Future of downtown favorite uncertain after patrons sue for injuries and bills stack up
Mysterious changes may be afoot at Pizza Face, the popular restaurant that has been plagued with iffy business moves and civil lawsuits.
The pizza parlor, a downtown business success story and favorite of students, shoppers and late-night snack-seekers, has had its liquor license suspended for failure to pay taxes and has been repeatedly cited by the city and county for code violations. Meanwhile, it is trying to fend off lawsuits from people who claim they were injured when they fell through an open trap door in the restaurant.
Pizza Face and its owner, Peter Scalise, have been targeted by several lawsuits seeking payment for services rendered, and Scalise has repeatedly had liens placed against the restaurant and his personal assets for not paying his federal and state taxes on time, public records reveal. Even his checks to the county for routine fees have bounced more than once, as the restaurant was inspected at least a dozen times in one year.
On May 31, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, at the request of the Board of Equalization, suspended the liquor license for both 126 and 128 West Second St. at least until back taxes are paid, confirmed Norm Pearson, district supervisor for the ABC.
Wary of being interviewed, Scalise hoped to avoid a negative spin on the business, which he said he is hoping to sell to a buyer he would not discuss.
Dan Nyhof, a Chico resident who is a more frequent face at Pizza Face than owner Scalise, shed a bit of light on his role.
Nyhof clarified that although the county holds a change-of-ownership application with his name on it, he filled out the form only so he could learn what it would take—hypothetically—to bring the building up to code.
“My time here is strictly voluntary. [Scalise] asked me to try to help him control his expenses,” Nyhof said. “[It’s] because I’m bored. … I like the restaurant business. I’ve never been given anything or paid anything. It’s not my business; it’s his business.”
On June 8, Nyhof wrote the county’s Environmental Health division promising to correct most of the violations—from too-cool pizza-holding units to the lack of an automatic door-closing device—as quickly as possible. He had hoped to own the business by the end of that month but now says ownership is not his intent.
Nyhof said that if he sounds cryptic, it’s only because, “I don’t want to tell people things that aren’t true right now.”
Scalise said, “I don’t care to be in the pizza business anymore. I’ll do other things. Bigger and better things.”
It will be a tough act to follow.
Scalise and two buddies started Pizza Face as a vending cart operation back in 1993, and the pizza immediately won rave reviews in local polls. A pizza parlor was opened; it also proved popular.
Still, it seemed like a lofty goal in 1999 when Scalise unveiled his plans to turn the space next to his West Second Street pizza joint into Chico’s only upscale martini bar. Once it was finally completed, PF 126 failed to draw the classy, after-work crowd and instead became another hangout for college types. Scalise had also hoped to franchise the business and open up Pizza Faces in college towns all over the state.
Scalise blames a series of problems with his managers for the demise of PF 126 and the failure of the business to expand as planned.
And there are the lawsuits.
A lawsuit filed in February by Janet Earl of Chico claims that she fell into the open trap door, hitting her head and sustaining a concussion and brain injury, plus neck strain, bruises and other damage. She’s filed a claim for $1 million; her husband, Gary, for $500,000.
In an interview, Earl said that she still suffers the effects of the injuries. “It really changed my life quite a bit,” said Earl, who was appalled to learn that at least one other person reported falling into the basement after her injury. “It should have been taken care of after the first person fell in,” she said. It was one year ago June 28 that Earl bought a pizza for lunch, carried it to the condiment counter and fell through the open trap door, her suit states.
“I don’t remember anything past buying the pizza,” she said. “The next consciousness was in the emergency room.”
A plaintiff in a similar case is Dan Donnelly, who sued after allegedly falling into the open trap door to the basement and shattering his elbow and breaking his back.
Also pending but scheduled to be arbitrated by a judge is a suit in which Scott Burkhart claims that in May 1999 he fell through the door and sustained a knee injury requiring surgery.
Pizza Face has also been issued several citations for minor city code infractions, the most recent on June 28 for letting its building permit lapse without scheduling an inspection.
And Pizza Face’s file at the county’s Environmental Health division shows list after list of state law violations, copies of the bounced checks, and a terse April 2 memo from a county staffer to the city of Chico’s building official that reads, in part, “He fixed a few things last year but has done little this year. We seem to have reached an impasse. He currently has no permit. In fact he has not even applied for his permit for this year.”
Finally, on June 11, Nyhof was issued a conditional permit based on his promised timeline for correcting the violations.
“I don’t know the future," Nyhof said, reiterating that Scalise is still the one in charge. "It’s like sitting in the back seat trying to tell somebody how to drive properly. We’ve made progress, [but] we’ve had great setbacks due to that reason."