GORHAM —

When Angelo Sotiropoulos got out of his car in front of the Gorham House of Pizza on Tuesday, his customers soon spotted him.

Some who were driving by pulled over to give him a hug. Others stopped as they reluctantly made their way to get lunch elsewhere in town.

An electrical fire Thursday night gutted the upper floors of Sotiropoulos’ building at 2 State St., and water damage from efforts to douse the blaze shut down his popular restaurant on the first floor for at least a few months, while repairs are made.

The accidental fire, started by a bathroom fan in a second-floor apartment, followed six suspicious fires at vacant buildings in Gorham that are under investigation. Although the unsolved arsons have residents unsettled, the fire at the Gorham House of Pizza may have shaken the town more.

“Everybody is devastated – devastated because everybody loves Angelo and everybody loves his pizza,” said Martha Harris, who has been a customer since he opened the restaurant 31 years ago.

Sotiropoulos, 62, said Tuesday that he has been inundated with phone calls and Facebook messages over the past few days from friends and customers offering help.

“People are calling me, ‘What can we do?’ ” said Sotiropoulos, who lives in Gorham and has four grown children.

“I don’t have words to describe the feeling I have inside of me,” he said, with so much support from the community.

His supporters say they’re simply returning the favor.

“Nobody’s impacted the lives of people in the town the way Angelo did,” said Matt Mattingly, who stopped by to invite Sotiropoulos to dinner Friday at his restaurant at the PineCrest Inn on South Street.

The Gorham House of Pizza is a signature hometown hangout, at a high-traffic location where routes 25 and 114 meet in the center of town. Open from 11 in the morning to 11 at night, it has been a favorite lunch spot for local business people, the after-school hangout for high school students, and the place to get a bite after a ballgame.

If a local sports team came in after losing, the pizza would probably be on Sotiropoulos.

A constant presence at the restaurant, Sotiropoulos could often be found sitting in a booth and chatting with customers, most of whom he knows by name.

“He just brings you in. I don’t mean for pizza. He brings you into the family,” said Harris, who took her children there when they were young. Her youngest daughter, who’s 41, now takes her kids.

On Tuesday, customers described Sotiropoulos, who emigrated from Greece 40 years ago, as endlessly generous.

Whenever a local group had a fundraiser, he was quick to give out free pizzas or gift certificates to the restaurant, they said.

He often provided food for sports teams’ banquets, and never charged for it, said Jim Hager, a School Committee member who was involved with the football boosters.

“He’s the most brilliant marketer,” Hager said. “When my sons come home from college, where do you think they go?”

That’s all Sotiropoulos has ever wanted back.

He has been telling people who have offered him financial help to give it to his 15 employees, whose wages will be covered by his insurance for only two months.

He said he expects to reopen in three to six months. The two apartments upstairs, which took the brunt of the damage, probably won’t be habitable for another year. Six tenants, four of whom are students at the University of Southern Maine, were displaced by the fire. USM has provided housing, meals and replacement textbooks for those students.

Although Sotiropoulos doesn’t yet know what the cost of the damage will be, he expects the repairs and his own bills to be covered by his insurance.

Mattingly, the PineCrest Inn’s owner, who is also a town councilor, said he and other community members are organizing a fundraiser for the restaurant, to be held in the next few weeks.

“It will be a townwide event,” he said, though the details haven’t been settled.

For Sotiropoulos, who said owning the Gorham House of Pizza is “the joy of my life,” the community has already given him all the support he needs.

They have done it every Friday night, when he has looked outside his restaurant and not seen a single empty parking space along the side of the road.

“They’re coming here,” he said. “That’s my reward.”

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]