My life in pizza actually began in Chicago, when I was 12 years old.....Some of those restaurants featured “pizza,” a word I had never seen before, and I had to ask what it was. An Italian pie, my Chicago relatives said, but they didn’t eat it. They were Scandinavian, and in those days – the very early 1950s – things Italian and things Scandinavian didn’t mix that well, in food and in church.
Pizza didn’t become widely available in Duluth until about the mid-50s, or maybe just before that. I am aware of only one Duluth restaurant that served pizza among many other Italian dishes on its menu before that time. That restaurant was the Gopher Grill when it was located downtown on the second floor of a long-gone building on the north side of Superior Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues West, with a stairway entrance on Superior Street.
I only found out about the Gopher Grill’s pizza after other pizza outlets had opened, especially Sammy’s on First Street at First Avenue West.
Why all this now? Because I realized recently that never a week goes by that I don’t eat pizza in some form – fresh, frozen, reheated, bake your self. Sometimes pizza enters my life more than once a week. I almost always welcome it, but, of course, not all pizza is created equal.
These pizza thoughts prompted me to recall the first time I tasted pizza, and then the pizza memories began to flow.
My life in pizza actually began in Chicago, when I was 12 years old. We were visiting relatives and they lived in a neighborhood – Halsted Street not too far from the Loop – where several restaurants and bars were located. Some of those restaurants featured “pizza,” a word I had never seen before, and I had to ask what it was. An Italian pie, my Chicago relatives said, but they didn’t eat it. They were Scandinavian, and in those days – the very early 1950s – things Italian and things Scandinavian didn’t mix that well, in food and in church.
Then, toward the mid-1950s, a place called the “Pizzaria” opened on First Street in downtown Duluth, probably around First or Second avenues East, which is where I first tasted pizza. I was wary of it, sampled it, and didn’t like it one bit. Too spicy. I’m half Scandinavian and the rest northern European, and the cuisine served in my home was fairly bland, although my Swedish mother served a tasty spaghetti we all enjoyed.
By then I was in high school, prowling around Duluth with my friends in our family Ford, a lifestyle that opened many new horizons, including eating different foods I was not used to such as Coney Islands.
In 1955, when I turned 16, I went to work at the Duluth Herald & News Tribune as a Saturday night laborer in the mailing room. It was the worst job I have ever had, toiling to put together the various sections of the Sunday newspaper as they ran off the press, and pushing them out the alley door onto the trucks that transported the news throughout the region, from Ironwood, Mich., to International Falls, Minn., with Duluth-Superior in between. I hated it.
But one night, at our 9:30 p.m. “lunch” break (our shift ran from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. if the press didn’t break down0, one of the workers showed up carrying a paper-wrapped pizza pie he’d picked up at newly opened Sammy’s Pizza. He sat on a stack of newspapers holding the cardboard disc the carry-out pizza came on and offered me a piece. I knew I wouldn’t like it because of my experience at the Pizzaria (which the arrival of Sammy’s from Hibbing apparently put out of business), but instead it was a revelation. The pepperoni, the cheese, the tomato sauce -- I was hooked after one square piece. Sammy’s has always insisted on cutting its pies in squares instead of the wedges most pizza restaurants feature.
The rest is history. Sammy’s reigned supreme in Duluth for several years, opening outlets in West Duluth and Superior and other places, but as the ‘50s became the ‘60s other pizza outlets began to compete – Shakey’s, Pizza Hut, several other local pizza “palaces” (for some unknown reason pizza restaurants were often referred to as palaces, which none of them were) like Frank’s and Dave’s. At the same time, home-baked package pizza meals like Chef Boyardee became available and frozen pizza, followed more recently by “bake it yourself”, flooded the supermarkets and strip malls.
Pizza is everywhere, here and throughout America and Canada and Europe, where it all began but in vastly different form. Once, visiting Paris, France, I ordered pizza in a Champs Elysses restaurant and it came with a poached egg in the middle. Very good, though. I like poached eggs too.
The worst pizza I ever ate was not in a restaurant, but at the family cabin many, many years ago when a friend and I, craving pizza, brought a Chef Boyaree ingredient box along only to realize the cabin didn’t have a pizza pan to bake it on. Employing ingenuity only Americans can muster, we scrubbed the garbage can cover clean in the lake and made our pizza in that. I’ll say this for it: It was round.
There’s undoubtedly much more to the history of pizza in Duluth, and I’ve probably left out some prominent pizza palaces, but this is how I recall it. Maybe you have different memories. Go ahead and put them on the blog or Facebook.
Hmmm. Getting kind of hungry for lunch. Maybe there’s some left over pizza in the fridge from or visit to Sammy’s West Duluth the other night.