Back in the early 1950s my dad was the team manager for the Carleton College men’s basketball team. Once after an away game in Iowa two Carleton players from Chicago suggested the team go out for pizza at a pizzeria they knew of. My dad’s response was, “What’s pizza?” I don’t know what is worse, being 19 and never having eaten pizza, or being 19 and having your first pizza experience be in Iowa?
It may seem strange, but even though America’s first pizzeria opened in New York City in 1905, many parts of the country still hadn’t seen pizza until the late 1940s and early 1950s after soldiers who returned from World War II told mouth-watering tales of crispy, round flatbreads covered in tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese. Now pizza seems to be America’s favorite food. There are 70,000 pizzerias in the U.S. (9,000 in New York alone) and they combine for $38 billion in annual sales. The National Association of Pizza Operators claims that 350 slices are sold every second. Cheese producers make 2 billion pounds of mozzarella every year just for pizzas. Pizza Today, the leading pizza industry magazine (which implies, incredibly, that there are lesser read pizza industry magazines), brags of more than 40,000 subscribers.
Recently the Burlington Free Press ran a front-page article about the amazing abundance of pizza joints (and jewelry stores) in downtown Burlington. They counted 11, which doesn’t really seem all that high. Middlebury has four pizza joints if you count Sama’s, which I do because they have a wood-fired pizza oven, and Middlebury has one-fifth the population of Burlington. It’s no news flash that people love pizza.
Pizza definitely has universal appeal, yet still produces strong and unique individual preferences. People tend to form strong bonds with a particular kind of pizza. I have eaten and enjoyed all of our Middlebury pizzas and I recently ate what may be the best pizza ever at Folino’s in Shelburne (the crust is a work of art), but there is only one pizza that stirs an intense craving in my heart (and stomach) and that is Sammy’s Pizza in my old hometown of Duluth, Minn.
Sammy’s was started in Hibbing, on Minnesota’s Iron Range, by Sam Perrella in 1954. Sam was one of those guys who heard tales of pizza from war vets and decided to give it a try. Turned out it was a very good decision. People ate it up, literally, and he soon expanded to Duluth and beyond with family members or close relatives running various branches.
When I was a kid Sammy’s had a downtown Duluth restaurant and a smaller, mostly take-out joint, in the Lakeside neighborhood, close to where we lived. If I was lucky enough to go with my mom or dad to pick up the occasional pie I got to hold it on my lap on the ride home. Sammy’s pizzas, back then, were not in a box, but instead were slipped into a flat, white paper bag that was expertly tented in the center. On the ride home I could feel the heat on my legs and the intense aroma easily wafted out of the bag and wrapped itself around my head. It got into my mouth and nose and even my ears, where it whispered evil thoughts and tempted me to rip into the bag and devour the pizza all for myself.
Back on the kitchen table the bag would be torn open and when the steam cleared we would gaze upon the uniqueness of Sammy’s. Their pizzas are round but cut into very small squares the size of two bites, or one if you are ravenous. And if you order a sausage, which was our regular order, each square has one small ball of sausage exactly in the center. The crust is very thin and the outer edge crust, known, by the way, as the cornicione, is very slight and very crispy and crunchy. Too many pizzas, I think, have a crust that is wide and substantial, almost like a second course, but without all the delicious flavors of the toppings.
And flavor is something that Sammy’s has in abundance. Many, many years ago my dad had the occasion to share a long car ride with Sam Perrella. Sam told my dad that the secret to good pizza is in the seasonings. Back then he mixed up his secret ingredients in his basement and then drove bags full around to all of his branches, never revealing to anyone the contents. Sam died in 1975 but there are still 17 Sammy’s Pizza locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Three of Sam’s children, Tim, Julie and “Babes,” still run the downtown Duluth branch and later this summer I plan on sitting at a table there to satisfy the craving that is growing more palpable by the minute.
My trip home is prompted by a mini-reunion with my dad, sister and brother. I love them dearly and can’t wait to see them, but what I really want is some Sammy’s pizza.
Editor’s note: Pizza in Iowa has improved greatly since the 1950s.