Monday, January 14, 2008

Home Run Inn...and Louie

Suzanne visited the other night, and as we were enjoying a pizza, Bill and I began reminiscing about the first time we tasted one.

"What?" Suzanne said, "I can't imagine a world without pizza!"
“We had it in Alabama in the fifties,” Bill said, “But I never had one until I was living in Chicago.”
“I was eighteen before I even heard of it,” I said.

I was introduced to pizza at Paducah's Noble Park Dairy Queen. Carroll and I were sitting in Paul's convertible one night, gazing at the menu which was taped on the window.
"Pizza pie," I said, "What's that?"
"I have no idea," Carroll said, "There's only one way to find out."
We ordered a cheese pizza, the only kind they offered, and when the car hop appeared with our unfamiliar fare, we were aghast. The pizza pie was nothing more than thin, tough crust with a little sauce smeared over it. Bits of cheese were scattered here and there.

“Tastes like cheese on cardboard,” I said, making a face.

Carroll tossed his toward a nearby dumpster, where it flopped to the ground. There was a rustling in the bushes, and a couple of raccoons suddenly appeared from the shadows. They stood, peering around the dumpster.

“Looks like the only ones who like pizza pie are the coons,” Carroll laughed, as we watched them stuffing their tiny mouths on their way back to the bushes.

As I relinquished my slice to the coons, I had no idea my love affair with Chicago’s delectable pizza was about to begin.

It all started on a cold February night in 1960, shortly after we were settled in Brookfield, a suburb of Chicago. We had many friends in the area: Roger and Sharon, Lloyd and Marion; Hope and Jim; Maurice and Glenda, and the two Jerrys (a couple both named Jerry—Jerri and Jerry—whom we all called “Jerry-I” and “Jerry-Y”).

One night, Lloyd and Marion bounded up the stairs to our tiny attic apartment. “Come on,” Lloyd said, “We’re going to introduce you’ens to the best pizza in the world!”

Carroll and I looked at each other. “Pizza pie?” he said, “That stuff tastes like s**t!”

They laughed. “This pizza pie is the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth!” Lloyd said.

Home Run Inn was on the south side of Chicago, at 31st and Kildare. A dark little bar, it was run by Italians with musical accents. It was a happy, jovial place; warm and cozy, with Formica-topped tables, candles in old wine bottles, and delicious aromas drifting through the air.

The minute I took my first bite of Home Run Inn pizza, I was hooked. The crust was tender and thick, the tomato sauce just zesty and spicy enough, the toppings piled so high they would have toppled off, had it not been for the thick layers of Mozzarella cheese holding it all together.

After that, we dined at Home Run Inn at least once a week—sometimes two or three times a week—all the time we lived in the Chicago area. Jerry and Jerri carpooled with us, and on our way home from work, we often exited Congress Expressway and sped off toward Home Run Inn. After a hard day in the offices at 43 East Ohio Street, and fighting the rush hour traffic through downtown Chicago, we were ready for some good eating. And we were never disappointed.

We always used the side entrance, and the minute we opened the old wooden door, we were enveloped by mouthwatering smells. Tall, white chefs hats bobbled as the workers moved back and forth, tossing the pizza dough high in the air, shouting, “pizza up!,” and grabbing orders hanging by clothes pins on a line stretching from the bar to the kitchen. A big mural of dogs playing poker hung over the long, dark wood bar, where frosty beers were slammed on trays as fast as the bartender could draw them. The atmosphere was lively, noisy, and so welcoming that I felt I was with people I somehow knew; like a family reunion among relatives you’ve never met, but knowing you are connected.

I gazed around the comfortable bar as we awaited our pizzas, admiring the tin ceiling, the antique wooden chairs, the big old jukebox near the door. It seemed Del Shannon’s Runaway, the Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me, and Percy Faith’s Theme from a Summer Place were always playing. Chubby Checker’s The Twist was played often, too, and one night a bunch of college girls from Northwestern jumped up and twisted from one end of the place to the other, everyone clapping and cheering them on. Other times, someone would start singing, Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and everyone in the place sang along.

The only occasion we didn’t have such a great time was one freezing night when three feet of snow blanketed the Chicago area. We all went in Jim’s car that night, a shiny black ’57 Chevrolet with red interior. As we enjoyed our pizza, Jim’s car was stolen, and we had to go home in a taxi.
The Chicago police found Jim’s pride and joy a few days later, stripped. But we were back the following week, ready for more “Home Run Inn.” If we had leftovers, I took them home and ate a slice or two right out of the refrigerator for breakfast the next morning.

The waiters at Home Run Inn were exceptional; always there, Johnny-on-the-spot, any time you needed them. They all got to know us and greeted us by name. Louie, a fifty-something neat and slender little man with black, slicked-back hair and a thin mustache, was our favorite.

“Welcome!” he called, as we walked through the door, “How ya doin’?

I loved how he pronounced our names, “More Coke, ‘Brendia'? Another beer, ‘Cadrel’?”

One night, during an infrequent lull in conversation, I sat watching thick snowflakes drifting past the window, cars and trucks slipping and sliding down the snow-and-ice-covered streets, when Elvis’s Are You Lonesome Tonight began playing. I was hit by a sharp wave of homesickness, thinking of my family way down in south, and me, way up north. What was I doing here, anyway?
“Everything okay, Brendia?”

I turned and found Louie at my elbow, a concerned look on his face. I nodded, and he patted my shoulder before hurrying back to his duties.

When Louie wasn’t rushing here and there, pizzas held high in the air, he sometimes stopped at our table for a minute or two, and one night he stood, smoothing the white towel draped over his arm, giving us the history of Home Run Inn.

In the early 1920’s, Mary and Vincent Grittani bought the little bar. There was a neighborhood baseball field across the street (it was still there when we were regulars), and one day the winning run brought the ball smashing through the front window. So they named it Home Run Inn. In the early 1940’s, the Grittani’s daughter, Loretta, married Nick Perrino, who had just returned from World War II, and they formed a partnership with her mother. They developed the recipe for Home Run Inn pizza. "It's the same recipe we use today," he said.

On New Year’s Eve of 1961, we all got together and went to Home Run Inn. The place was a madhouse; a group at the next table got rowdy, and Louie asked them to leave. One of the party—a big guy with a Russian accent wearing a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked into his rolled-up sleeve—threatened Louie, so Carroll, Roger, Jerry, Jim and Lloyd got up. The man’s friends joined in, and just as one was picking up a chair, the police arrived.

After the troublemakers were escorted outside, we went back to our pizzas, and as we were preparing to leave, Louie sidled by our table. "Your pizzas are on the house tonight, guys!" he said with a wink.

In June, 1961, the time had come for us to move to Bloomington, Illinois, where our company was relocating. Although I had looked forward to moving, since we would have a nice, spacious apartment and would not have to fight the Chicago traffic to get to work, I had mixed feelings. We had made many new friends who would not be relocating, and we were enjoying all the places to go and things to see in the Windy City.

The night before we left, all of our friends gathered in our little apartment, and Lloyd suggested one last trip to Home Run Inn. “It’s on me!” he said, “We’ll make it a bon voyage party!”

The place was packed, as usual; Louie waited on us, as usual, and we ordered a large Italian sausage pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions, as usual. The guys drank frosted mugs of beer and we all tried to be jovial. It was a bittersweet time for me, though; I was suddenly realizing what and whom I would leave behind.

Only Roger and Sharon would be relocating along with us. Maurice and Jerry had been drafted into the Army, so Glenda and Jerri would be moving back to Southern Illinois to be with their families; Jim and Hope were moving back, too. Only Lloyd and Marion were remaining in Chicago.

By silent agreement, Carroll and I did not tell Louie it was our last visit to Home Run Inn. “Goodbye, guys” he called to us across the crowded bar as we left, “See ya next time!”

I can still remember that little place with its battered chairs and Formica tables, candles in old wine bottles and the happy atmosphere, and although I have made a few trips back to Chicago in the years since, I have never returned to Home Run Inn. I checked on the Internet and was glad to see the original restaurant still there, at 31st and Kildare (although it has been renovated). And they have expanded, big time. There are also Home Run Inns on Archer Avenue in Chicago, in Addison, Bolingbrook, Darien, Bellwood, Melrose Park and Westmont. And they now have frozen pizza plants in Woodbridge and Chicago, from which Home Run Inn pizzas are shipped all over the country.

There were more delicious pizza restaurants in Chicago: Gino’s, where thick, deep-dish pizzas were served at the table in black, cast iron skillets, and Uno’s. Both were near The Loop, so I lunched there with my co-workers every now and then. It was great pizza. But as far as I was concerned, no pizza could come close to Home Run Inn's.
I have sometimes wondered why I never returned to Home Run Inn. I guess I just want it to live in my memory as it was back then. But every now and then, I think of Home Run Inn, the friendly, jovial people, the warm atmosphere, and those hot-from-the-oven pizzas, cheese still bubbling, held high in the air by Louie.
"Welcome!" he says, "How ya doin'?"


Suz said...

Brenda, I really needed the comfort of a good story tonight. You would have no way to know how much.

Thank you so much for this one.

Brenda said...

Thanks so much, Suz! Knowing that someone enjoys a story is just as gratifying as writing it.

Tony said...

I swear I smelled cheese and tomato sauce while I was reading! :)

Brenda said...

Ha ha ha...thanks, Tony!

Anonymous said...

I'm starving!

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley