Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
I’m not a newcomer to the lordly advance of pizza from its plebeian roots.
Last summer I wound up in Napa, or Sonoma, I know not which, but lean toward the latter because there was a modicum of parking downtown – not one of Napa’s long suits. 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, but who had been over-served – which is to say inebriated – as are many other motorists on Sonoma 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 loudly 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 University of Nevada Lambda Chi from Tonopah. His name was Peter Breen and he pumped Shell gas for Buddy Traynor 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 or 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 robin’s egg blue 1957 Chevy. 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 cheesy sauce.
“What the hell is this?” I asked Pete. “It’s called pizza. Try it; you’ll like it.” And I tried it. And I liked it. By the way, Key pumped gas also, but on Fourth Street.
So we had pizza more often. What had happened was that an Italian named Ralph Festina, who cooked 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.
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 Colombo’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 Street from Eugene’s and the drive-in flicks; now housing a title loan office. If those walls could only talk…
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).
Pizza chains were springing up – the one putting our little burg on the map was on Fifth Street west of 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 on TV, we 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.
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 an upscale “pizza parlor”! With cloth tablecloths…
Anybody else have three or four frozen pizzas a week during these last 33 days – give or take – of sheltering-in-place? Incredible…enjoy your weekend, and, stay safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.
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