One just can’t make prose like this up: “[redacted] on Pine Street, praised for slices and pies that unite Northeast-inspired fundamentals like scratch sauce and thin, eminently foldable crust with a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations.”
“…a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations…” the copy reads. About pizza, this is? “thin, eminently foldable crust…” Still about pizza, I s’pose. The bloviating continues, “…that unite Northeast-inspired fundamentals…”
This local writer was obviously intent on turning fun into hard work. Or, he fancied himself a food writer akin to Paolo Luchessi or Michael Bauer of San Francisco’s Chronicle or Sam Sifton of the New York Times but fate dealt a cruel blow and in Reno one writes about pizza parlors, endless restaurant openings in an area one can’t get to nor park near, and of food trucks on Friday nights.
But – I’m not a newcomer to the lordly advance of pizza from its plebian roots – last summer in Napa, or Sonoma, I know not which, but lean toward the latter because there was a modicum of parking. Sufficiently hungry to eat the ass out of a grizzly bear following my journey from Reno to Sonoma while threading my way through a couple of wrecks on Sonoma County Highway 12 involving otherwise extremely bright, trendy and interesting people who were over served as are many other motorists on 12 at afternoon wine tastings at the many vineyards along the way, my sister and I sat in a pizza parlor with a tablecloth as a well-coifed server asked if we wanted to hear the dinner specials. In a pizza parlor. With a cloth table cover.
“Dinner specials!?” I exclaimed to the joy of my sister and patrons proximate to our table. “I thought this was a goddam pizza parlor. How ’bout pepperoni and sausage for a dinner special? And a bottle of some beer that I’ve heard of before?”
I chuckled as I thought of my introduction to pizza, which was probably in the summer of 1959. I was pumping Flying A gas for Walker & Melarkey on the southwest corner of Liberty and South Virginia Streets. One of my buddies was a guy in town at the University of Nevada from Tonopah, his name was Peter Breen and he pumped gas for Buddy Traynor on the corner across Virginia Street. I’d help him clean his station between customers then he’d help me clean mine. I don’t think Buddy Traynor nor Myneer Walker or Jimmy Melarkey knew that, but that said, three finer men you’ll never meet. Then Pete and I would catch some dinner and watch our buddies cruise main. With the Wolfman on the AM radio, natch.
One night Pete said, “Gimme a buck and I’ll go get us some dinner.” I flipped him a cartwheel. He came back in a few minutes with this round thing, about the size of the steering wheel on Jon Key’s mother’s 1957 Chevy (robin’s egg blue). It was smeared with something that might have once been – or smelled like – tomato sauce, and had pieces of sausage and little chips of something in the sauce.
“What the hell is this?” I asked Pete. “It’s called pizza. Try it; you’ll like it.” And I tried it. And liked it. By the way, Key pumped gas also, but on Fourth Street.
So we had pizza more often. What had happened was, was that an Italian cook named Ralph Festina, who worked at the restaurant at the Colombo Hotel on the northeast corner of East Second and Lake Streets, in the shadow of the Mizpah Hotel to the east and the Toscano Hotel to the north, took unused food home – leftovers – which his bosses were glad to be rid of.
Someday I’ll write about the Toscano’s Sunday night dinners with their huge bowls of great minestrone soup. But not tonight.
Mr. Festina, you see was not only a great cook but an enterprising sort, and in short order was successful in establishing “Festina’s Pizza,” best in the west, with the fixins he’d purloined from Columbo’s. A new tradition was born; young swains would no longer take their ga-ga-eyed dates to the Mapes coffee shop for hot chocolate and apple pie, but around the corner to Festina’s Pizza. All together: On KOH radio, all knew “Oh, boy, what a joy, Ralph Festina’s Pizza” – he even had his own radio jingle, recorded in a studio downtown with some singers from Dr. Post’s music class on the Hill of the University.
He started downtown, but soon was able to build his own, stand-alone parlor – Festina’s – then across Virginia from Eugene’s and the drive-in theater, north of the Zanzibar; now housing a title loan office south of Clary’s across from the Peppermill. If those walls could talk…
Pizza was king, with few other suitors chasing it – the Pizza Baron over on West Fourth Street just west of the Standard Station on the busiest corner in the state of Nevada. And a “parlor” in Sparks whose name escapes me, and it wasn’t Bojo’s (yet!) nor at the bowling alley. But, pizza was coming, across America.
Pizza is a fun article to write about because the more I research the more I learn that no matter what I write it’s probably supported in fact on some web source or library. It came from Italy, the Bronx, Iran, China, Minsk or Copenhagen (bet on Italy). And it was invented during the time Christ walked the earth (Joseph and Mary were really looking for pizza, not a place to pay their taxes and the Wise Men brought not frankincense and myrrh but pepperoni and sausage), or it was invented by ancient sailors, or travelers by oxcart, by the Gypsies or the missionaries or in the late 1800s in Italy and brought to America by returning soldiers after WWII (bet on that, but all the other times cited are supported by thin research).
Well, maybe not the Bethlehem thing, but who knows?
Pizza chains were springing up – the one putting our little burg on the map was on a new street extension (of West Fifth Street westward from Vine Street and the Santa Claus Market.) Its name was Shakey’s – formed in 1954 and coming to Reno in 1959 – truly an instant legend in Reno, the precursor of so many others. With some screwy marketing notions, but they worked. Now we have TV, and see some even screwier marketing techniques – insurance on your pizza should you pick it up then get in a wreck, they’ll buy you a whole new pizza. Or, should you hit a pothole, unlikely in Reno but certainly a threat in some cities, you can call their 800- number and they’ll come out and fix the pothole.
But – I have to admit that when Pete Breen brought that messy, smelly round dinner back to our service station that night, I knew not that in 60 years a slight young dude would offer to recite the specials at a “pizza parlor” nor that a scribe would rave on about “…a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations…” with a “thin, eminently foldable crust…”
- • •
Come back next week; we’ll put up some photos of the stranded SP streamliner from Jan. 15, 1952
Photo © SF Chronicle