This is an unofficial, brief, sloppily researched history of my life in pizza, which actually coincides with the history of pizza in Duluth.
In the beginning there was none. No pizza in Duluth whatsoever the first 15 years or so of my life — the post-World War II years leading into the mid-‘50s.
I have since learned that one restaurant might have served it before it hit Duluth in a big way, but I’m not sure. The Gopher Grill, then located on the upper side of Superior Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues West (just east of the old Lyceum Theater where I spent my childhood with Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba, Laurel and Hardy and others) reportedly served pizza in the years shortly after World War II before the arrival of Sammy’s here in the mid-1950s. Could be.
I had never even heard of pizza until I was about 11 years old visiting relatives in Chicago. These were Scandinavian relatives, so they didn’t actually eat pizza, but it was out there in their neighborhood not far from the Loop.
As with all new foods confronting a kid that age, I assumed I wouldn’t like it. How wrong I was, but that’s getting ahead of our story.
If memory can serve, the first pizza parlor to open in Duluth was when I was entering high school in the mid-‘50s. It was on east First Street near downtown and simply called “Pizzeria.” I ate there once, tasting the first pizza of my still-short life, and hated it.
Not long after that, I got a job in the bowels of this newspaper in what was called the mailing room. I worked on the Saturday night crew helping to pack up and shove the big Sunday News Tribune out the back door and onto the trucks in the alley.
That Saturday mailing room crew was made up of a lusty bunch of guys around my age and a little older — I was 16 — willing to put in eight or nine hours of hard labor for about 10 bucks. It was the place where I greatly advanced my swearing abilities, later perfected in the Army, and it bought me my first car.
One miserable Saturday night in the mailing room (they were all miserable), one of the other workers showed up during our “lunch” break (9:30 p.m. until 11 when the press started to roll) with a cardboard platter of — you guessed it — pizza. Pepperoni pizza from newly established Sammy’s Pizza a few blocks east on First Street from the newspaper.
Amazingly, he offered me a piece. Incredibly, I accepted, assuming I would hate it. Astonishingly, I loved it. It was a revelation. Something entirely new and different for my youthful palate. In short, I was a goner.
That first Pizzeria place closed shortly after Sammy’s arrived and, as everyone knows, Sammy’s has prospered in that location ever since, while opening others in Lakeside, West Duluth and in a passel of other cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I don’t mean for this to be a commercial for Sammy’s, but they can’t be ignored in these parts.
As the years progressed, others got into the pizza business in Duluth, including the national chains such as Shakey’s and Godfather’s. Now pizza outlets are all over the place, but there was one brief shining moment in Duluth when Sammy’s reigned supreme as the exclusive pizza purveyor. There were times then, when they stayed open very late, that a line would queue up on the sidewalk outside of people waiting to get in.
Once, many years ago, I sat in a booth at First Street Sammy’s with the owner, the late Sammy Perrella, son of the original Sammy who started it all out in Hibbing.
The younger Sammy told me, as I gobbled a double-cheese pepperoni, he had once been approached by officials of Disneyland in California who offered to exclusively feature Sammy’s at the then-newly-established theme park in Anaheim. He said it would have involved having to move to California, and he turned them down. One can only imagine what that might have wrought.
I have not forgotten in this informal survey of pizza in Duluth that some people made pizza at home using boxed Chef Boyardee preparations and recipes. Talented cooks could put together a pretty good pizza that way, layering cheese and pepperoni on top of the prepared sauce and crust ingredients.
I leave this treatise with an unfortunate experience I had with such pizza in my early years. A friend and I, in our teens, were alone at our family cabin and picked up the Chef Boyardee and other fixings in a nearby town. Come supper time, ready to bake our pizza, we realized we had no pan to bake it on. Nothing in the cabin kitchen would suffice. What to do?
Let’s see, what is metal and round like a pizza pan? Why, the garbage can cover, that’s what. We retrieved the galvanized metal cover, scrubbed it up and spread our pizza fixings out in it for baking.
I would like to say it worked out well, but I can’t. I will say I am still alive all these years later and remain a big fan of pizza, but not baked in a galvanized garbage can cover. Never. That is a wedge too far.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.