Monday, October 18, 2010

The History of Pizza in Duluth as I know it...

By Jim Heffernan
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.
Sammy's Pizza
It might come as a surprise to today’s generations that there are still people alive – me, for instance – who remember when there was almost no pizza available in Duluth.

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.


Kath1e said...

Jim, great story about Duluth pizza. In old suburban Bloomington my teenage memory is only of waiting two hours for pizza delivery! The pizza was in sad shape but we loved it. Then there are memories of the pizza served in drive-ins - truly offensive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim
My first experience with pizza was in the mid 50’s in of all places Holyoke, Massachusetts. Being reared by Minnesota Scandinavians who preferred all foods to be based on a version of white. This round thing my uncle treated us Minnwhovians (his word) to was totally different from anything I’d ever seen grace our dinner table before. It was round, kinda messy looking, with slabs of melted cheese, bits of sausage, little fish and it was RED. My father looked at it, poured himself another cup of coffee and slid his chair back from the table. My mother dove right in. I sided with dad. Fish were supposed to be fried and cheese went on top of apple pie and beside all that it was RED. Now however, my belt line shows I can't get enough of the stuff.
Erick H.

Jim Heffernan said...

Kathie & Erick...Sharing pizza memories is fun, and interesting. We all seem to have specific pizza memories as opposed to, say, bread memories, or eggs memories (although I actually have a deviled egg memory). Always enjoy your responses. Thanks. -- Jim

Lillenan (Nan ) said...

Jim , my parents may have run the Pizzeria you write about if the name was "Duluths Original Pizzeria" and to correct your information it was not put out of business by "sammy's " it was owned by a quaint Italian man who partnered with my dad , however the man was to return by to Italy and my parents could not financially afford to keep it going with out the help if his financial backing .
It not ony served Pizzias which were the best in town ,but many other different menu items throughout the day .
Was a popular hangout for young people as well ...Dad made the best hambers and french fries in town also..
A Duluth girl gone scandanavian .

Jim Heffernan said...

Nancy, thanks for the updated information and clarification about the pizza restaurant I mentioned in my post. I had a hard time back in the day getting used to the more spicy nature of pizza... but sure am a fan of it now! What an interesting story about your dad and the man from Italy in that business. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

I left Duluth in 1953 and never had heard of pizza. My first encounter with it was in Casablanca, Morocco in 1959. It was basically a tomato pie, round crust with a thin tomato paste spread over it. The only "extra" was ground parmesan cheese.

Unknown said...

Where was the Shakeys pizza parlor in the Twin ports/ Duluth area??

Unknown said...

I remember Shakey's being up by the airport in the early 70's. We'd also walk down from UMD for Mr. Frank's Pizza East buffet in '84-'86. And walk back for exercise!