On a recent romantic getaway, my beloved BCole and I decided to do perhaps the most Valentine’s Day thing ever. Well, at least Valentine’s Day for us here at SportsChump Manor.
When inclement weather put a damper on our February 14 beach plans, BCole suggested barhopping in downtown Orlando. After all, what says I love you more than shooting whiskey and playing darts at multiple dive bars in the vacation capitol of the world?
From rum bar to restaurant we traveled, having fun all along the way right smack dab in my old stomping grounds.
You see, back in the day, prior to this site’s conception, SportsChump spent a fair amount of time hootin’ and hollerin’ in downtown Orlando with characters like Croshere, the Don Calvino and Brotha E who long time readers of the Chump will recognize for their special guest appearances.
Without fail, we would end every evening with a 3 am (or later) stop-off at Planet Pizza on Washington Street just off Orange Avenue. Their food was not only delicious, offering a number of different styles of pizza pie but said sustenance would soak up the mass quantities of liquor we Orlando party-goers had consumed throughout the evening.
The owner of Planet Pizza was a man named Marko. A portly, older fellow from New York but with a thick foreign accent, Marko and his wife would graciously welcome drunken guests until all hours of the morning… and make a good living doing so.
After years of going there, weekend after fun-filled weekend, we all ultimately became friends.
Every so often, Marko would take us from bar to bar. An unofficial mayor of downtown Orlando, Marko could get you into any place you wanted, regardless of the long line waiting outside. Always a great conversation over a slice, we lovingly nicknamed him Sal, based on Danny Aiello’s character in Do the Right Thing. Like the motley characters from Bed-Stuy in Spike Lee’s brilliant film, we too grew up on Marko’s pizza. For years, he fed us, quite often on the arm.
To give you an indication of how cordial Marko was to his friends and regulars, one time late at night, the Don Calvino had driven to Planet Pizza for a slice. He left his car, hazard lights on, across the street in an illegal parking spot. Eager to buy a slice, before he could turn around, the Donny C’s car was hooked to a tow truck. Now if you’ve ever had your car towed, you know that no one in the history of mankind has ever successfully argued the release of one’s car from a tow truck. You’re as good as down $200 for the inconvenience.
Upon seeing the Don plead his case, Marko’s wife ran across the street to give the tow truck driver a piece of her mind. Before the Don Calvino could believe his eyes, Marko’s wife had pulled out a wad of cash and paid the driver to release the car, which he did.
That just goes to show you what Marko and his wife would do for their people. Salt of the earth.
Another night, and there were far too many to recall, Brotha E walked in and tried to get a $30 pizza pie for only $20. Over all his customers, Marko shouted at him calling him the “Black Jew.” This was the late nineties when you could still jokingly say things like this without offending everyone in sight. For years afterward, I’d walk into Planet Pizza and there wasn’t a single time Marko wouldn’t ask about the Black Jew. It’s a nickname that sticks ‘til this very day over twenty years later.
The last few times I’ve been to downtown Orlando, I visited Marko’s pizzeria to say hello but never found him around. BCole and I did so again this Valentine’s Day, only to find out that Marko had passed away. His wife had passed away years earlier.
While Planet Pizza still runs strong, pushing out delicious food until all hours of the morning, I couldn’t help but once again pay my respects and share a late-night slice with my beloved BCole. She held me as I cried, heartbroken but happy, remembering all the times I’d shared over a slice and some silliness.
I felt compelled to share these memories and moments of friendship. Food bonds. Marko is survived by his children who still run the show, keeping their family’s proud legacy alive.
We live in a time where far too many of those close to us are passing. We are forced to mourn prematurely and unexpectedly. It serves as our daily reminder that life is short and precious. Marko’s kindness and sense of humor will be missed. Fortunately, his spirit will live on in the food he has served his community, deliciously, lovingly and generously for years.
Next time you’re in downtown Orlando, I highly recommend you pay Planet Pizza a visit. I know I will.
And if you do, say hello to Marko for me.
(For Marko… and Tommy)