Pizza in Springfield

A model shows what a Wonder Inn pizza looks like, 1947 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

A model shows what a Wonder Inn pizza looks like, 1947 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Springfieldians got their first taste of pizza at The Wonder Inn tavern, 808 E. Washington St., in 1947.

Fred and Anna Viele, who operated The Wonder Inn, began marketing “La Pizza” as “something new and tasty from Italy” in February 1947, according to advertisements in the Illinois State Journal.  Pizza was a “delicious Italian dish ideal to serve at parties and gatherings,” the ads said.

Pizza was unfamiliar enough that many of the ads included a photo of a woman holding a pie, apparently so prospective customers could see what they were being asked to buy. “Dial 2-0477 – Place Your Order,” the Wonder Inn promised. “We Will Have It Ready for You in 10 Minutes.”

Shortly afterward, the Campo family began baking pizza at their establishments – the Happy Hollow Tavern and the C.C. Club, both just north of Lincoln Park, and the A-C Club, 120 N. Sixth St. The A-C Club’s advertisements even used the Wonder Inn’s photo of the woman holding a pizza.

(Courtesy SJR)

(Courtesy SJR)

The C.C. Club offered $1 pizza with toppings including pepperoni, sausage, “Italian cheese”, mozzarella cheese and anchovies. (Incidentally, adding anchovies to pizza is not unique to the United States.  Early pizzaiuoli – pizza makers – of Naples, Italy, used them in place of salt.)

Within a few months, pizza was on the menu in many Springfield taverns and nightclubs.  The Silver Moon Tavern on East Moffat Street ran a pizza special in December 1947; the Orpheum Lounge on North Fifth Street announced “Pizza Pie on Fridays and Saturdays”; and the Topnotch tavern, another Fairgrounds-area bar, served “La Pizza”, barbecued ribs and “chicken in the basket,” according to a March 1948 newspaper ad.

Two nightclubs serving pizza on a regular basis were Club Holiday at MacArthur Boulevard and North Grand Avenue and The Orchid Lounge on South Sixth Street.  Club Holiday enticed pizza newbies to “taste it for free” in a June 1948 advertisement.  Both clubs were owned and operated by Matteo Manzella (1900-78) and his brother-in-law Vito Impastato (1904-88).  Matteo also sold his Manzella brand of frozen pizzas to local grocery stores.

Non-Italians – like the Wilcauskis family, who operated the Skyrocket Inn on Peoria Road – began offering pizza, and the dish’s image in general changed from that of foreign fare into an Americanized dining option. In November 1952, a cooking show at the Orpheum Theater, which drew nearly 3,000 women, featured “American Pizza, an interesting sausage dish which is an American version of a well known Italian dish of the same name.”

Pizza recipes also appeared in Springfield’s newspapers by mid-1953; when Margaret Hostick provided her special recipe that year in the Illinois State Journal, it was made from scratch. In 1954, Clara Bell Graves (1882-1972), writer of the Journal’s long-running column The Farm Woman’s Exchange, included at least three pizza and pizza dough recipes, plus an offer to purchase 15-cent pizza pans.

The recipes always called for handmade dough, and it was not uncommon to see recipes calling for pounds of cheese piled on a 12-inch pizza.  However, two Journal newspaper recipes made a point of highlighting “real Italian pizza … as made in Italy”, versus the Americanized version.

The closed Vic's Pizza, 2017 (SCHS photo)

The closed Vic’s Pizza, 2017 (SCHS photo)

One of the best-known and longest-lived early pizza outlets was Vic and Marcy’s Tavern, 2025 Peoria Road (later Vic’s Pizza), owned by Victor and Marcella (Giacometti) Fabro. The tavern was serving 12- and 14-inch pizzas in the autumn of 1953; Vic’s operated until 2014.

Even the A&P grocery store got on the pizza bandwagon, offering 29-cent “Pizza-Pie with cheese or sausage” in 1953 along with low-moisture “scamorza cheese for pizza at 69 cents a pound.”  The trend caught on in a big way.

In March 1954, Augie and Dido’s Restaurant, 2011 S. MacArthur Blvd., operated by brothers Augie and Thomas “Dido” DiCenso, the sons of immigrants from the Abruzzo region of Italy, served “Brooklyn style pizza” along with “tasty chilli.”

Saputo’s Twins Corner

Twin brothers Frank (1923-2012) and Joe (1923-2008) Saputo operated perhaps the best-known downtown restaurant for pizza.

The brothers opened Twins Corner in September 1948 at Eighth and Monroe Streets.  When the opening was announced in the Illinois State Journal, the culinary highlights included “sandwiches and chilli,” dinners and lunches – but not pizza.   It wasn’t until 1952 that Twins Corner advertised itself as the “House of Pizza in 5 Delicious Ways.”

Delivery cars lined up outside the original Twins Corner (Courtesy Saputo's restaurant)

Delivery cars lined up outside the original Twins Corner (Courtesy Saputo’s restaurant)

Twins Corner also claims another distinction: early pizza delivery. In 1954, the Journal featured a prominent photo of the pizza house with “two Chevrolet delivery cars to help keep pace with the increasing demand for pizza and for food.”

“The deli portion had a kitchen in the back and a pizza window out front,” remembered Sandra Coffey, daughter of Frank Saputo. “We were the first to deliver pizza on a big scale.” Saputo’s was still serving pizza and other dishes in 2017.

Also in 1954, Frank and Joe’s older brother Russell (1915-80), built what was probably Springfield’s first pizza drive-in.  The timing was right.  With the rise of the automobile and the post-war economic boom, Russell’s Pizza Drive-Inn, on what is now Dirksen Parkway, became a teenage hangout.

The sign says Russell's, but the logos on the shirts of this champion softball team says Angelo's (Courtesy Sangamon Valley Collection)

The sign says Russell’s, but the logos on the shirts of this champion softball team say Angelo’s (Courtesy Sangamon Valley Collection)

In 1964, Russell sold the Pizza Drive-Inn to Angelo Yannone, one of his top workers, and opened another location on the site of what had been The Triple Treat, a drive-in restaurant with carhops at 1800 S. Sixth St. Russell expanded the menu to include spaghetti, ravioli, steak, seafood and sandwiches — and in 1965, Cantonese food.

Angelo’s Pizza

Angelo Yannone (1939-2004) began working at Russell’s Pizza Drive-Inn in 1954. Then, according to his son Tony, Yannone asked his parents to “put up everything they had to buy out Russell Saputo.”

Angelo changed the name to Angelo’s Pizza Drive-In.  He also inaugurated a “mobile vending service for pizza delivery” and contracted with National Grocery Stores to sell his own brand of frozen pizza.

He also got a contract with Scott Air Force base to make 30,000 pizzas a month. That  turned out to be a bad deal.

“My dad had to deliver the 30,000 pizzas and have backup for another 30,000, plus the product to make more,” Tony says, “and by the time he was finally paid by the government for that initial run of pizza, he was cut off by his suppliers.”

Angelo’s business fell into bankruptcy.  But the resourceful Angelo sold his drive-in to Michael and Betty Licata in 1965, borrowed $50 from a friend and started selling little pizza ovens for tavern use.

The following year, he opened the first Angelo’s Pizzerias in Springfield, one at 1810 Stevenson Drive and another at Ninth Street and North Grand Avenue, across from Sangamo Electric.  In 1969, Angelo partnered with Don Taft of Arena Distribution, and they went on to build 56 Angelo’s Restaurants across the Midwest.  The restaurants were a full-service variation of the pizzeria.

Indies and chains

Two well-known independent pizzerias opened in Springfield during the 1960s:  Gabatoni’s and Bernie and Betty’s Pizza.  Gabatoni’s, which began at Third and Washington streets, was run by and John and Rosemary Lynn.  They marketed their establishment as “famous for pizza and hot roast beef sandwiches.”  Gabatoni’s moved to 300 East Laurel Avenue in 1962.  Bernie and Betty’s Pizza, named after Bernard “Bernie” Borden (1915-69) and his wife Betty (1919-66), opened in November 1963 at 1001 E. Edwards St.; it’s now at 1101 S. Spring St.

The straw skimmers were part of Shakey's image in 1966 (Courtesy SJR)

The straw skimmers were part of Shakey’s image in 1966 (Courtesy SJR)

Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and Ye Public House (later shortened to just Shakey’s) was the first national chain to sell pizza as the main meal.  Springfield got its first Shakey’s in the early 1960s.  In May 1966, the State Journal Register reported how Shakey’s waiters wore “period costumes” and served pizza in “21 exotic varieties.” Customers were treated to banjo and “rinky tink, honky-tonk piano music.”  With dark wood paneling and stained glass windows, Shakey’s was a cross between an English pub and a German beer hall, a decidedly non-Italian atmosphere.

Following Shakey’s, a plethora of pizza franchises across the U.S. changed the way pizza was made, served and eaten.  Pizza Hut (a chain with roots back to 1958) opened iat 1420 S. Sixth St. in 1970.

According to Liz Barrett, author of Pizza, A Slice of American History (2014), beyond experimentation with toppings, it was delivery that transported pizza from a sit-down restaurant experience to a fast food.  In the U.S., the king of fast delivery was Domino’s Pizza. Domino’s also was the first to use a thermal bag, “invented by Ingrid Kosar specially for the pizza industry in the early 1980s,” according to Barrett.  Springfield got its first Domino’s in November 1983.

Although pizza was heavily commercialized by the 1980s, Springfield had the good fortune of preserving several family-run pizzerie.  France’s Pizza at Peoria Road and Sangamon Avenue was home to a thin, cracker-like pizza. The Praia family owned and operated it.  They were emigrants from Sicily who prepared not just pizza but homemade ravioli, lasagna and tortellini.

The Praias were cousins by marriage to the Porcasi family, who ran Joe’s Italian Pizza on West Jefferson Street.  Its owner, Joe Porcasi (1935-2011), was a trained pizzaiolo in Italy prior to emigrating to the U.S.

In turn, Sam’s Pizza, Eighth Street and North Grand Avenue, founded in the 1970s, still serves classic pizza and other homemade items offered by the Pensebene family. They too are cousins (by marriage) to the Praia family.

In 1978, the Gallina brothers, Joe and Tony, started Gallina’s Pizza on Dirksen Parkway in Capitol City Shopping Center.  Tony had been a cook in the Italian army before he emigrated.  In 1987, Vito Randazzo took over from Tony Gallina, according to the Gallina’s Pizza website.

On the north end, with Vic’s closed, pizza often is associated with the Fulgenzi family restaurant, Fulgenzi’s Pizza & Pasta at Peoria Road and Sangamon Avenue. Founders John and Sandy Fulgenzi and their family started with walk-up counter service and a limited menu. They expanded to a full-service restaurant, including pizza, in 2000.  In 2017, Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta was recognized by Springfieldians and also by Route 66 aficionados who come to admire the family’s original 1910s Phillips 66 filling station adjacent to the restaurant.

Adding Route 66 to any pizza making is truly an extra-large American combination.

Pizza origins and entry to U.S.

To fully understand how pizza arrived in Springfield and the U.S. generally, it’s important to know that pizza, as we know it today, didn’t originate in Italy.

Lombardi's Pizzeria, New York City, 1905 (Courtesy Lombardi's)

Lombardi’s Pizzeria, New York City, 1905 (Courtesy Lombardi’s)

According to Rossella Ceccarini in her book, Pizza and Pizza Chefs in Japan: A Case of Culinary Globalization (2012), the dish was an Italian improvement but not an Italian invention. She says the word ‘pizza’ originated from the Arabic ‘pita’ and probably was brought to Italy two ways, via ancient Syria as a flatbread with minimal seasoning and as a stuffed and seasoned flatbread made by the Byzantines in Southern Italy (late 900s to early 1000s).

The two variations were served without condiments on top. That’s important because the plain flatbread remained in Italy’s culinary history as focaccia – salted bread served without toppings. The traditional version, and the more familiar pizza with all the toppings, took another path.

By the end of the 18th century in Italy, pizza (at this point still made as focaccia) was offered in workshops as carryout food to “peddlers or to private customers.”  Seating was added in the workshops later.

The first formally recognized pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, appeared in Naples in 1830. By the late 19th century, pizzaiuoli were offering variations throughout Italy, but it was a version from Naples, la pizza napoletana (Neapolitan pizza), which stood out.  Ceccarini makes the distinction that “by adding the adjective napoletana the [pizza] becomes seasoned and stuffed, not only a staple … but a main dish.”

Naples even had sub-varieties of its own pizza.  One, Ceccarini writes, was “made of a yeast dough baked in the fire brick oven; (another was) the small pizzella made of yeasted dough fried in oil and seasoned salty or sweet; (still another was) a rustic pizza … stuffed with eggs, prosciutto and ricotta common in other regions of central and southern Italy.”   The rustic caught on as the most recognizable pizza in Italy, says Ceccarini, and perhaps it also was the variety most attractive to sell.

In the period before WWI, Italian emigration helped pizza move from the old country to the new world.  In the U.S., Lombardi’s Pizza in New York City supposedly introduced pizza to the North American public. However, Lombardi’s claim of “first pizza in the U.S.” is contested.

Gennaro Lombardi reportedly applied for the first commercial pizzeria license in the United States in 1905. But Barry Popik, co-author of Origin of New York City’s Nickname: The Big Apple (2011), writes, based on a newspaper article, that Boston probably had the first pizza, “as early as 1903.”

Contributor: This entry was researched and written by William Cellini Jr.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

This entry was posted in Business, Hotels & taverns, Italians, Restaurants. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Pizza in Springfield

  1. Marie Carnes says:

    Excellent article. Good trip down Springfield’s culinary lane by William Cellini Jr.

    One office I worked at had the old phone number for Twins Corner. Occasionally we would get calls asking for pizza delivery. One lady told me she was still using a 1948 Springfield phone book. LOL

    I have a very vague recollection of going to Gabatoni’s at 3rd and Washington as a small child. It’s still my go-to place for pizza.

  2. Bob Cavanagh says:

    Really enjoyed this. I got curious and did a keyword search in the jr database and sure enough, there were no pre 1945 references to pizza or pizza pie. La Pizza, how funny is that? One place up at MacArthur and north grand even included a pronunciation key in their ad—–peetsa pie! Joe Gallina deserves more than a passing mention. Go in there today and he will serve you, as he has for what……37 years now in the same location? Great family, nice family the Gallinas. I tell you what I miss…..Wize Guys pizza across from the national guard up at camp Lincoln. Guy named pianezza had it about ten or fifteen years ago. Cheap. Delicious. Wonderful pizza. AND they delivered. So of course because of all those reasons they folded. Holy smoke they were only five minutes from my house, too. Nice article. Luca has some longevity now even though I don’t go there. Once in while my wife and I go to Frances’s in Riverton. Really like it and not sure but still might be in Praia family. I also miss Palermo over there on Durkin, think that was Pete Praia. Well Costelloe is out there making pizza pies and representing the Erin isle well, I’m sure over a pint he’ll tell you the Italians learned it from the Irish, which they did of course.

  3. Sandy Coffey says:

    Nice article, enjoyed the walk down menory lane. My parents would of enjoyed it so much . Thank you Billy

  4. Sandy Baksys says:

    Very nice work, Bill! I remember not having pizza until I was 9 or 10–from a box. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I had it in/from a restaurant–probably Shakey’s.
    The Wilcauskas who owned the Skyrocket was Lithuanian–maybe you could add that–would only take a word or two.

  5. Jeff Meixell says:

    Can’t find any pizza crust recipe though. Anybody see it or have one?

  6. Bob says:

    About ten years ago a guy named pianezza had a place called wize guys pizza in a strip mall across from the national guard. They were close to my house, they delivered, they were inexpensive and it was delicious, so of course they went out of business. That is the crust recipe you want. Good luck.

  7. Steve Roth says:

    Great article. Does anyone remember a pizza place on MacArthur, about a mile down from Town & Country Shopping Center, called Angelos? In the early and mid 70’s, this pizza place would run old black & white comedy movies (Abbott & Costello, WC Fields) on a wall that we would watch while enjoying a tasty pizza.

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