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Sean Kirst: In Las Vegas, Buffalo pizza becomes comfort food for stricken city

Chris Palmeri, a Buffalo native, fell asleep early Sunday night in his Las Vegas apartment. A big crowd of Western New Yorkers had shown up at one of his Naked City pizza shops to watch as the Buffalo Bills defeated Atlanta, a game that erupted into a celebration. Palmeri, as he describes it, was completely beat.

Yet he popped awake maybe an hour later for a reason he can't fully explain, and then he was pretty much done sleeping for the night.

Before long he heard sirens, police cars and firetrucks roaring past his building with a kind of wailing, all-consuming intensity that he hopes none of us will ever need to hear. It was beyond anything he'd experienced in his life. He turned on the television. In utter shock, he learned what was going on:

Less than a mile from his apartment, a gunman – taking aim from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort – had killed at least 59 people and wounded hundreds more by firing into the crowd during Jason Aldean's performance at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Palmeri barely moved for the rest of the night. He sat there, frozen, watching the reports, until he finally tried to grab a little sleep, without much luck.

The next morning he spoke to a friend who lives nearby.

The friend told him that from his window he could see the muzzle fire.

Palmeri is a Buffalo guy, down to the pores. He uses profanity in a familiar and almost musical fashion, the cadence of his city in the rhythm of his voice. His childhood home was on the West Side, near the Peace Bridge, before his family moved to Kenmore. He graduated from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, did a semester at Erie Community College and then went into the culinary business.

Fourteen years ago, MGM brought him to Las Vegas to operate a new Mexican restaurant. Eventually, Palmeri – joined later by his brother Michael – broke off to run Naked City, a business that started as little more than a hot dog stand and now includes three locations, all linked by one central characteristic:

"One hundred percent Buffalo," Palmeri, 37, said of his establishments.

Each one serves chicken wings and beef on weck and pizza, especially pizza, made in a way he thinks you'd find familiar.

"I know what it is and you know what it is," he said. "It ain't the diameter, or a centimeter this way or a centimeter that way. It's just Buffalo."

Just Buffalo, which also defines Palmeri.

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He has a contract to handle concessions at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was on his way there Monday, car radio on, listening as the toll of dead and wounded kept growing. He said he was "feeling like a piece of …" because he wanted to be doing more to help his wounded city, when it abruptly occurred to him:

"I don't know how to save people's lives, but I can feed them pizza."

There was "a pallet full of dough," he said, "and we had sauce and we had cheese." He and his staff started baking in their kitchen at the speedway. Palmeri sent a message out via Facebook  saying Naked City would provide free pizza for first responders, or families of victims, or people waiting at the hospital, or basically anyone who'd suffered and could use a good, hot slice.

Something ignited. Other pizza shops had the same idea, and many jumped in to collaborate on Facebook, the owners happily sharing boxes or supplies or whatever was needed. Out of nowhere, Palmeri said, utter strangers were showing up at his door, offering to help, and Naked City began sending out pizzas:

Chris Palmeri, right, with his brother Michael, serve Buffalo-style pizza as true comfort food in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy Chris Palmeri)

To the trauma centers, for the doctors and nurses. To the blood banks, where so many men and women were showing up to donate blood to help the wounded. To firefighters and police officers and paramedics and all the exhausted emergency workers who'd kept going, around the clock.

Somehow, word began spreading digitally beyond Nevada. Pretty soon, Naked City was getting calls from random people – Palmeri chose a more colorful way of expressing it – many placing orders from Texas or California or Pennsylvania. They'd simply say:

"I'm ordering a couple of large pizzas. Take them to whomever needs them most."

That was Palmeri's day. Many of his employees declined to go home at the end of their shifts. They stayed and kept delivering, deep into the evening. By the time it was over, by the time they were out of dough, Naked City had served about 8,000 free slices of pizza throughout the area.

To Palmeri, it speaks to something profound about Las Vegas, a city he has grown to love.

"Everybody looks at us like we're a ----ing joke, but let me tell you, we are Buffalo, because we're people from Buffalo, and we're Pittsburgh and we're the Northeast and we're all these places from all over this country, and today I saw this city come together like nothing I've ever seen in my life," he said.

Chris Conlon, an executive chef from Western New York, supervises six restaurants in Las Vegas, including three at Mandalay Bay – where diners Sunday, he said, were evacuated so quickly by police that they left behind a silent landscape of half-eaten sandwiches, of half-filled drinks.

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Conlon, a Hamburg native, described the response of Palmeri, a longtime friend, as emblematic of their city.

"When you think about it, this is a community built on hospitality," said Conlon, who rolled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday and delivered breakfast to several police stations. "So in a time of need, everyone takes what they know about hospitality and uses it to help one another."

As for Palmeri, he spoke to us by phone, late in the evening, from a table in a tavern. He said he was sitting with two brothers, close friends he met years ago, almost as soon as he arrived in Las Vegas. They are country fans, and he knew they would be at the Jason Aldean concert – "They go to all the shows" – and this is the story they shared with him Monday:

"These are two of the best guys you ever met," Palmeri said, "and they told me they're there and the shooting starts and they start running. There's people on their left, and they get shot. There's people on their right, and they get shot."

The two brothers, for reasons they can't fathom, escaped unhurt. They ended the day with Palmeri, drinking a beer, still trying to make sense of the impossible. He told them of his plans, how he'll continue bringing food today to anyone who needs it.

The brothers, in their sorrow, suddenly had a goal. They'll be with Palmeri, in Las Vegas, helping him deliver.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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