Bob Petrillose, the legendary founder of the Hot Truck, passed away last night after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Credited with inventing the French Bread Pizza concept and licensing the idea to Stouffer’s decades ago, Petrillose and his wife opened their food-service truck near Cornell University’s West Campus in 1960.
Petrillose retired several years ago, selling the Hot Truck operation, name, and recipes to Albert Smith, owner of the Shortstop Deli. Smith has continued to operate the food truck on Stewart Avenue, and added the famous Hot Truck subs to the menu at the 24-hour Shortstop in downtown Ithaca.
The truck was originally named “Johnny’s,” after the landmark restaurant opened by Bob’s father, John Petrillose, on Dryden Road in Collegetown. (The sign for Johnny’s Big Red Bar & Grill remains, even though the establishment has long since been split into multiple storefronts.) Bob had learned his cooking skills in his father’s restaurant, and brought them to bear on a late-night student crowd that proved to be hungry for pizza.
In the 1960s, when pizzerias weren’t spread as thick as mozzarella on Ithaca’s landscape, and the concept of pizza delivery was still a few years away, fresh pizza available right next to the dorms, and a short walk from Collegetown housing, was a boon. Before long, tiring of selling pizza by the slice, he hit on the winning combination of pizza sauce, fresh cheese and toppings, and French bread, dubbed the “Poor Man’s Pizza,” or “PMP.”
Through the 1990s, Petrillose worked every night when students were in town, taking a break when classes weren’t in session. He and his wife prepared their homemade meatballs and Italian link sausage in their home kitchen on Pleasant Grove Road, and then he, usually working with just a sole student taking orders, slipping trays in the ovens, and packing up the sandwiches, worked late into the night filling the stomachs of students, alumni, townies, and visitors.
After an afternoon of prepping, Petrillose would arrive on Stewart Avenue around 10pm most nights, though catering to a quirky student meal plan that typically provided three daily means Monday through Saturday but just two on Sunday, he generally opened at dinnertime on Sundays. On busy nights, typically Fridays and Saturdays, the crowd wouldn’t be gone, and he wouldn’t go home, until 4am or later.
Before long, a common lingo sprang up around the popular combinations of ingredients beyond the simple sauce-and-cheese PMP, such as a “PMP Pep” or “PMP Mush” (with pepperoni or mushroom, respectively), or an “MBC Link” (a meatball and cheese pizza sub with link sausage sliced on).
Dictionaries and menus, unofficial at first, helped neophytes get past their fear of their first order. The stereotypical freshman, or so the joke went, would step up to the window of “Johnny’s Hot Truck” and proudly exclaim, “I’ll have a Poor Man’s Pizza… Johnny!”
The ’90s saw a brief flirtation with expanding the reach of the PMP, as students brought FedEx overnight-shipping cartons to Bob, asking him to ship frozen, partially cooked sandwiches to those who’d left town and missed the late-night treat. A group of alumni opened a short-lived franchise in the Boston area, and even “imported” French bread from Ithaca Bakery to keep their product authentic.
In recent years, with Hot Truck subs available seven days a week, and 24 hours a day, at the Shortstop Deli, the truck itself has reduced its hours. It’s generally open only a few evenings a week, Thursday through Saturday nights, when Cornell is in session.
After Petrillose retired, he and his wife sold their family home in Cayuga Heights and moved to Elmira to be nearer their grandchildren. This afternoon, one of his granddaughters shared the sad news with Hot Truck fans on Facebook.