A Facebook post started making the rounds early Monday, sharing news that sunk the collective heart of Sacramento’s pizza-loving community. Celso Brida, the figurehead of Luigi’s Pizza Parlor on Stockton Boulevard, had died. He was 64.
Brida was beloved by generations of Sacramentans for the chatty, personable touch he brought to the business, as well as the way he whipped up some of Sacramento’s signature pizzas.
As word of Brida’s passing spread, longtime customers and others who wanted to pay their respects over a pie flocked to the restaurant. Outside the front entrance, flowers, prayer candles and balloons in memory of Brida decorated the space.
Brida had sold his ownership stake in the pizza parlor in 2009 to his nephews, Chris and Greg, but remained the face of the restaurant. He continued to serve customers, some who were regulars for decades, until health issues kept him away starting in December.
Brida died Sunday night from complications caused by myeloma and an adverse reaction to chemotherapy treatments, said Chris Brida.
“A lot of people thought he was Luigi,” Brida explained in between cooking pizzas for Tuesday’s lunch crowd. “Even when he wasn’t here, they assumed he made every pizza.”
So many friends, fans and well-wishers have come in that Brida has had to stock the restaurant with twice the usual amount of ingredients. “For a lot of neighborhood kids who are my employees now, he was like a second father,” he said. “They’re crushed.”
While Sacramento’s become more sophisticated with its pizza offerings, Luigi’s has endured as one of the town’s eating landmarks. There’s nothing fancy about Luigi’s, no drizzles of truffle oil or trumpeting of artisanal, small-production cheeses. The decor includes small green benches and a vintage “Ms. Pac-Man” machine. But the pizza itself is packed with authentic flavor, with a crispy New York-style crust topped with tasty Italian seasonings, a zesty sauce and any number of meaty options.
Luigi’s was founded in 1953, and the Brida family took over the business in the early 1960s. As a teenager, Celso Brida served as the pizzeria’s host and joined the family as a co-owner in the 1970s. He emerged as one of the most recognizable faces in Oak Park and connected with generations of neighborhood kids, including the future Mayor Kevin Johnson.
The mayor sent a tweet of condolence Monday: “Sad to hear about the passing of Celso Brida – a staple at Luigi’s pizza in Oak Park and in the community. Thoughts & prayers to his family.”
The mayor and Brida became friends over the years, Chris Brida said. “When Kevin Johnson was playing with the Suns, he flew my uncle down to Arizona to go to some games and possibly open a pizza parlor there. They were close, and he still comes in all the time.”
Celso Brida was known for being a mentor of sorts around the neighborhood, giving guidance to many kids from Oak Park’s immigrant communities. Some of those kids later became valued employees. He also served as a sounding board and fount of wisdom for Andrew Blaskovich as he launched his Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen food truck in 2011.
Blaskovich had been a Luigi’s regular since he was a kid growing up in Land Park, and the pizzeria remains his all-time favorite in Sacramento. Part of that loyalty comes from the pizza itself, and the memories of playing video games and sipping root beer. But one of the biggest draws for Blaskovich was Brida himself.
“He always had time to talk to you, no matter how many people were there,” Blaskovich said. “Once I started my business, I’d get discouraged sometimes. I’d go there to eat and share stuff, and he’d give me solid advice: Be honest with what you’re doing; never jeopardize your flavors; and keep it simple, stupid.”
Back at Luigi’s, as the Tuesday lunch rush wound down, customers asked Chris Brida about funeral arrangements. Service details are still pending, he said, with the memorial possibly held in a large hall to accommodate what’s expected to be a sizable crowd.
Celso Brida is survived by his wife, Sun, along with three siblings in the Sacramento area including brother Sergio, who helped run the family business.
“He was an artist with his craft,” said Blaskovich about Brida. “You can get pizza everywhere, but at Luigi’s, you were going there for him, too.”