I'm not sure where or when I had my first pizza. My best guess is that it was in Tulsa in the early '60s and definitely in a Pizza Hut. This would figure since the chain was begun in 1958 by a couple of students at Wichita University--something like 130 miles north of Tulsa.
Pizza Hut was a reasonable beginning and it wasn't until 1968 that matters got serious when I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to work for Playboy Enterprises. L.A. was essentially pizza-deprived back then although Sam and Joe Martorano had established Casa Bianca at 1955 Colorado Blvd., a couple of field goals from the Rose Bowl. The Martoranos had worked at Tony's Pizza in the Windy City but their approach bore little resemblance to the deep dish Chicago product; the crust, I'm told, was light and the toppings slight by comparison. The California approach to cooking was underway and the pizza obsessive under-served.
I don't recall any L.A. pizza places largely because my dining was pretty much limited to West Hollywood and environs running to the ocean. With an office at 9255 Sunset Blvd, my favorite places tended to be within walking distance and included: the Cock & Bull across the street; Hamburger Hamlet, eventually a chain created by the still with us Harry and Marilyn Lewis who started at the corner of Sunset & Hilldale; and Frascati, a casual yet classy place with outdoor dining at the rear. Oh, yes, there was Musso & Frank Grill, still there since 1919.
My discovery of Chicago pizza was made possible by a convention at The Drake Hotel that forced me to stay at the St. Clair on Ohio Street. The Drake, immediately across the street from the Playboy Building, was the logical place for me but timing, as always, was everything and I was told I could move to The Drake when the convention was over. We know the importance of timing when we reflect upon Turner Classic Movie's decision to play next Tuesday's (May 29) Irving Thalberg tribute show at 6 a.m. EST.
I didn't need The Drake. I had settled in at the St. Clair, a place complete with a large contingent of raffish folks from the entertainment industry. On the top floor was the Chicago Press Club and down the street Ike Sewell's uncommnly popular restaurants, Pizzeria Uno and Due. I soon found myself eating a fair amount of deep dish that contrasted enormously with prior culinary adventures of the Italian genre.
Sewell, having served in Italy during World War II, had become a regional vice president of Fleishmann's Distilling Corp. and wanted something more exciting. He found it when he teamed up with pal Ricc Riccardo, an established restaurateur who in in 1935 had turned a former speakeasy into Riccardo Restaurant and Gallery. A Texan, Sewell wanted to specialize in Mexican food but fate, in the form of a very bad enchilada in a test dinner played a significant role in cuisine history. Riccardo became so sick that Mexican food was out of the question so he suggested pizza. Like Sewell, Riccardo had encountered the food while serving in Italy; both were of a mind that the real thing was little more than an appetizer, and they set about inventing something more substantial. What evolved was a meal-sized pizza with a thick crust and lots of cheese.
Business did not flourish immediately at the corner of Ohio and Wabash and Sewell soon gave orders to his bartenders to provide free sample slices to customers. Fortunately for Sewell (Riccardo by then was concentrating on his own restaurant up the street at Rush and Hubbard Streets), Pizzaria Uno's clientele were heavy drinkers and the pizza eventually caught on. More about the remarkable Riccardo and son Ric, Jr. at a later date.
I lived at the St. Clair for a month, then moved into an apartment on Division Street between State St. and Lake Michigan. As things turned out, Betty and the kids did not join me in Chicago until August of that year. It wasn't all bad since Hugh Hefner's home was two blocks away and I had an open invitation to parties that, seemingly, had no end.
The true origins of pizza are difficult to pin down. People inclined toward conspiracy theories tend to believe that Marco Polo brought back more than spaghetti when he returned from China although such claims are tenuous at best. We are told the Greeks had a vegetable pizza in ancient times and the Italians improved the product with a variety of fillings before baking. We do know that Virgil, who lived in the lst Century BC, had the good sense to write a pizza recipe for posterity.
It is generally conceded that the first pizzeria in this country was opened in New York City in 1905 thus planting the city's incestuous family tree. Like Sewell's experience 50 years later, it was slow to catch on. It took World War II and a taste acquired by GIs to create a fondness for the food. Today there are more than 70,000 pizzerias in this country producing an average of 46 slices or 23 lbs. a year for every man, woman and child. Deep dish pizza, still served at Uno and Due, has run afoul of criticism during recent years for a calorie count of 2,310. Pizza Hut is out of contention in that league with a modest 9-inch Triple Meat Heliano of 1,280 calories. And you wonder how this nation got to be one of big butts?
Not credited with a national sense of humor, South Korea spoofed itself when the country's artery-clogged Mr. Pizza unit produced a YouTube pizza story suggesting that Marco Polo stole the pizza recipe not from China but from Korea. The send up was produced by Gumshoe Pictures and is worth viewing.
In 1990, wife Jan and I moved to the Pacific Northwest and San Juan Island's Friday Harbor where nary a pizza could be found until an expanded gas station started cranking out product geared for those of decidedly limited dining experience. Even the availability of the mainland 60 minutes away by ferry was of pizza disappointment. Alas, the exquisite pizza and the magnificent hamburger are rarities of the Pacific Northwest. We eventually discovered, thanks to then banker Brian Brown, an approximation of hamburger heaven on Commercial Avenue in Anacortes. The Brown Lantern is a burger discovery that resurrected fond memories of Charlie Beinlich's in Northbrook north of Chicago. Mainland mainstay Bob's (nine locations--three in Bellingham) knows what to put in a bun; by all means, hit the bar in the Barkley Village location for a genuine pub feeling.
Each of us has had memorable dining experiences. One of mine occurred in 1992 when Jan and I were guests in Barcelona of Antonio Susquellas Escala, whose employment as presidente of EniChem Iberica, S.A. put him in the midst of the Olympic Games. Tony had been an exchange student in Thousand Oaks, California living with Jan and her family. Our six weeks with Tony was his "thank you" and included a highly impressive number of event tickets including opening and closing ceremonies.
It was while strolling down Barcelona's impressive La Ramblas that Jan and I, accompanied by my brother John and his wife, Terry, decided to have lunch at the Hotel Royal's Cafeteria La Poma. Curious about whatever Barcelona's approach to the pizza might be, I ordered a thin-crusted beauty whose intriguing ingredients included walnuts and blue cheese positioned in the pie's center--about a four-inch circle. Outside of a delicate winner consumed at, of all places, a short-lived Two Illinois Center restaurant developed by Arnold Morton (he built steak house giant Morton's), my experience with the light version had been limited.
The Barcelona product was remarkably good and here I am, 20 years later, recalling its virtues. I was so caught up in the pizza that I paid little attention to Magic Johnson, a member of the U.S.A. Dream Team, unquestionably the greatest basketball squad ever. Magic was seated nearby dining while a circus-like scene developed outside in front of a huge hotel window where a human pyramid of kids had materialized. Mesmerized, the kids were shouting "Ma-jeek, Ma-jeek." Completing his meal, the basketball star vanished out a back door and the kids disassembled. Pronounced evidence of the departed youngsters was left behind on the window; the glass was heavily befogged by human vapors.
Pizza satisfaction is a personal thing and my problem with the Fourth Corner version can be summed up in one word: pepperoni. Enthusiasts of the pepperoni experience are inclined to believe that pepperoni pizza is to the Pacific Northwest what the Packers are to Green Bay. A current television commercial extolling the glories of Pizza Hut is, I find, a stomach churner of prodigious success. While an imaginatively constructed pizza heavy on vegetables can mirror the exultant beauty of a Joan Miro work, the Pizza Hut TV effort features a very large pie whose disgusting topping consists of nothing but a slathering of pepperoni that appears to have been sitting for a week under a scorching Arizona desert sun. It is beyond ugly made even more so by bread sticks of almost equal repulsion.
Reaching pizza nirvana is not easy although there is a greater variety available today than, say, 30 years ago. Now a $38 billion industry, pizza is available in chains dominated by Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John who claim 21% of the pizzeria total. With hard times upon us, pizzeria prices have come down--partly because of the frozen variety competition whose costs are appealing. Papa Murphy's, whose come-on is take-and-bake, is a highly interesting game plan. A warning: do not deviate fromn Papa's instructions. Among other things, bake within a hour of pickup and make sure you don't get a product that's been sitting around.
Store-bought frozen product is challenging with Freschetta, Red Baron, DeGiorno, Paul Newman, California and the rest battling it out to see who has the least amount of cardboard taste. The boredom of pepperoni pizza has dominated Fourth Corner freezers and I had all but given up until three weeks ago when I encountered what I immediately determined as homage to Chicago: sausage and mushroom pizza. It was at Fred Meyer and, indeed, produced by Kroger, owner of FM. Further, a rather stunning picture of the pizza was on the black oblong box and within an hour I had achieved a blessedness never imagined from a frozen product. The crust was thin and flaky but not overly so and the toppings more substantial and decidedly tastier than all others experienced. At present, there are four Private Selection pizzas (11-14 oz.) that sell for $4.50 each. The mushrooms used are portobella and shitake and the sausage Italian. There's some jive on the box about the baking having been done on a marble hearth.
This column, always inclined to recognize superior marketing, believes Private Selection deserves recognition for realizing all frozen pizza boxes are the same shape. Simply by creating an oblong pizza has the firm given the product recognition in a highly competitive environment.
And, frankly, I don't care if Private Selection pizza is baked on Aunt Tilly's breakfast table. Now, go get yourself some sausage and mushroom pizza and think Cubs; that is, if you can stand the thought.
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