Hammer’s Lot-The Freaks Come Out on Sunday
Updated: Jan 23
The Bills Mafia is the nickname for Buffalo’s intense fan base who are noted for their spirited celebrations that include squirting a guy with ketchup and mustard before game time and jumping through folding tables. “It’s all about the angle”, a guy said to me, proudly showing me a video of him swan diving through a table like it was his business card. They are also known for their insane tailgating feast, like the eccentric Red Pinto Tailgate. But if the word “mafia” has you expecting to see Paul Sorvino sitting at a table cutting garlic with a razor blade, you are mistaken. Trust me, it’s more like a freak show than a mafia, and that’s not a bad thing.
Hours before kickoff, Hammer’s Lot in Orchard Park transforms into a carnival-like atmosphere. Imagine a Dead Show without the music. Mix in an audience of superfans with names like Captain Buffalo, Bill’s Dad and newcomer The Buffalo Food Slut. Substitute the tie-dye for Bills’ jerseys, keep the marijuana and drive a beat-up Ford onto a gravel parking lot, and you've got yourself the start of a funky gameday party. For over 30 years Ken “Pinto Ron” Johnson and his ragtag group of superfan friends and family have been mastering the art of pre-gaming by cooking on practically anything they could repurpose. But there’s an organized chaos to their madness.
As Ken’s brother cooks an egg on a shovel, carefully flipping it over with a bricklayer’s trowel spatula; bacon sizzles on a panel saw sitting on a frying pan of coals. To the left of him an empty toolbox turned makeshift BBQ sits on the hood of the Pinto charring 3 screwdriver kabobs to a medium rare. Sausage links grill on a red-hot garden rake while another brother deep fries chicken wings in a vintage World War II helmet. The entire scene is like a Marilyn Manson video, cue The Beautiful People, The Beautiful People !!
Meet Pizza Pete
A lot has been written about the Rochester native Ken Johnson and his pinto party. The try-at-your-own-risk shots of Polish cherry liquor from a bowling ball and the aforementioned ketchup and mustard spraying have been well chronicled making his alias Pinto Ron the most famous of all the Buffalo Mafia. But ever since Dave Portnoy’s September 2019 “One Bite Review”, Pete Papagelis aka Pizza Pete has become the new IT GUY in Buffalo. It only makes sense that he bakes his pizza in a two-drawer filing cabinet then serves it on an ironing board. Pete is an OG who started off making spiedies on the Pinto beside Ken when someone brought the filing cabinet to bake brownies. It was a mess, he said. Pete, a chemist in real-life, who worked for Kodak and Bausch and Lomb, took it home and MacGyver’d it into the oven he uses today.
Pete makes his own sauce from canned tomatoes and basil and uses a blend of 2 different cheeses. While he once made his own dough, he now buys it from the local Wegman’s store. On the back of a cookie tray, he stretches out the dough into a rectangle and pre-cooks it on the grill, a skill he learned as a teenager making pizzas at his friend's aunt's pizzeria in Endicott NY. The grill has two heat sources, the hot coals in the first drawer, and a reserve of coals on the top which keeps the oven extra hot. He cooks 6 pies a day, and you know it's almost ready when the crowd of onlookers gather around the ironing board. The smell of Italy cuts through the “lake effect” chill as he cuts the pie into squares with lawn shears. He gives the pizza away first come, first serve but get to the front of the line because everyone wants it. Portnoy scored it a 7.6 which is still higher than any brick and mortar has earned in Buffalo. The undercarriage is crisp, the cheese melted evenly, and Pete's sauce was "anice". I score it even higher.
Pizza Pete’s talent is not just limited to pizza. He could also be called Pulled Pork Pete after another food he prepares. This one in a 1989 Buick oil pan which then sits in a wheel barrel. He also smokes chickens in a mailbox, but I couldn’t think of any clever alliteration, so Pizza Pete it will stay. Despite their fame, there are no egos with Pinto Ron or Pizza Pete. These guys, like the rest of the Bills Mafia are just some fun-loving fans who want their team to win that elusive Superbowl. Since my team has been officially eliminated, GO BILLS!