Pizza 4 Paws and Downward Dogs: Vesuvio’s Not Your Average Pizza Shop

By Monique M. Demopoulos | Sep 04, 2019
Photo by: Monique M. Demopoulos

Forked River — Every morning, Salvatore DeSimone can be found spinning dough behind the counter of Vesuvio Pizzeria in Forked River, preparing pies for the day’s slices. A contemplative man, he listens to music as he crafts his pies in a sort of meditation.

“The energy comes through me and into the pizza,” he smiled.

Behind him are various chalk-written messages on the wall. One message is “cell free zone.” Another: “Whether it’s chaos or order, it’s all your brain.”

DeSimone is not the average “pizza guy,” infusing mindfulness into his day-to-day tasks.

“I grew up in a pizzeria house,” DeSimone warmly proclaimed. He is a second-generation American born to Italian-American parents. His father came from Sicily in 1957, and his mother from Naples in 1961. They were co-workers at a textile upholstery factory in New York City. They operated a pizzeria in NYC called Chez Vittorio before moving to Jackson, where they operated Sal’s Pizza.

“I’m Ocean County, through and through,” said DeSimone, who grew up in Jackson. “We have everything at our finger tips: two major cities close by, the ocean and the Pine Barrens. People don’t know how beautiful and varied New Jersey really is.”

DeSimone said his family in Italy refers to him affectionately as, “The Americano.” He purchased Vesuvio with his father in 1993, and he took on full responsibility when his father retired in 1999. However, DeSimone’s parents, especially his mother, are often seen behind the counter, infusing the cuisine with good, old-fashioned Italian love. DeSimone’s parents live with him, in addition to his four dogs.

The only boy and youngest of four children, DeSimone describes himself as carefree and independent; also a bit reckless in his youth. DeSimone recalled multiple near-death experiences as a child. Once he set his father’s car on fire. In another incident, he was badly burned by boiling water when trying to help his mother cook pasta (against her orders).

“My mother told me that’s why I’m so crazy,” he laughed.

Those experiences taught him to balance his lighthearted spirit with a heavy dose of mindfulness. He believes this balance has been fortuitous for his family.

“What makes a successful entrepreneur in a capitalist society is the ability to overcome fear,” he said. “Kids today don’t have that same carefree spirit. There’s no environment for it, unless it’s fabricated,” he explained. That’s partially the reason for the cell free zone at Vesuvio. He wants to create an awake and engaged environment.

DeSimone has been serving pizza 26 years (and counting), but over those decades, has seen a progressive shift in his mindset. Not only has he become more health conscious, but he has also grown increasingly vocal about his deepest passion, animal activism. He firmly believes, “You are what you eat, what you consume and who you surround yourself with.” DeSimone has been a vegetarian since 2008.

Despite pouring his heart into the family business every day, he explained that operating a pizzeria presents an ethical conundrum for him. “I stopped eating meat because there’s a lot of heart and blood disease on my mother’s side of the family,” he explained. “And being a dog lover … I love animals. So how can I take myself seriously when I’m operating this business? It’s tough for me.”

Of course, there are few viable alternatives for a small business like Vesuvio, though DeSimone continues to explore. “I understand there are responsible farmers who raise animals humanely, and the animals have a great life, and then they’re eaten. I don’t have a problem with that. If that was the delivery method for businesses like mine, that would be great. But unfortunately, it isn’t.”

DeSimone is constantly self-examining his intentions and motives. He explained, “I operate a business in a capitalist society because I have bills to pay. But I’m not chained to the pizzeria. I choose to come here every day and make pizza.” He explained that if he were to abandon the business, his elderly parents would try to take it over, which he refuses to let happen.

“I’m not crazy about the industry. But I do love making pizza. I’m grateful to be able to run a business that allows me to support my family.”

DeSimone’s business is supported by a specific clientele. He acknowledges that attempting a drastic (and expensive) change could be a detriment to a business his family relies on. Still, he asserted, “Unless this becomes a vegan pizzeria with no meat and no dairy, I’m always going to have that internal struggle.”

Of course, while making pies early in the morning, he has plenty of time to dream up more ideal scenarios, like a vegan pizzeria with a dog-friendly menu, that doubles as a dog shelter. He constantly experiments with dog-friendly treats, and his own furry friends do the honor of critiquing.

He finds solace in the fact that his business gives him the security and a platform to pursue his highest passion, dog rescue. DeSimone aims to do two things: deliver an authentic experience, and save dogs.

“I’m not a profit-driven person,” he explained. “I took English literature in college, not business management. You still have to show up and do good work, but you can’t lose sight of the focus.”

He reiterated that focus. “The most important thing we do here (at Vesuvio) is raise awareness for dogs.” He shares what he calls a “collective purpose” with his employees. “If you don’t love dogs, we don’t hire you,” laughed DeSimone. There is a high definition television featuring, not sports, but a slideshow of dogs.

As the delivery drivers entered the restaurant to start their shift, they were met with a high five and a question. “What’s our main priority here at Vesuvio?” The answer is, obviously, “helping dogs.”

DeSimone feels that humans have a huge responsibility to help dogs, considering the animals have been bred by humans in the first place. “Dogs are largely a human gene experiment. They were bred for thousands of years for specific purposes. They are no longer wild animals. We have a responsibility to these creatures.”

It is common practice for Vesuvio delivery drivers to be on the search for lost dogs. More recently, Vesuvio has begun a program called “Pizza 4 Paws.” Every week, Vesuvio highlights a different rescue shelter. Every order comes with a flyer featuring a handful of dogs in need of adoption. DeSimone is also planning a pizza party event in order to raise money and awareness for the cause.

Vesuvio veterans and major dog lovers, Katlyn Halliday and Alexis North, spearhead the #Pizza4Paws effort. Both women began working for DeSimone as teenagers. They still contribute to his team a decade later, in addition to the “new school” counter girls and delivery drivers. DeSimone is immensely grateful to have a hard-working team of employees who share his vision.

DeSimone lives what he calls “a yogic lifestyle.” Though he does not have a daily physical practice, he infuses the philosophy into his daily life. “Yoga is more than just physical exercise. It’s also emotional and spiritual practice,” he said. “You must have all three.”

He carries these principles through every interaction, especially in his business. Though he emphasizes kindness, he does not hold onto resentment when he is not met with the same treatment. “When people are rude or mean, I just let go of it. You don’t know what they’re carrying. You don’t know their story. They could be saving dogs on their day off,” he said gently.

DeSimone decided to turn the laundromat next door to his pizzeria into a yoga studio, in hopes of cultivating a place to share principles of compassion. His sister, Marcella, was a big influence for him. She was a yoga teacher who exposed her younger brother to metaphysical healing practices.

DeSimone’s yoga studio idea initially received many raised eyebrows, given the local demographic. He explained the convenience store in his plaza makes most of its revenue selling cigarettes and lottery tickets. “People thought I was crazy. ‘Yoga in Forked River? This isn’t exactly a yoga community.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t that a good reason to bring yoga to this community?’”

DeSimone found humor in the fact that, while the studio was still under construction, people mistook yoga for yogurt. Three years later, Lovelight is more than just a studio, but a successful, growing community.

DeSimone expressed his utmost gratitude to Marissa Montefreddi, who is the driving force behind that studio, Lovelight on Main. “Marissa is the best thing that ever happened to Forked River,” DeSimone affirmed. “She’s like a fourth sister to me, and she just gets it,” he explained. “We have a similar upbringing, growing up in an Italian family in New Jersey. In our families, the more someone yells at you, the more they love you,” he laughed.

Montefreddi has been practicing yoga for about 20 years, and teaching for the last 10. She trained in NYC with world renowned Sri Dharma Mittra, who emphasizes living a yogic lifestyle.

“I wanted to bring all the aspects of yoga – not just the physical – to the people of Forked River,” she shared. She and DeSimone aim for the studio to embody that mission. The studio offers only the essentials of yoga and meditation. There are no pilates, body sculpting or zumba classes. DeSimone said, “We could have done a lot of things, but that isn’t our mission. You have to focus on what you are. Marissa has a clear vision and a clear identity.”

Montefreddi spent months trialing classes to find a versatile and well-rounded roster of teachers who embody yoga with individuality and authenticity. There is a style and level of intensity for everyone. She affirmed, “Every single person can benefit from the aspects of yoga.”

In addition to basic foundation and restorative classes, the teaching styles have varying influences, including dharma, ashtanga, baptiste and vinyasa. That is not to mention a beautiful space in which to practice.

Montefreddi shared her excitement at the continual expansion. “We are installing heated floors, so we will offer some warm vinyasa classes, which will be great for the winter months.”

Montefreddi recently organized Lovelight’s first art exhibit, to further nurture community.

“Lovelight has been a really positive influence on the community. My favorite part about this studio is seeing people staying and chatting after class. People have found their friends, their center, their sangha” (community). She looks forward to future events to connect likeminded individuals.

Of course, Lovelight would be incomplete if they did not also share DeSimone’s key mission. Montefreddi and her team of teachers are also dog lovers. The unofficial Lovelight mascot is DeSimone’s French bulldog, Fifi, who often greets yogis before morning classes. Montefreddi was proud to announce plans to offer donation-based yoga events periodically, to raise money for individual shelters.

To learn more, or to participate in the upcoming efforts, follow @vesuvioforkedriver or @lovelightonmain on Instagram, and search for hashtag #pizza4paws, and at lovelightonmain.com/events.

—Monique M. Demopoulos

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