Nuccio brings downtown perspective to mayoral race

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 6:27 p.m. CDT; updated 12:44 p.m. CDT, Friday, March 26, 2010

COLUMBIA — Sal Nuccio isn't going to apologize for who he is. Really.

Nuccio has long hair, piercings and tattoos. He lives in an apartment above his downtown bar and drives an old van. He's on the April 6 municipal ballot as a candidate for mayor of Columbia, but he's not too worried about what people think of him. And he's not going to offer a lot of excuses about the trouble he got into as a teenager growing up in New Jersey.

Sal Nuccio

1016 E. Broadway

PERSONAL: 42. He is single.

OCCUPATION: Owner of Eastside Tavern.

EDUCATION: Did not attend college.

BACKGROUND: Came to Columbia 13 years ago to work as a pipefitter, and after six months opened Eastside Tavern. Nuccio announced he would run for the First Ward seat in 2007, but never filed.

ON THE WEB: Nuccio has a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@EastsideTavern).


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Nuccio said he thinks people judge him poorly because of his unique character.

"I'm downtown; I only hang out here anyway. Why wouldn't I live down here?" Nuccio asked. "I do drive an old van, but it runs like a top. And, anyway, what business doesn't own a van?"

Nuccio also doesn't care about the public flak he's taken for being noticeably absent from candidate forums and for failing to conduct a public campaign for mayor.

Eastside Tavern

Nuccio, 42, is comfortable working behind the bar he's owned for 12½ years, and people seem comfortable there. Many patrons greet Nuccio by name when they approach the bar looking for a drink.

"Everything (downtown) thinks it's a new fancy-pants place," Nuccio said. "I don't play that with people. A lot of the regulars are tired of too many pretentious people and don't want to go somewhere and be judged."

Skip Harvey, who has worked for Nuccio the past two years, said Nuccio is a downtown personality.

"Everyone knows Sal," Harvey said. "He's part of the downtown tapestry, and he should be."

Nuccio's bar, Eastside Tavern at 1016 E. Broadway, fulfills his long-time dream.

"In the beginning, I was putting in 12-hour days, six days a week," Nuccio said. "But when it's your project, your baby, it doesn’t feel like that much work.”

The bar is no doubt Nuccio’s baby. Many nights he’s the person working behind the bar, and most of the bizarre decorations — horror movie posters from the 1950s, random action figures and weird dolls — are Nuccio's. He even painted the giant squid on the ceiling. He describes the bar as a rock 'n' roll version of the bar in the 1980s television series "Cheers."

"It's a carnival atmosphere in a weird, funky way," Nuccio said. "There's no making sense of it. It's something to talk about and keeps the socialization going."

Nuccio is most accessible on the Internet, especially through Facebook and Twitter. He just installed wireless Internet in his bar last week. If you don't find him standing at the end of his bar, he might be sitting in front of his laptop at the Ragtag Cinema bar.

Even though some nights he's not mixing drinks behind his bar, Nuccio keeps a close eye on his business. If something happens at Eastside, he knows about it.

"I run a tight ship," Nuccio said "I don't tolerate ... (excuses) from wackos and troublemakers. You've got to stand up to them. In this town things don't get better, they get worse right away."

Harvey agreed Nuccio does things his own way. 

"He has his own set of ideas of how things work," Harvey said. "He has a different background and a different lifestyle than what most people are used to seeing."

Nuccio isn't shy about where he draws the line in terms of his responsibility. He said he gets complaints about the cigarette butts out on the sidewalks in front of Eastside.

"Am I supposed to baby-sit cigarette smokers? I didn't pass the law anyway," Nuccio said.

Nuccio relies on his "right-hand man," Josh Windle, to maintain order and keep things running smoothly at his bar. Eastside patrons know Windle as Pants. He's been working with Nuccio for about eight years, and Nuccio said that between the two of them they cover all the shifts. Nuccio approached Pants about working with him after he'd seen him at Eastside shows.

Nuccio talks proudly of his involvement with the local music scene. He said Eastside revived punk rock and hard-core in Columbia.

"He books his own shows," Harvey said. "He got a lot of local bands their start."

Growing up in Jersey

Nuccio, a self-proclaimed "wild child," grew up in New Jersey. He lived above his grandmother's house with his parents and two brothers.

“We pretty much grew up at my grandmother’s house together. We were a typical middle-class family,” Joe Nuccio, Nuccio's cousin, said. "We had an Italian grandmother, and she would cook on Sundays."

Growing up, Nuccio hated school and strongly disliked authority figures.

"It's a thing for a lot of people," Nuccio said. "I just did the anti-establishment thing when I was 15, not 25."

When he was 16 he got in trouble with the law for assaulting three police officers, but he never saw himself as a criminal. 

"I was a wild child," Nuccio said. "I got in trouble with the law, but ahh, it was a long time ago."

When he was in 20s, Nuccio decided to hop on his motorcycle and visit his cousin Joe Nuccio in North Carolina.

"I thought it was kind of wild to drive all the way from Jersey down on your bike," Joe Nuccio said.

Sal Nuccio is from a family of union pipefitters. His grandfather, dad and uncle all worked in the pipefitting business, and that's where Nuccio got his start. When he couldn’t find work in New Jersey, he decided to try something different.

“I was tired of that area anyway," Nuccio said. "I was kinda psyched to travel. I turned my negative into a positive.”

But the pipefitting gig didn't last too long once he arrived in the Midwest. The union pipefitters sent him to St. Louis, but there was no work, so he headed to Columbia.

"I'd never even heard of Columbia when I went to St. Louis," Nuccio said. "(The pipefitters) gave me an address; that's how I found Columbia."

Nuccio started work at the MU power plant when he came to Missouri, but he was laid off after about six months. He found work as a doorman at some late-night establishments, including Club Vogue. After taking in the Columbia atmosphere for a while, he decided it was the perfect opportunity to open a bar.

"I realized how cheap Columbia is compared to the East Coast," Nuccio said. "Up there, you've got to have almost a million dollars to open a bar."

While Columbia has some financial perks compared to the East Coast, Nuccio's not a perfect fit here.

"Underground rock 'n' roll bars: This town is pretty alien to that kind of thing," Nuccio said. "Columbia's not a real city yet."

Even though Nuccio left the pipefitting business, Harvey said it definitely shows through in his personality.

"He was a union guy," Harvey said. "He always goes for the underdog. He's got a very old school, blue-collar American attitude."

The candidate

Although Nuccio doesn't consider himself a politician, this isn't the first time he's talked about becoming a councilman. In 2007, Nuccio announced that he intended to run for the First Ward seat, but he dropped out of the race two days before the filing period. He takes issue with a previous Missourian article in which he was quoted saying his announcement that year was a publicity stunt. Now he says he decided to withdraw so he wouldn't split the votes with Paul Sturtz, who eventually was elected. Nuccio said he also was working on a potential new business opportunity at the time.

Nuccio announced last fall that he intended to run for mayor. He filed this time, but he has stayed away from candidate forums and has held no campaign events. He's also not fond of reporters asking questions.

"Yeah, I haven't been attending forums, but I deal with hundreds of people a week," Nuccio said. "I don't need the forums to talk to people."

Despite running for public office, it's an understatement to say Nuccio can be difficult to track down and talk to, even with his regular presence in the downtown scene. He schedules interviews to intersect with beer deliveries, and he's often disgruntled and initially rude when a reporter approaches during the evening hours. He'll not shy away from scolding a reporter for talking to other people about him.

Nuccio is not shy about who he is or where he comes from. And he doesn't think the fact that he's running for mayor means it's anyone's business to bother him.

"After a couple months I started to get a headache from it all, so I decided to push it off."

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