Cold nights and warm memories:
Customers, friends remember 'Hot Truck Bob' Petrillose
For thousands of Cornell students and alumni who ever stood shivering in line at the Hot Truck, a legend has passed.
Robert C. Petrillose Sr., known to generations of patrons at Cornell as “Hot Truck Bob,” died Dec. 8 in Elmira. He was 77. For 40 years until his retirement in 2000, Petrillose owned and operated the Hot Truck on Stewart Avenue, where he served hot subs seven nights a week from 10 p.m. until as late as 5 a.m.
Hungry, stressed-out college students relished the taste of the quirky menu items that were Hot Truck staples. To name a few: the Poor Man’s Pizza (French bread with tomato sauce and cheese), the MBC (French bread with two homemade meatballs, tomato sauce and cheese) and the Krazy Korean (garlic bread with homemade hot sausage, mushrooms, hot peppers and onions).
Remembrances of Petrillose and the Hot Truck piled up on Facebook (the group Johnny’s Hot Truck, created by Dan Milstein ’91, with 1,534 members and counting) and were posted on an alumni affairs tribute page.
Included here are just a few of the tributes to Petrillose offered by former students, customers and co-workers. An alumni memorial service for Petrillose is being planned for Reunion Weekend in June.
“I was so foolish as a freshman that my first Hot Truck sandwich was actually a cold sub, just because I didn’t want to wait. (How embarrassing!) But I quickly mended my ways and became a big fan of the TMBC Pep and the Ra Ra G&G, which often served as comfort food when the pressures of my studies were wearing me out. I guess Bob never held my initial error against me, because I later had the privilege of waiting inside the truck on many cold winter nights, chatting with Bob and handing him fresh bags of bread when he called for them. He was the hardest working man I’ve ever met – and one of the friendliest, too.”
– MICHAEL COE ’85
“[I was] sitting at a Baltimore Orioles game on a beautiful spring night with Andrew Stifel. End of the ninth inning, the Orioles win. I turn to Andrew and say, ‘Truck?’ He thinks for a moment, nods, then we get into his car only to arrive on Stewart Avenue around 4:15 a.m. just before Bob pulls out. … We took our cherished, hot sandwiches back into the car, drove up to the Straight (in the days when you still could), got out and ate them in front of McGraw Tower. We finished, sang the alma mater, got back into the car and drove back home.”
– ERIC SKOLNICK ’90
“I began working for Bob during my senior year at Cornell, and whether it was a hot evening in August or a cold night in December he always arrived at West Campus with a smile. As we would work side by side, he would share stories about his life, from his start at his father’s restaurant to raising his children with his wonderful wife. Even moreso, he cared about us – all of us – all the students, friends and alumni who would spend many nights waiting outside his truck.”
– MARGUERITE DUANE ’92
“Bob had the most disarming smile I have ever seen. It could make the coldest Ithaca night a few degrees warmer. What amazed me most is that everyone got his smile. If you arrived to the truck after we cleaned every surface and started the engine, he would smile, turn on the ovens and make you a sandwich exactly how you wanted it. If you did not do as well on a prelim as you would have hoped, he would smile at you and say, ‘I know you’re a smart person, you’ll show ’em next time.’ If you had one too many at the Palms, he would smile and know that an MBC was just what you needed.”
– ERIK LEHMANN ’95, who worked on the truck for seven years and then moved to Boston to open PMP: The Original French Bread Pizza
“Bob was a great man. He was only selling sandwiches, but he handed out so much more. … [He] will be missed, but I take a part of him wherever I go.”
– BRAD H. RICHARDS ’80
“I arrived at Cornell from Philadelphia in January 1979. I stood in the snow for my first visit to the Hot Truck and naturally ordered a ‘cheesesteak hoagie wid’ meaning with Cheese Whiz and grilled onions. Bob cracked a smile and said, ‘Hello Philly boy. We call them steak ’n cheese subs up here. Don’t compare the two sandwiches, just enjoy the one that will be in your hands in a few minutes.’ Thankfully, I did not like Bob’s version of my hometown favorite sandwich. My next trip to the truck I ordered a PMP and discovered the blissful marriage ceremony that Bob celebrated between mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce so many times each night.”
– THEODORE SEALE ’83
“What I remember most about Bob was his unfailing sense of fairness. The truck was often mobbed, and the customers never formed any kind of organized line. But Bob always knew who showed up when, and if you tried to call out an order before someone else who had been waiting longer than you, he would ignore you until he determined that it was your turn. I still don’t know exactly how he did that, but he managed to teach all of us about the meaning of fair play and honesty.”
– GENEVIEVE (MURPHY) NELSON ’85
“I’ll remember Bob more for his kindness and generosity than for the delicious late-night meals he provided. Bob always welcomed my friends and me into the truck on a cold night, asking about our recent adventures and the general state of our lives. Bob had a twinkle in his eye and frequently provided us with a good laugh. He was even kind enough to provide a ride home to our fraternity in the Hot Truck one night after one of my friends had injured an ankle. ‘Hold onto the handle,’ we were instructed, as he slowly wound his way down Cayuga Heights Road in the early morning hours. Thanks, Bob, for the memories.”
– CHRIS MILLER ’93
“Sometimes, when I was on a shoestring budget, it was all I could do to scrape up enough cash for a classic PMP (with pep/mush, of course), and when I was a little more flush at week’s end, I’d get a WGC (for the garlic lover). Hot Truck was a warm and delicious oasis on cold Ithaca nights, and Bob always welcomed those of us who waited inside his truck, lured by the great smells and the chance to see Bob work his magic. I’m sure Hot Truck has a special route in heaven! He will be missed.”
– CHRIS PEARCE ’88
“My family has known the Petrillose family since my father and mother came to Cornell in 1928 and 1929 and settled in Ithaca after graduating from Cornell. From the days of Johnny’s Coffee Shop and Grandpa Joe to the switch to Johnny’s Big Red Grill, which happened in the early ’50s, we were customers; friends and I worked at Johnny’s alongside Bob and tended bar during my college days. I was the other guy in the truck on that first night in 1960. We had planned to move around but only made one stop as the truck was overwhelmed by the unbelieving horde of students who would gladly wait more than an hour for a pizza. We used the walkie talkie to get more supplies from the restaurant, and all we had was a cigar box to hold the money, and we just started throwing the money on the floor, and it accumulated up to our ankles.”
– ROBERT FABBRICATORE ’66
“Back in the winter of 1993, Cornell closed for the first time in decades due to a massive snowstorm. More than two and a half feet of snow fell, and when Sunday came around, the snow finally stopped, and it was time to begin digging out. I’ll never forget walking over to Bob and Sharon’s house on Pleasant Grove Road with 20 of my KDR brothers. Everyone chipped in to shovel their long driveway while Bob and I began making subs in the truck. I am not sure who was more appreciative – my brothers, who got to have Hot Truck for dinner – or Bob, for helping him get out of his driveway so that he could be at his usual spot on Stewart Avenue. What amazed me about that day was how important it was for Bob to be out that night. It wasn’t about missing a night of business – it was about being there to serve the students.”
– TOM LAFALCE ’94
“One cold clear night in February 1967, I remember a most spectacular aurora borealis display visible in the sky. I only noticed it while lined up, waiting to get into the Hot Truck. To this day, any time I see the aurora I think of Bob and get hungry for an MBC.”
– STUART LUPPESCU ’70
“A whole lot of Cornellians for over 40 years, from the 1960s to 2000, who wouldn’t know each other if we ran over them on the sidewalk, all with the same memories. At Cornell, I met and was taught by Nobel winners (Hans Bethe), famous rock-star astronomers (Cark Sagan and Frank Drake) and even one of the two guys that built the first jet engine (Dennis Shepherd). But one of the fondest memories we ALL have (from all those years) will always be one of standing in the snow waiting and talking to Bob. Takes a good man to affect that many folks. RIP, my friend.”
– TOM SWANSON ’77