Sal Cenicola, Bringer of Smiles

December 2016. My wedding anniversary.

For a number of years I appeared in a series of radio dramas at the Ritz. It was a great experience for a number of reasons: I got to participate in a medium I’ve loved since I was a kid, I got to get a little of the acting bug out of my system, and I got to know a number of new people who have had a profound impact on my life.

But there was a downside, too. Those shows ran me into the ground. The rehearsal schedule itself wasn’t so bad: a couple hours a day, five days a week, an extra hour on Sundays. But when you combine that with a demanding full-time job and all the side projects I involved myself in, those shows wore me slap out. This did not make Mrs. Ryfun happy. One of her biggest frustrations with me, aside from my total lack of ability to do laundry, is when I run myself into the ground by taking on too many things, which I tend to do with alarming frequency.

My strategy for dealing with her frustration was and is always to make sure she understands how much I value her, so our anniversary, December 16th, is a big deal to us. In the early days of our marriage we always celebrated at Matteo’s but when Matt Zangla sold it, we decided we needed somewhere else to celebrate. Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria was the natural choice. In fact, I learned later that Sal learned a lot of what he knew from the Zanglas.

I’d been to Sal’s a number of times before and always enjoyed the atmosphere. The tables were crammed together in that tiny place for a reason: it gave guests the feeling they were enjoying dinner with a big Italian family. And that’s exactly the vibe. The best crooners played on the sound system and Sal himself would occasionally come out, grab a wireless mic, and join in on the action. It was homey, it was fancy, it was romantic, if something can be all of those at once. It became our new place.

One day I ran into Sal downtown, and he introduced himself to me, said he was a big listener to the show. Card-carrying conservative. I thought that was great because I’d been a big fan of his for a while as well. From there we struck up a rapport. Whenever he was involved in a charitable endeavor—which was often-- he’d give me a call and we’d do what we could to help him. Whenever I had a special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s—he was there for us. And he’d always surprise us by treating us to dessert. If I had a remote at a car dealership and the salesperson had forgotten to order pizzas, Sal stepped up. And after he brought us a huge pile of pizzas, he’d turn around and bring us another pile. Then he’d hang out and we’d talk boxing and take pictures.

But that particular night in December was different. Our anniversary fell on a Friday night, which just happened to be a performance night. In other words, this thing that didn’t make Mrs. Ryfun happy was impinging on something that DID make Mrs. Ryfun happy. If I was going to keep our anniversary dinner from being ruined I had to figure something out. Our show was scheduled to end around nine, but it had been running ten minutes over. Then I had to change out of my costume, put on my street clothes, get her to the car and make my way over to Sal’s before he closed at ten. It seemed too tight and too close for me to be able to make it. So I did the only thing I knew to do.

I called Sal on his cell. I explained my situation, that it was our anniversary and that it was special and that my being in the play wasn’t making her happy. I really needed to be able to have my anniversary dinner go well. For that matter, I just needed it to actually happen. I asked Sal if there was any way they could hold the place open for us just in case we didn’t make it until a few minutes after ten. I’d pay him, the staff, whatever I needed to do as long as we didn’t miss our anniversary dinner at Sal’s

Sal didn’t hesitate. Of course, they’d stay open a few extra minutes to make sure we got there. Anything he could do, he said. I thanked him about a thousand times and then got ready for the show.

The good news is that we got there on time and didn’t need any favors. We had a terrific anniversary dinner and Mrs. Ryfun was both beautiful and happy. After we had dinner we enjoyed our customary dessert on the house. Only when it was time for the check, we found out that Sal had left instructions that he was picking up the tab. Sal liked for people to be happy and for him to be the cause of their happiness.

When he was sick and going through treatments, I hadn’t seen him for a while. Then one day I was eating a late lunch at Marshside, kind of in that No Man’s Land between lunch and dinner, when I heard someone call my name. I looked up and Sal was walking over to my booth leaning on a cane. He looked thinner but not bad considering. Then when he got to my table, he lifted the cane and did a song and dance routine. Always a ham, always trying to put a smile on people’s faces. I made him sit down with me before he broke something, and we had a great time catching up.

The last time I talked to Sal was just as he was moving back after his long ordeal. He called me out of the blue right after I finished trivia night, and we sat and chatted. He knew it was a miracle that he’d made it that far and he was thankful to God that he had. I expected him to sound terrible, but he didn’t. He spoke a little slower but that was about it.

When the news broke of his passing—and leave it to Sal, I was actually sent a press release—I felt a sharp drop in my stomach and then I just smiled. I knew that Sal and the Lord were on good terms with one another and I knew that Sal had spent his life doing the thing he loved to do: making people smile. I’ll miss him, but I know he’s got a whole bunch of new souls to bring a grin to up there.

A quick note: Sal played a character in the TV movie that filmed here a few years ago called Christmas on the Coast. Believe it or not, he played the owner of an Italian restaurant. He only had a couple of lines, but in the spirit of movie magic, they had to be dubbed in later. Sal called me one day and asked if I could help him record his dialogue, so I invited him down to the studios and we ran through the lines several times with several different inflections. Then I put different types of processing on the various lines so the producers would have a number of different acoustics to work with, helping them match the other dialogue in the scene. When I saw the movie and that scene came on I was especially proud, since I was the guy that was standing over his shoulder while he delivered his lines and telling him if he was doing okay. Sal, I hope every once in a while you’ll take a look over my shoulder and let me know if I’m doing okay.

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