Sunday, August 26, 2018

"The best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country for that matter"

While the Chicago police riots were the most indelible memories of that August visit, another event foretold my life though I didn’t know it at the time. Stay with me here. In 1961 after my active duty stint in the Army Reserve I went to LA instead of back to college as I had promised. My father, a Los Angeles attorney of little distinction, introduced me to Michael Willis, my cousin from Corpus Christi, who was attending prestigious Art Center School when it was still in LA. Michael was living in a rooming house just off Wilshire Boulevard. I moved in.

Boarding house life was restrictive, constrictive and downright asexual. It was way too structured for a young gentleman of my social proclivities. I was a late bloomer and had a lot of catching up to do. On a visit to Art Center Michael introduced me to Jerry Roman, also an Art Center student. Jerry and I hit it off and soon we were living the California lifestyle in a standard issue midcentury apartment complex, two stories, a rectangular footprint with a swimming pool in the center courtyard. About that time, I got a job as a telephone claims adjuster at Kemper Insurance which was an easy walk from our digs. The job was simple. I settled telephone claims for predetermined amounts. Say your can of Hunts tomato paste exploded in your kitchen and you insist on repainting. That’s $500. Settling was always cheaper than a lawsuit. My grisliest claim was for a human thumb in a can of the aforementioned Hunts tomato paste. That's macabre I grant you but really funny.

Dave Burgraff, another adjuster, had a little house in the Hollywood Hills. He gave fabulous parties, one of which was attended by none other than Johnnie Mathis. Also attending was a young giant named John Elvin who boasted that he was the best conga drum player in the world. When I asked, “What about Preston Epps who did Bongo Rock last year?” “No comparison” he scoffed. Bongo Rock was #14 on 1959’s Top 100 and Epps, now 86, still works as a studio musician. And nobody’s ever heard of John Elvin.

Elvin was 6’-6’’ of blonde perfection. A movie star in waiting. He told me that he’d been approached by Henry Willson, the man who invented “Beefcake” and who had discovered, renamed and invented Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue and Clint Walker among others. It was widely known that Willson coerced heterosexual actors into sexual relationships in return for publicity and roles. John was perfectly aware of it and said that he was resolutely straight and committed to staying so. At least he didn't become Biff.

One day Burgraff didn’t show up for work and my boss Kazi Kagao told us he’d broken into a house in Pasadena, pistol whipped the elderly owners, rifled the safe and escaped with $500,000. He was rumored to have escaped to the south of France and was never heard from again.

Three flight attendants, called stewardesses at the time, Linda Moon, Stephanie Mirras and Grace Vallos lived across the way.  Linda taught me how to drink chilled Chenin Blanc from an actual stemmed glass and prepared macerated fruit to go with it. Stephanie, a genuine 10, taught Jerry Roman the facts of life. Jerry was as handsome as Stephanie was gorgeous. They were an item until she moved in with Rafael Campos, an actor best known for playing street hoods in movies like “Blackboard Jungle.”

After going back to college in the fall of 1961 I didn’t see Jerry again till my epic August 1968 visit to Chicago. He was an art director at a major agency and had a recently created a television campaign for Prudential Insurance that featured a newborn baby and Barbra Streisand’s sonorous voice singing “Jenny Patricia five days old….”  I located him and we arranged to meet downtown where he worked, and where I was staying. He said, “Meet me at Pizzeria Uno on the corner of Ohio and Wabash. I’m going to show you the best pizza you ever had.” It was like nothing I’d ever eaten before and I was a seasoned professional when it came to pizza. I was gob smacked by the rich, gooey, thick and artery clogging pie. Two inches thick of Chicago sausage, that means fennel, baby, mushrooms, hand crushed whole tomatoes and a pound of mozzarella. I fell in love with that pizza, the pizza Tom Brokaw called “the best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country, for that matter.”  Who could have foreseen that eleven years later in October of 1979, I would become a partner and chief operating officer of Pizzeria Uno and would personally take deep dish pizza to every major city in the country. It would be a wild ride.

I had been offered a partnership position in Pizzeria Uno toward the end of 1978 a year but just become president of Zantigo, KFC’s Mexican fast food chain and felt I had to give it fair shot. That was a mistake on two levels. First, had I remained a KFC vice president for another year there’s every chance I would have become president of the company, second, I detested the Zantigo gig. That made me rethink the offer. 

Before finally accepting the Pizzeria Uno deal I made a pilgrimage to the mother ship Chicago to confirm my feelings about the fabled pie. I guess I should say motherships since there were two locations a block apart, Uno which opened in 1943 and Due which opened in 1952. While I stood at the bar waiting for a table at Due I chanced upon the founder, Ike Sewell, holding court at the bar. I shouldered my way through a bevy of female admirers to meet the great man. The gregarious Texan, an All-America football player at UT, operator of barnstorming airshow and longtime liquor salesman, invited me to join the festivities. He, his cheerleaders and one 37-year-old interloper bounced from bar to private club to bar until we stumbled home as the sun rose over Lake Michigan. I had a new hero. I had been out-partied by a guy forty years my senior. 

Ike Sewell was a man’s man who attracted women like catnip. You’ve heard the line, “Every woman wants him. Every man wants to be him.” That was about Ike Sewell I'm certain. He still had the frame and muscularity of the athlete he had been. The man wore suits like a model. For a dozen years he'd been named one of Chicago’s “Dapper Dozen” in Irv Kupcinet’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though not tall, maybe 5’-8”, his hands were like catcher’s mitts. He moved with the grace only great athletes possess. When you met Ike for the first time he looked you dead in the eye and bent in toward you. I loved the guy. He was a close to an idol as I ever had.

The next day I called my future partner. His first words were, “You want to do it don’t you?” I said I did. I flew to Boston that weekend, drove to his house on the Cape and did the deal. It was smooth sailing till he wouldn’t let me locate the toilet tissue holders in the men’s room stalls of our second location in Harvard Square. He had to make that critical call. It was an omen.

Ike and Florence Sewell had a floor-through apartment high above Michigan Avenue. Florence, a former Conover model, was the female version of Ike.  She was improbably regal and one of Chicago’s fabled hostesses. Ike and Florence had a refrigerator just for champagne, Laurent-Perrier pour madam et Taittinger Comte de Champagne pour monsieur. Florence always spiked a whole strawberry on the rim of the flute before serving. 

I had never seen that kind of style and haven’t since.