Pizza in Seattle: A Slice of History

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 5/17/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20557

Seattle has long been home to a vibrant Italian American community. The city's Rainier Valley neighborhood, where many Italian American homes and businesses coalesced, was fondly (or, conversely, with mild disparagement) referred to as "Garlic Gulch." By at least the 1890s, Italian immigrants were establishing corner grocery stores, bakeries, and cafes around Seattle. Spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna soon became restaurant mainstays, but pizza is not known to have featured on local menus until after World War II. In the postwar years, American GIs returned from Italy with a newfound love of pizza, and this demand enticed numerous restaurateurs to begin offering their various versions to the public. The Daverso brothers' Palace Grill in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood reportedly led the way in 1948, with Joe Popolardo's Jannelli's Italian-American Restaurant in Kirkland following in 1949. Before long some notable pizza chains emerged in Seattle, including Pizza Pete in 1957 and Pizza Haven in 1958. Many of America's biggest pizza franchises also arrived in the city -- competing for business with scores of additional locally founded pizza joints. Among the notable local enterprises that have expanded into sizable chains are Pagliacci and MOD Pizza.

Italian Tomato Pie

Pizza is a classic Neapolitan flatbread culinary concoction that is still made in roughly the same the way it has been in Western Italy since the sixteenth century (but only after Spanish explorers returned to Europe from Central America with the "tomate" fruit). Recipes for these "tomato pies" initially arrived stateside with Italian immigrants coming to New York City in the late 1800s. Today pizza is a mainstay fast-food choice around much of the world and a multi-billion-dollar industry that was kick-started in the U.S. as a Baby Boomer-driven teenage trend in the 1950s -- but its widespread popularity was actually a rather long time coming.

Pizza did not make its debut appearance in an American cookbook -- Specialita Culinarie Italiane, 137 Tested Recipes of Famous Italian Foods -- until 1936, and Pizzeria Uno, which opened in Chicago in 1943, is credited as the first pizza-centric business in America. Public interest in the then-exotic food steadily increased from that point, and in 1945 a basic recipe for do-it-yourself homemade pizza was first published in Gourmet magazine.

Seattle's Italian Restaurants

Long before that, by the early 1900s Seattle's emerging Italian immigrant community was settling into several small enclaves -- including in industrial areas (Georgetown, South Park, and Youngstown) and along the edges of downtown (South Lake Union, First Hill, and off Jackson Street). But the city's largest Italian American neighborhood -- an estimated 215 or so families -- came to be based around the Rainier Valley intersection of Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street and on up the eastern slope of Beacon Hill. The culture was sufficiently distinct that the area became known around town as "Garlic Gulch." By 1910 Seattle's population (237,174) included 3,454 residents of Italian extraction -- and they no doubt appreciated every new Italian-oriented grocery shop, bakery, and cafe that opened.

Seattle's first Italian restaurant was likely Manca's Cafe on Cherry Street, between 2nd and 3rd avenues, opened by Victor E. Manca, who arrived in Seattle in 1899. Among other early ones were Gasparetti's Roma Café at 220 4th Avenue S in1902, Buon Gusto at 912 3rd Avenue in 1910, New Italian Cafe at 1515 Rainier Ave S in 1930, the Italian Village Café at 1413 5th Avenue in 1932, Cafe Sorrento at 509-11 Pike Street in 1937, and Lucca Italian Café at 1823 Eastlake Avenue E that same year. None of these spots, however, are known to have featured pizza on their menus. That situation was about to change ... after a world war.

Daverso's Palace Grill

In 1946 two enterprising Italian American brothers, Frank and Julius "Jules" Daverso -- who were also the co-owners of the Owl Transfer and Storage Co. -- bought the Palace Grill cafe, situated in the circa 1890 Seattle National Bank building at 159 Yesler Way, from George Leos (d. 1946) and Tony Graviolas. Leos had founded the cafe in 1919 and, after the repeal of Prohibition in late 1933, it was one of the first Seattle restaurants to apply for a license to sell beer and wine by the glass.

The Palace remained a popular spot -- even more so after 1948 when, reportedly, the Daversos introduced pizza to Seattle. By September 1949 The Seattle Times was touting the joint and its palpable history: "For a sentimental journey to an almost-vanished Seattle, and some fine Italian food, try ... Daverso's Palace Grill ... The huge old mahogany back bar, the tiled floors and walls, and the checkered tablecloths will make you nostalgic, and the king-size menu will make you hungry. A couple of specialties: Pizza, the hot pastry that looks like a phonograph record, covered with mushrooms, cheese and tomatoes ..." (Lund, "A La Carte").

The fact that a writer for The Seattle Times in 1949 felt obligated to describe what a pizza looks like was simply because few in the area had ever seen or tried one. As Frank Daverso would later recall:

"We had to give it away for the first four years. Nobody had ever heard of it. Customers liked our spaghetti and ravioli, so we'd give 'em a sample of pizza with each order. They seemed to like pizza but just wouldn't order it. Finally, we tried advertising. Sailors and other servicemen, who had eaten pizza in the East, began coming in and soon it caught on -- but it took four long years" (Reddin, "Pizza Is Hot Item ...").

The Pizza Biz

In May 1948 Angelo Constantino "established Seattle's first pizza factory in the back room of his West Seattle Italian Import Grocery" at 3520 SW Genesee Street in West Seattle (Reddin, "Unmourned Charivari ..."). In 1949 Constantino began freezing his pizzas -- 400 to 500 a week -- then both selling them retail and shipping them wholesale to destinations as distant as Washington, D.C... In March 1957 he would sell the shop to Ralph Alfieri (d. 1981), who renamed it Alfieri's and continued selling pizza for years (Reddin, "Pizza Is Hot Item ...").

In November 1949 The Seattle Times published an ad for Chef Joe Popolardo's Jannelli's Italian-American Restaurant, located in the Manning Building in Kirkland across Lake Washington from Seattle. The restaurant "Invites you to enjoy PIZZA (Italian Tomato Pie). Try 'pizza' cooked in the traditionally superb manner of old Italy -- with Chef Joe's own magic Italian sauce" (Jannelli's ad).

Then on April 4, 1950, Ricardo's Spaghetti Bar held a "Grand Opening" -- and began hyping its pizza as being the "First in Seattle!" -- "New Yorkers are raving over this Italian favorite. Baked with Muzzarella and imported Parmesan cheeses, green olives and anchovies. Different and mighty good!" (Ricardo's ad). By January 1952 the owners of Lucca Casa Villa had begun advertising "IT'S THE TALK OF THE TOWN -- PIZZA now being served, because so many of our friends asked for them" (Lucca Casa Villa ad). By March 1952 the pizza craze had picked up enough steam that The Seattle Times published an explanatory piece titled "What's Pizza?"

That's Pizza?

A few months later in September 1952 the Times published a pizza recipe submitted by a reader, which had won an "Honorable Mention" in a recipe contest. By this point, things began to get thoroughly out of hand with dubious pizza-recipe abominations surfacing left and right.

In July 1951 the Maine Sardine Industry bought ad space in The Seattle Times to promote its notion of a great pizza recipe: Maine Sardine Pizza. Among the ingredients were two cans of Maine sardines, four English Muffins, eight slices of American cheese, and eight pimento strips. "Different! Easy! Delicious!" ("Beat High Meat Prices!"). Then -- speaking of different -- the Best Foods company ran an ad offering its yummy version:

"What a Difference! Quick-Trick 'Pizza Pies' -- Here's a whole new idea in sandwiches ... easy 'Pizza Pies' topped with creamy, super-smooth Best Foods WHOLE-EGG Mayonnaise! Just: Spread English Muffins with mayonnaise. Top with tomato slices spread generously with more Best Foods Real Mayonnaise, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Decorate with anchovy fillets, broil until muffins are toasted" (Best Foods Mayonnaise ad).

In January 1953 Seattle Times food columnist Dorothy Neighbors published her bleak recipe for "American Pizza," and then in March another, uncredited, recipe for "Imitation Pizza," which, naturally, included English Muffins as the base. In May, Neighbors returned with an "Italian Pizza" recipe that somewhat oddly included the same ingredients as the "American Pizza" from back in January. Then in March 1954 Neighbors offered up yet another -- this one for "Skillet Pizza," a recipe that included one 7-ounce can of tuna. Perhaps in an effort to redeem herself, she returned the next month with a recipe that included more standard pizza ingredients, including ham, anchovies, salami, and pepperoni.

That was probably at least as good as the "American Style Pizza" recipe published by Oregon's Tillamook cheese company in the Times in September 1954, which was based on hamburger rolls, "a generous slice of Tillamook Cheese," and "a layer of canned ... tomatoes and a few sardines" ("Tips from Tillamook").

Meanwhile, a new pizza product called the Appian Way Pizza Mix, developed and marketed in Worcester, Massachusetts, also emerged in the early 1950s and began being advertising as available at a supermarket near you. Then in 1956 another corporate behemoth joined in: Chef Boy-Ar-Dee hit the national market offering frozen pizzas for 45 cents.

New Italian Restaurants

In 1952 Jules Daverso and his brother Pete opened Daverso's New Italian Restaurant at 1844 Westlake Avenue N, and on May 15, 1953, the Isle of Capri opened at 1425 7th Avenue, advertising in The Seattle Times that "Here you will find a complete cuisine of authentic Italian dinners, including pizza" (Isle of Capri ad). Then by March 1954, Gil's Restaurant at 1935 2nd Avenue -- known for its hamburgers -- began claiming to offer the "Best Pizza in Town" (Gil's Restaurant ad).

South of downtown, on April 30, 1954, the La Casa restaurant at 8824 Renton Avenue held its "Grand Opening" with its owners already confident it featured the "World's Finest Pizza" (La Casa ad). Months later in December, La Casa was recast as Tony's King Pizza House, which advertised "Pizza Pie Our Specialty" (Tony's King Pizza ad)

In 1956 Italian immigrant Angelo Finamore, with his sons Nick and Joe, opened the Abruzzi Pizza House at 604 Pike Street. Situated in a prime downtown spot, it became a beloved local favorite. Joe Finamore later recalled:

"Abruzzi's was a colorful place, like you'd find in New York. You'd get lines out the door, and a sailor coming in with a case of beer on one shoulder and a blonde on each arm. A lot of local pizza places got their start because of Abruzzi's, which trained many people. Before that, Seattle didn't know what pizza was" (Beers).

By the mid-1950s the Daversos had evidently had their fill of all such relative newcomers and their grandiose boasts, and placed ads asserting their rightful status as "Seattle's Original Pizza House" (Daverso's Palace Grill ad). But the battle wasn't over. In July The Seattle Times published a major feature highlighting pizza-maker Vince Giuffre and his Italian Spaghetti House and Pizzeria at 9824 Bothell Way in North Seattle. The un-bylined piece stated, "The delicacy, still a bit of a novelty here in the West, is fast becoming popular. It has been a favorite Italian dish in the East for many years" ("Pizza Pies -- The Aerial Way").

The Pizza Trend

The popularity of pizza understandably skyrocketed once it was linked with beer. As early as July 1950 somebody had finally begun connecting these dots: that's when the producers of Acme Beer placed their first ad in The Seattle Times inviting readers to "Ask for light, dry Acme Beer -- Pizza Patrons do it!" Patrons -- like, say, certain students attending the University of Washington -- proved to be open to the concept. Herb Friedman, who opened his Northlake Tavern near the UW campus in 1954, began offering pizza there five years later. The tavern soon gained renown for its ultra-gooey pizza. By 1974 it was touting its product as "Best Darn Pizza Anywhere" and had grafted "Pizza House" onto its name.

Other entrepreneurs also saw the admirable profit margin in the pizza biz. In October 1957 Pete Utter opened his first Pizza Pete shop at 1411 NE 42nd Street in the University District. The next year, that same campus neighborhood saw Kent Heaps, Elmer Howard, Ronald Bean, and Jack Schneider open the first Pizza Haven at 4231 University Way NE -- with the added feature of "We deliver!" UW's Greek Row frat rats must have rejoiced.

By 1960 Pizza Pete had expanded to several locations across Seattle: 4550 University Way, 10025 16th Ave SW, 711 4th Avenue, 5904 15th Avenue NW, and 232 Broadway N. But the competition was about to get serious. That same year saw a Shakey's Pizza Parlor & Ye Old Public House open at 13204 Bothell Way NE. The chain, founded by banjoist Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson in 1954 in Sacramento, California, had a multi-cultural theme: Italian pizza, German beer, and New Orleans Dixieland jazz music. Also in 1960, Ciro's Restaurant at 109 Pine Street began providing another downtown pizza option.

Pizza and (Pot) Pipes

As the 1960s rolled along, a new breed of pizzeria emerged: those founded by and for the hippie counterculture community. A Seattle Times article headlined "Look What Has Happened to the Old Pizza Parlors," explored this new realm:

"It used to be that a pizza parlor was a pizza parlor. You know, red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, menus which offered a 'bambino's plate,' and a sign out front with a name like 'Giuseppe's' on it. Ah, those were the days. In place of Giuseppe's there is now Oogie Boogie Pizza, Morningtown, Big Momma's Pizza ..., The Great Green Society, and the Hungry U and Longtime Sunshine Co. Mama mia! These new pizza places are a different scene altogether. Their owners are young and their clientele is hip. They play loud music and stay open until the small hours of the morning. Most are in the University District" (Brown).

Perhaps the first of those new-style University District pizza places was the Morningtown Cafe, which opened in a shabby former two-car garage at 4110 Roosevelt Way NE on April 1, 1969. A longhair collective led by Tom Minkovich ran the place. Morningtown was "reputed to offer the most authentic Neapolitan pie in town -- nothing frozen, nothing canned, and they make their own dough" (Hinterberger, "Beer, Beat, Beats ..."). That same year, John Kazdal opened Big Momma's Pizza and Outrageous Taco Co. at 5311 Roosevelt Way NE and The Great Green Society opened at 719 E Pike Street in downtown Seattle. That latter establishment moved to 4135 University Way NE in 1971, with Nat Flathers opening Oogie Boogie Pizza at the 719 E Pike Street spot. Also in 1971, Glenn Davis founded The Hungry U and Longtime Sunshine Co. at 5517 Roosevelt Way NE, and somewhat later Piccolo's Pizza arrived just down the block at 5301 Roosevelt Way NE.

In 1973 Bill Breuer -- perhaps inspired by the success of Ye Old Pizza Joynt in Hayward, California, which had installed an antique pipe organ as an entertainment attraction -- opened Pizza and Pipes at 100 N 85th Street in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood, adding a second popular shop in Bellevue in 1977. The Seattle area was not alone: "In the mid-1970s, the pizza-and-pipes trend spread like fireweed; by the 1980s, there were close to 150 organ-boosted pizzerias in North America" (Anderson).

Corporate Pizza

By then the pizza industry generally had grown to once-unimaginable proportions, and some major chains had begun arriving in and around Seattle to help rake in the dough. Pizza Hut, launched in 1958, boasted some 200 franchise outlets nationwide by 1968, including one at 14915 Aurora Avenue N just north of the Seattle city limits.

In 1976 Domino's Pizza, which had been launched in 1960 in Michigan, opened an outlet at 5737 NE 63rd Street in Seattle's Sandpoint neighborhood, one of 200 in operation by 1978, making it the biggest national chain other than Pizza Hut (which could boast 13,800 locations in 2017). In 1978 Godfather's Pizza muscled its way into the University District at 4524 University Way NE. That same year saw the local arrival of Pietro's Pizza Parlor, a 60-store chain that Norm Kolin had founded in Longview, Cowlitz County, back in 1957, but was then controlled by the Campbell Soup Company.

Around 1986 another chain, Little Caesar's arrived in Seattle, opening at 11711 124th Ave NE. Founded in May 1959 in Garden City, Michigan, Little Caesars sold its first franchise in 1962 and, by 1987 had shops in all 50 states. In King County, new branches would also come to Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood and to Kirkland.

Pizza with Pizzazz

As public tastes -- and general awareness about culinary quality -- evolved over time, marketplace space opened up for new pizza shops that focused on gourmet ingredients and artisanal approaches. Among the first in Seattle of this next wave was Pizzeria Pagliacci. Co-founded in 1979 by the Centioli siblings with an initial location at 4529 University Avenue NE, Pagliacci grew into a remarkable success story with 15 Seattle locations and more in Edmonds, Bellevue, Kirkland, Kenmore, and Mercer Island.

Along the way, additional highly esteemed pizza shops popped up all across town. A listing of some of the most popular in recent times would include Pazzo's, Piecora's NY Pizza, Delfino's Chicago Style Pizza, Big Mario's New York Style Pizza, Zekes Pizza, Jet City Pizza, Flying Squirrel, Snoose Junction, Breezy Town Pizza, Delancey, Serious Pie, Tulio, Tutta Bella, Via Tribunali, and the Seattle-based MOD Pizza chain with more than 330 locations spread far and wide.


Sources:

"Local History: The Seattle Italian Story," Festa Italiana Seattle website accessed May 16, 2018 (http://festaseattle.com/about/local-history/); "$75,000 Estate Left By Leos," The Seattle Times, April 17, 1946, p. 28; Jannelli's ad, Ibid., November 18, 1949, p. 30; Nat Lund, "A La Carte," Ibid., November 4, 1949, p. 29; Nat Lund, "Enjoy Your Christmas Dinner With Us," Ibid., December 21, 1949, p. 18; Ricardo's Spaghetti Bar ad, Ibid., April 3, 1950, p. 5; "Beat High Meat Prices! Maine Sardine Pizza," Ibid., July 19, 1951, p. 38; Best Foods Mayonnaise ad, Ibid., August 2, 1951, p. 42; Lucca Casa Villa ad, Ibid., January 23, 1952, p. 8; Daverso's Palace Grill ad, Ibid., May 20, 1955, p. 23; "Family Pizza Factory," Ibid., July 4, 1957, p. 31; "What's Pizza?" Ibid., March 2, 1952, Pictorial, p. 7; Dorothy Neighbors, "Pizza Pie Easy With Shortcuts," Ibid., May 11, 1953, second section, p. 21; Dorothy Neighbors, "A Spicy Pizza Challenge to Cooks," Ibid., March 8, 1954, p. 21; "Tips from Tillamook" (ad), Ibid., September 19, 1954, cookbook section, p. 30; Isle of Capri ad, Ibid., May 15, 1953, p. 16; Gil's Restaurant ad, Ibid., March 21, 1954, p. 38; La Casa ad, Ibid., April 29, 1954, p. 56; Tony's King Pizza House ad, Ibid., 12.29.54, p. 16; "Pizza Pies -- The Aerial Way," Ibid., July 17, 1955, Pictorial, p.18; John J. Reddin, "Seattle's Gastronomic, Economic History Reflected by Eating Houses Through Years," Ibid., August 21, 1960, p.11; John J. Reddin, "Pizza Is Hot Item Here, but It Took Time," Ibid., September 14, 1960, p. 2; John J. Reddin, "Unmourned Charivari Dead as Dodo," Ibid., October 7, 1960, p. 2; John J. Reddin, "Slight Oversight to Be Righted," Ibid., February 4, 1968, p. B-3; "Restaurant Open," Ibid., March 10, 1968, p. C-7; John Hinterberger, "Beer, Beat, Beats ... And Burgers Before the Dawn," Ibid., March 21, 1970, p.1; Boyd Burchard, "The Utter Success of Pizza Pete," Ibid., August 24, 1970, p. A-18; Bruce Brown, "Look What Has Happened to the Old Pizza Parlors," Ibid., October 10, 1971, magazine, pp. 12-14; Erik Lacitis, "Pizza -- Who Has the best? Well, It Depends ...," Ibid., December 30, 1973, p. A-5; Erik Lacitis, "Business is Great at the Northlake," Ibid., December 30, 1973, p. A-5; Gladys Nelson, "Pizza Set to Organ Music," Ibid., March 20, 1974, p. E-10; John Hinterberger, "A Testing of Pizzas Sold in the University District," The Seattle Times, December 14, 1979, Tempo, p.14; Carole Beers, "'Pizza Nick' Finamore Set Standards for the Pies," The Seattle Times, April 16, 2000 (www.seattletimes.com); Dorene Centioli-McTigue, "Our History," Pagliacci website accessed April 10, 2018 (https://www.pagliacci.com/about); Heather Arndt Anderson, "The Life and Death of Pizza and Pipes," Taste website accessed April 23, 2018 (https://www.tastecooking.com/life-death-pizza-pipes/); Kathryn Robinson et al., "The Great Seattle Pizza Smackdown," Seattle Met, March 2010 (https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2010/2/17/restaurants-pizza-0310).


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