A pair of iconic Pensacola, Florida-based U.S. Navy Blue Angels crew members waited patiently in line for pizza on an 88-degree afternoon last summer with scores of equally-hungry civilians outside a nondescript one-story pizzeria in Melvindale.
Several months earlier, a man who lives in Alabama waited in line (no doubt salivating) for the same oven-baked pizza less than an hour after he had stepped off a plane at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport.
The Alabaman – in Detroit for business – was so desperate to try the pizza, he was still carrying his luggage as he waited in line. Checking in at a hotel, he reasoned, could wait.
Both instances are proof that the merging of out-of-this-world pizza and The Power of Portnoy is enough to create a force as strong as anything in our pizza-loving galaxy.
Unveiling a ‘pizza maestro’
The masses of longtime, loyal customers of Fredi the Pizza Man (also known as Canton resident Fredi Bello) knew how amazing the Dearborn native’s pizza and goulash tasted long before Feb. 8, 2021, when David Portnoy – the man behind the insanely-popular Barstool One Bite Pizza Review podcasts – posted a video of him chomping into a pizza and declaring it: “Undoubtedly the best pizza in Detroit; not even close.”
“This guy’s an F-ing maestro,” Portnoy added after trying Bello’s tavern-style pie.
The coast-to-coast post turned Bello’s successful pizza business into a global phenomenon, which, for the most part, was a good thing.
“For the first few months after (Portnoy’s) video was posted I had people lined up outside, a half-mile down the street,” Bello said. “My kids got a kick out of it and I got all the stress (he smiled).
“Has it hit me yet? I don’t know. I haven’t been able to process it all. A 10-minute video changed my entire life.”
Bello talked about the downside of his restaurant’s ramped-up popularity.
“I have a 16-year customer base that couldn’t get in the door anymore,” he lamented. “But there was nothing I could do. The good part is, thank God, I have the experience and know how to work hard to get through this. If it would have happened to somebody with no experience, they would have been demolished.”
The best news that evolved from Portnoy’s post: Donations to Bello’s non-profit foundation that raises funds to build sensory rooms in schools for autistic students skyrocketed.
Inspired by his 10-year-old son Antonio, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, Bello has spearheaded the construction of sensory rooms in 43 schools with six more scheduled to be built in September.
Stocked with special equipment to help children with autism calm down following unsettling moments, sensory rooms are essential components in the treatment of autism.
“Ever since I got into business, I’d wanted to do something charitable, but nothing touched my heart enough,” Bello said. “I didn’t want to do something just to do it, you know? Once Antonio was diagnosed and I learned about sensory rooms, it all came together. It’s almost like God sent me down this road to do this.
Foundation popularity from viral video
“People’s response to my foundation since the video aired – I’m talking complete strangers – has been amazing,” Bello continued. “I’ve had people I don’t even know who are waiting in line for pizza hand me $1,000, telling me to put it toward the foundation.”
One patron explained to Bello that she lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and was the mother of a 3-year-old autistic child. In transit from Canada to the family’s new home in Ohio, she told Bello she had to make a pitstop at Fredi the Pizza Man’s pizzeria to meet the man who had inspired her beyond words.
“Sometimes I can tell by the way people look at me that they want to talk,” he said. “She asked me if she could get a picture with me, then she told me she thought she was going to cry. I told her, ‘Don’t cry. We’re all in this together’.”
Family first philosophy
Family means everything to him, Bello emphasized, praising his wife Romina and children Alessandra, 12, Antonio, 10; and Adriana, 8.
“The way demand is now, I could stay open 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “But my family means so much to me. I close at 5 p.m. everyday or until I sell out because the time I get to spend with them is priceless.”
Bello said he inherited his work ethic from his father, Fedele Bello, who operated successful pizzerias until his death in 2015 at age 77.
“My dad taught me everything I know,” Bello said. “I don’t always do things the way he did, but he’s the one who gave me my work ethic.”
As he kneaded and cut dough on a recent Sunday afternoon (Sunday is the only day of the week the pizzeria is closed), Bello proudly revealed that his hands are on every pizza that is sold at his restaurant.
“Eventually, I’d like to open four or five more pizzerias around Michigan, but I have to find the right people to run them,” he said. “Are there people out there who are willing to replicate what I do? I’m sure there are. It’s just a matter of finding them.”
Flashback to the man from Alabama who made a special trip from the airport to taste a pizza made by Fredi the Pizza Man.
“Unfortunately, we sold out before he got to the front of the line,” Bello said. “But I told him, ‘You come back tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. when I open and I’ll make you a pizza (even though the pizzeria didn’t officially open until 11 a.m.
“When I arrived the next morning, there he was, waiting.”
A happy ending – something Fredi Bello is an expert at scripting.