By Rick Kern
To say that eating at Tony Natalie’s Galleria Pizza is an incredible journey in and of itself isn’t even a slight exaggeration. The food is the stuff of legends, from their vast assortment of traditional and gourmet pizzas to their wings, subs, and all manner of mouthwatering munchies — if you’re hungry, you won’t be for long at Galleria Pizza! In fact, the only problem you will have is getting lost in the menu as you try to decide what to order.
Located on East Main Street in Rochester, NY, Galleria Pizza has been providing patrons with lip-smacking food in a welcoming environment since 1994 and it’s easy to see why they are still going strong. However, there is more to Tony Natalie than fresh ingredients, dynamic recipes, and great service. Natalie is a man with a story of God’s goodness that chronicles his journey from nourishing bodies to nourishing souls.
A Pittsford, New York native, Natalie was brought up in a somewhat nominally Catholic religious environment. “I was raised loosely Catholic,” he recalls, “and that meant that we sometimes went to church on Easter or Christmas. It was not really spiritual at all.” Tony grew up with his brother and sister and had what he describes as a “normal childhood.” And though he was intelligent, he just didn’t like school enough to apply himself and thus, was a mediocre student at best. “All the teachers said the same thing, reflects Natalie, ‘Tony is intelligent, but he does not wish to apply himself here.’ So, I didn’t do well towards the end of my high school career.”
Like a lot of teens, Natalie caught his generation’s wave and immersed himself in the drug culture. “Probably around the age of 15 or 16, I began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol,” he reveals with some regret. “From 15 on, until my early 20’s, I was using drugs and alcohol quite a bit. I even graduated to more powerful drugs such as cocaine in my late-teens-early 20’s.”
Because of his disinterest in scholarship and the resulting inadequate grades, he begged out of high school before graduating. “I was doing so poorly in my last year of high school that my father just said, ‘You’re not going to pass,’” says Natalie. “He pulled me out of high school and put me to work. I went to work for the family business at the age of 17.” In many ways it was a match made in heaven so-to-speak, and all the effort he didn’t put into school, he invested in his father’s pizza shop.
His life took a significant turn when he agreed to buddy-up with his brother, who was a career body builder. “My brother needed someone to work out with, so I was recruited to do that,” Tony notes. “I was recruited by my brother to be his training partner because he needed someone to push him in the gym, basically. At the age of 16 or 17, I was out of school and I started working out with him on a regular basis.”
Natalie continued pumping iron, building serious muscle and even eventually entering weight-lifting competitions. He also continued embracing the nightlife while bulking up with his brother daily, and at age 20 or 21, ran into a guy at the gym who would change his life. Described as a “stout little guy,” Jim Gugino was squatting some 700 lbs., which made him Tony and his brother’s new best friend. “Jim not only lifted a lot of weight, but he was on fire for Jesus Christ,” recalls Natalie fondly. “Jim led both my brother and I to Christ. We just had that common interest of working out and it was like friendship evangelism. There was finally a moment when he asked, ‘Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Would you like to know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ We discussed things about God and he’s evangelizing as he’s doing it. I can’t tell you the exact place and time that it began, but he led me to Jesus Christ.”
While he was born again in an instant and walked away from the nightlife, like most believers, his transformation took some time. “We come to know the Lord and we believe what we’re saying, we believe it, and then the transformation starts. Do we stop? Like I said, I had that moment where I stopped the drugs and alcohol, but then I was moving on to the weights.” He added candidly, “I had kind of an obsessive/compulsive personality and everything I’ve ever done has been 120 percent so now, I’m moving into this weight training. Now, it’s all about the weight training. Yes, I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and I began going to church, but the weights were a big part of it in my life. Too big! At this point, looking back, I was still being dominated by something other than God. The weights were a bit of an idol.”
God was faithful, however, patiently guiding Tony through mistakes, a divorce, and injuries — all the while forming the image of His Son in Natalie’s heart. Ultimately, the Lord brought him to Galleria Pizza, stabilized his life, until he is ablaze with passion for Christ and filled with the love of God. At one point, Tony reached out to Pastor James Collazzo and helped him start a new church called, Roc City Hope, in the overflow dining hall across from the restaurant. They held services there for about a year and have since found a permanent location where the fellowship is thriving.
Tony, who has since remarried, uses Galleria Pizza to share the love of God in every way he can from cashing out customers with a hearty and sincere, “God bless you,” to leaving literature around the restaurant for them to read. At this point, however, Jesus is the axis his life revolves around, not pizza and not weight-lifting. “I’m still working, running the pizza shop and just spending time with my family,” he explains. “I still go to the gym four days a week for an hour at a time. But now, everything is in the right order.”
To get in touch with Tony visit at www.galleriapizza.com