another pizzeria on upper Western Avenue (near Crossgates Mall, where Dunkin Donuts is today), but closed it because of workload struggles. "It was just me and my wife, killing ourselves to run both locations," he said.
At a 9/11 memorial event in 2011, Urgo met Albany Fire Department's deputy chief Michael Cox and told him, "I like to feed the whole department, the only problem is I can't deliver all that pizza," he said. Cox took him up on the offer and showed up with a fire truck to bring pizza to the 240 firefighters and staff in the department.
In 2013, Jonathan's Pizza offered free pizza to veterans in uniform, bringing 150 veterans to the pizzeria and three men in dress uniform to stand as colorguard outside the door. "I tried to tell them jokes and get them to smile, and they didn't bat an eye," said Urgo.
Most recently, Jonathan's Pizza has focused on supporting children at the Boys and Girls Club of Albany. Since summer of 2017, Urgo and his staff have donated food to the children and staff of the club on a monthly basis. (Urgo estimated that to total 1,500-1,800 servings.)
"To me, the thing that stands out is how much he wants to be involved. He is motivated, but it's not about him," said Tommy Breymeier, director of marketing and development for the club. Justin Reuter, the executive director, said that the club does receive donations from other area restaurants, but what stands out about Urgo is how eager he is to give. ""I know being in downtown Albany is a struggle, and he can only be open during the week for all the state workers. He's not making a ton of money down there," said Reuter, "but he never asks to be promoted."
"(The club) did post about it on Facebook. It was nice, but I didn't ask them to do it," Urgo said. At 75 years old with health concerns, Urgo realizes he might never have grandchildren (he has a daughter, and his son Jonathan Urgo currently runs the pizzeria's daily operations) but said, "I love kids. I've always had a touch with children." While he said he is not religiously motivated to do support the community in any way, "when you do good deeds, God works in mysterious ways."
"I have no idea why, but I've been giving all my life," he said, humbly. "I've always had an open heart."
Deanna Fox is a freelance journalist. @DeannaNFox www.foxonfood.com