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Two years later, cafe owner’s disappearance haunts the ‘Pizza Capital of the World’

Robert Baron, 59, hasn’t been seen since Jan. 25, 2017. At Ghigiarelli’s, his pizza cafe, investigators found blood, a tooth. and scattered cleaning supplies. His car was located about a mile away along the Lackawanna River. His body has not been recovered.

Maria Baron in front of a sign posted on the front of Ghigiarelli's Restaurant in Old Forge ,Lackawanna County. Robert Baron disappeared from there on Jan. 25, 2017.
Maria Baron in front of a sign posted on the front of Ghigiarelli's Restaurant in Old Forge ,Lackawanna County. Robert Baron disappeared from there on Jan. 25, 2017.Read moreFRED ADAMS / For the Inquirer / PIZZA9

OLD FORGE, Pa. — The lights were off, the ovens empty, the taste of a fresh cut of Ghigiarelli’s famous pizza a mere memory for its devotees on a snowy Saturday afternoon on Main Street here.

Elsewhere in the self-proclaimed “Pizza Capital of the World," the trays of pizza were coming out hot and fast in the dozen cafes where they’re served. At Revello’s, across the street, customers watched college football and occupied the booth where Hillary Clinton once ate. Down the block, a magician-host at Arcaro & Genell whisked parties to their seats, while tables for two went to work on doormat-size trays.

But Ghigiarelli’s, the progenitor of this uniquely Northeastern Pennsylvania brand of pizza, hasn’t had a customer in nearly two years, lying locked and dormant as a mystery surrounding its beloved owner remains unsolved. Robert Baron, 59, hasn’t been seen since Jan. 25, 2017, when he dropped his son off at his apartment in town around 11 p.m. His family reported him missing the following morning. At Ghigiarelli’s, investigators found blood, a tooth, and cleaning supplies scattered about. The dough delivery sat outside in the cold. Family and friends feared Baron had been abducted or beaten in a botched robbery and spoke of his fighting spirit, but Baron’s car was found about a mile away, by the Lackawanna River, not long after. Investigators found blood inside and out of the car, too.

Maria Baron, 57, is all but sure her husband is dead, even though his remains have never been recovered. She stood outside the restaurant on this Saturday night before Christmas wondering if an open and bustling Ghigiarelli’s could somehow comfort the family. Her two daughters avoid driving past it.

“It’s going to be bittersweet, but I don’t think we can sell it,” Maria Baron said. “This is a landmark for over 100 years now.”

The “Pizza Capital of the World” proclamation would likely make any New Yorker shudder, but Old Forge, a town of 8,000 about 120 miles north of Philadelphia, has loyal fans here and has even drawn national attention. Pizza is served on rectangular “trays,” and the individual pieces, about the size of the latest iPhone, are called “cuts.” Saying “slice” and “pie” will let locals know you’re not from here.

One cafe owner said the dough’s “a little different.” That goes for the cheese, too. Somehow, the pizza tastes fluffy, often with bits of diced onions sprinkled atop the bounty of cheese.

“It’s like a Sicilian, but lighter," said Angelo Genell, whose family has run Arcaro & Genell since 1962.

Much like Philly’s cheesesteaks, locals have their shop. Some like Mary Lou’s, others Elio G’s, but the pound-for-pound champion, the original cut, came from Ghigiarelli’s. In 1926, Nonni “Grandma” Ghigiarelli crafted the Old Forge style to feed the area’s Italian immigrants who had come to work in the anthracite coal mines. The other cafes that opened in town all offer a variation of that style, and Old Forge gourmands say each has subtle differences.

Maria Baron says their pizza had a unique crispiness.

“It’s a taste you don’t forget, something you crave,” said Revello’s owner, Pat Revello. “I’m sure there’s people from all over that are craving a Ghigiarelli pizza.”

Pizza cafe owners in Old Forge don’t use the word competition and insist they’re all close-knit, borrowing utensils and ingredients from one another in a jam and sometimes hanging out together when they’re free. They want Ghigiarelli’s to open again.

“Not so much for the town,” Genell said, “but I’d like to see the family get back into it. They need it."

Robert Baron’s family purchased Ghigiarelli’s in 1961, keeping the name and the pizza. He grew up in Old Forge, an affable workaholic who poured himself into the restaurant, Baron often slept in the apartment above to meet the deliverymen. For his children, the restaurant was a second home. When daughter Brittany went off to La Salle University, he called and texted her every day.

“All he did was work at the restaurant and raise his family,” Brittany, 25, said. “It just blows my mind that someone would have gone in and bothered him like this.”

Ghigiarelli’s was a cash business, the family said, but the most Robert would have been carrying after a Wednesday night was a few hundred bucks. Brittany thinks her dad wouldn’t have put up with “scumbags” trying to rob the place.

Family members held vigils and organized searches throughout town and nearby wooded areas after Baron’s disappearance. The Lackawanna County District Attorney’s Office investigated the case, while the FBI has helped with “technical assistance.” Investigators searched the restaurant and the apartment where Robert Baron Jr., who also worked at Ghigiarelli’s, lived.

The mayor tried to quell rumors about the case, but on the Finding Robert Baron Facebook page, people have named names, and the Barons don’t mind mentioning them. They believe several people took part in what turned out to be a botched robbery.

“We have a very good idea of who is involved,” Brittany said.

The Inquirer and Daily News reached out to two of those men, to ask why their names are being connected to Baron’s case. Both lived in Old Forge at the time. The men have not been identified because they have not been named publicly as suspects.

“Are you paying me?” one responded.

The other man did not return requests for comment.

District Attorney Mark Powell, in a statement, said the initial investigation into Baron’s disappearance was conducted by his predecessor, Shane Scanlon.

“Since I took office as district attorney in 2018, we have gone over every aspect of the investigation with a fine-tooth comb — what was done, what wasn’t done, and what needed to be redone — and we have followed through wherever we felt it was necessary and appropriate,” Powell said.

The investigation, Powell added, is active and ongoing, but the Barons aren’t the only ones who want answers.

“People in town are frustrated over this,” Revello said. “That time of year when it happened, we all go to work early in the dark. For a few weeks, when you’re not being told anything, it was kind of sketchy going to work. Just wish we were given more information at the time when it happened.”

A banner offering a $10,000 reward for information that would help to bring Baron “home" is still strung across Ghigiarelli’s.

The Barons don’t eat much pizza themselves these days. Maria said the mere smell of a local delivery franchise makes her nauseated. When the family was huddled together in the days after the disappearance, Old Forge cafe owners responded by sending pizza. From time to time, if someone dies and mourners yearn for pizza, Robert Baron Jr. will go into the restaurant and cook up a Ghigiarelli’s tray.

Brittany and her older sister won’t go inside. At least not yet.

“I would love to go back in there and have things go back to being the way things used to be,” daughter Nicole Baron, 29, said via FaceTime from her home in New York. “If the restaurant really does reopen, I’m sure I’ll go back in. It’s not ever going to be the same.”