Longtime Mariposa business rises from ashes

Pizza Factory opens in a week

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 4, 2013 

— Nearly one year ago, the owners of the historic Pizza Factory watched in horror as a large fire engulfed their family business.

But this week a sense of excitement filled the air as owners Luke Willey and wife Brandi walked through the restaurant, putting the final touches on it before reopening May 11 -- the first anniversary of the 2012 fire.

The four-alarm blaze last year destroyed their business and several others, but the family started rebuilding as soon as possible.

When time came to replace the historic mural that covered the building's side wall and greeted anyone entering Mariposa, the Willey family could think of only one person to create a new one: artist Sal Maccarone.

"He's been a friend of the family for years and he's a very good artist," Luke Willey said.

A Mariposa resident since the 1980s, Maccarone, 63, couldn't be happier to take on the task.

"I begged them to let me do it," Maccarone said with a laugh. "I feel really privileged and honored that they asked me. They could've had anyone do it."

It was a labor of love that took Maccarone five months to complete.

He hand-painted each of the mural's 16 panels on his living room floor, rotating the 90-pound panels four at a time. It took about three hours to put up all the panels Friday morning.

The 16-by-32 foot mural is a replica of the one that burned in the fire, Maccarone said, including the butterfly and courthouse images.

Art for interior

The owners also wanted something new for the inside of the restaurant, and Maccarone created a three-dimensional painting of Yosemite, using wood, glass, stone, tree branches and rocks.

Luke Willey, who took over the business from his father four years ago, said he tried to use only local contractors for the Pizza Factory's reconstruction. Willey recalls helping his father, Ronald Willey, run the eatery since he was 6 years old.

The Willey family also asked Maccarone to hand-craft the restaurant's 30 tables, 60 benches and four booths -- all from wood. It took Maccarone "a couple months," but the finished work brought one of the owners to tears.

"When Sal brought his tables in, and we put everything back in, it was emotional," Brandi Willey said. "My eyes filled with tears. Just to see it put back together; I never thought I'd see it."

The fire last May 11 consumed almost everything inside the 9,000-square-foot building, which was built in the early 1920s. The cause was determined to be electrical problems.

Fire damage was estimated to be $1 million. The Willeys wouldn't disclose what it cost to reconstruct the building.

The restaurant's wooden front door, sculpted by Maccarone in 1999, was one of the only things to survive the flames last year.

As the fire rapidly spread, Luke Willey managed to remove the door from its hinges.

"There's a lot of memories here, and I wanted to make sure we saved it," Willey said. "It was important to my dad."

"I wish I could've grabbed more," he added.

That historic door, slightly charred on one side, will greet patrons as the restaurant reopens.

Same, only bigger

Longtime customers will be pleasantly surprised because "it looks like the exact same place -- only bigger," Maccarone said.

The entire collection of projects took Maccarone six months to complete, but he said he'd do anything possible to support his longtime friends.

"It's a privilege to me to be able to do this," Maccarone said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service