A Western Oklahoma Ramble

On the last weekend of April, I headed west to attend a few events as the Tulsa County Representative for the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.  I had to be in Clinton on Saturday and Weatherford on Sunday, so I figured I’d stay overnight and do a little exploring.  As luck would have it, my friend Sam Murray would be staying overnight, too, with his Route 66 tour group from New Zealand.  It made for an exciting weekend!

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I left Tulsa early on Saturday morning. As I reached the western edge of Oklahoma City, I detoured off the interstate to see a relic of Oklahoma’s history.  A giant arrow, hidden in the trees on a quiet country lane, points towards the sky. It’s the remains of a monument from the 1957 Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Celebration called ‘Arrows to Atoms’.  It was originally almost 200 feet tall and stood at the fairgrounds to represent the progress of the Sooner State from statehood to the Atomic Era.  When it was taken down in the late 1960s, part of it was relocated to private property where it’s stood ever since.

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I continued west, avoiding I-40 in favor of the old roads.  Most of the drive I spent cruising Highway 152, which took me through Cogar.  About the only thing left in that town is an old general store/gas station that was featured in the film Rain Man.  It’s been closed for a long time, but still has a great look to it. I also snaked through the towns of Gotebo, Hobart, and New Cordell before heading up to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton.

Every two years, the Oklahoma Route 66 Association holds a Hall of Fame ceremony where two inductees are honored: one posthumously and one living. This year the Association had the unique privilege of honoring the same family for both awards. The late Hugh and Zelta Davis were honored for building the Blue Whale in Catoosa (as well as a few other attractions in the area) and their son, Blaine Davis, was honored for his ongoing contributions by keeping the Whale going in addition to his long-time service to the Oklahoma Route 66 Association itself.  It was a lovely event and Blaine was quite surprised.  Afterwards, a new photo exhibit at the museum opened: Oklahoma’s own Jim Ross and Shellee Graham were the featured artists. It was great to spend a bit of time with my Oklahoma Route 66 family.

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The day was still young, so once everything wrapped up I set out for a little more exploration.  I continued west to Elk City and then headed north on OK-34.  Basically, I made a huge circle back to Clinton through the towns of Hammon, Leedey, Thomas, and Custer City.  Much of the farmland was singed from a recent wildfire; it made for interesting scenery as I wound through the rural landscape.

When I made it back to Clinton, Sam Murray and his tour group had arrived for the night.  I met the New Zealanders on the Route 66 tour and we dined together, where we shared stories and a mutual love of the fabled American highway. It never ceases to amaze me when I experience the passion of Route 66 travelers.  For many international visitors, it’s the fulfillment of a longtime bucket list item.  One of the guys had even bought a classic car in Illinois and planned to ship it home when they arrived in California!

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The next morning I joined Gilligan’s Route 66 Tours for a few hours. I set up in Canute, where I took some photos as the gang drove by the old Cotton Boll Motel, and set up again on an abandoned segment of the Mother Road west of Sayre.  Everyone was having a wonderful time cruising and it was nice to be a ‘fly on the wall’ for their experience.  When the caravan pulled into the one-and-only Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Harley Russell was waiting. The larger-than-life proprietor of the famous roadside attraction was standing outside the brick market with a large New Zealand flag.  “WELCOME TO AMERICA!” he shouted with his unique brand of enthusiasm.  As Harley started his tour, I bid the group farewell and headed back east.

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I made another stop in Sayre, this time to see an abandoned bridge.  The old North Fork Red River Bridge is now on private property and doesn’t even make it to the river; the section near the river collapsed into rubble some time back. I secured permission from the landowner to explore but didn’t dally too long.  I had to get to Weatherford for the quarterly Oklahoma Route 66 Association meeting at the Heartland of America Museum.

I’d never been to that particular museum before and I was impressed.  The owners were wonderful hosts and the exhibits they have on-site provide a window into Okie living throughout the history of the state.  It’s a great addition to the series of museums that western Oklahoma has to offer. The drive home held no further detours, but that was fine by me.  It had been a wonderful, full weekend.

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15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest

Hi everyone!  Dropping a quick note to let you know that I will have a booth at the 15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest this year; it’s May 18-20 in downtown Tulsa. I’ll be sitting just east of 2nd and Elgin on the original alignment of Route 66!

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I’ll have a variety of goods available (prints, coasters, shirts) and would love to see you if you’re out and about.  I’m sharing a booth with my wife Samantha; her steampunk jewelry is amazing!  Get a sneak peek at: Bohemian Romance.

Although my book Lost Restaurants of Tulsa is still several months away from publication, I’d love to talk to you about your memories of the city’s beloved lost eateries. I hope to have more info on the book timeline soon.

Here’s hoping we have TERRIFIC weather for the festival!

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Four Days in The Marble City

I am fortunate in that I get to travel occasionally with my day job.  Although I’m not always able to get out and explore, I look for any available opportunity to escape and see a few sights.  Although it rained every day I was in Knoxville, Tennessee this week I was able to get in a little road time and see a little bit of the countryside.

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I was the second of my team to arrive in town early Sunday afternoon; thankfully, my coworker Mike was happy to drive around with me.  The first few were in Strawberry Plains, northeast of Knoxville.  The Holston River weaves through town and is spanned by a few crossings, including The McBee Bridge. The concrete through-truss (much like the Marsh Arch bridges I love in Kansas) is the only one of its kind in The Volunteer State.  It was built around 1930 to replace a ferry of the same name, which had taken people across the river since 1836.

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Our next stop was an abandoned Pan-Am Station on Highway 70. It’s a shame the little service station was in such bad shape; it’s a beautiful streamline moderne building. Pan-Am was once the largest oil company in the country and eventually became Amoco.  I don’t know how old this particular station is, but it has been in use somewhat recently.  Among the clutter of items inside was a calendar from the late 1990s hanging on the wall.

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Further south along the Holston River, we sought out a railroad bridge I’d marked and found something more interesting! Right next to the tracks leading across the river, a small collection of tombstones marked the location of the First Presbyterian Church in Knox County. “Lebanon in the Fork” dates back to 1791.  The site was eerily beautiful with the spotty rain and overcast skies.  One corner of the lot was dedicated to the Ramsey family, whose historic home sat two miles away. The Ramsey House is a beautiful limestone manor that ties in to a lot of Knoxville’s early history.

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The rain became steady right around dinner time.  My other coworkers had arrived during our exploration time and tasked me with finding a local place for our first meal together.  I suggested Ye Olde Steak House, a 1968 family-owned establishment on the south side of town.  It was GREAT!  The vintage supper-club atmosphere made me feel at home and my steak was cooked perfectly. Everyone else was happy, too, and made me unofficial meal planner for the rest of the trip.

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Late Tuesday, a few of us took a drive to the nearby Smoky Mountains.  Although it was still raining off-and-on, we enjoyed a peaceful drive up Highway 441 into Smoky Mountain National Park; there were a few neon signs I wanted to see just across the border in Cherokee, NC.  We had plenty of opportunities to stop along the winding road and appreciate the low clouds, which made the mountain forests look appropriately smoky.

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Cherokee is very much a tourist town and was very quiet this time of year.  By the time we made it back down the mountain to Gatlinville, it was full dark.  Next time I’m in the area, I hope to explore that town and nearby Pigeon Forge. They looked like a lot of fun!

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On my last night, I got to see downtown Knoxville and have dinner with an old friend. The Tennessee River cuts through the district and is spanned by multiple bridges, all of which I giddily photographed as the lights came on.  The barbecue at Calhoun’s on the River wasn’t bad, either!

After a super early flight out on Thursday, I arrived back in Tulsa at 10 AM.  Currently, I’m preparing to take a short trip to western Oklahoma for a few Route 66 meetings.  I’m still tired from my trip to Tennessee, but the excitement of a few more days on the road very soon is like a jolt of caffeine to the spirit.

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Preservation & Payne

It’s been a busy week on Route 66 in Tulsa and the surrounding area.  I love a good road trip to someplace new, but there’s a lot to be said for helping others enjoy the city and stretch of highway I am most familiar with.  Tulsa has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our architecture and history.

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For most of last week, Tulsa hosted the NCPTT (National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, part of the National Park Service) and their symposium on Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions. I joined approximately 50 other attendees from around the country to learn about various efforts (both historic and ongoing) to preserve, restore, and bring awareness to various roadside relics.

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I heard from a man who helped restore the 9,000 sq ft terrazzo Texaco highway map of New York State from the 1964 World’s Fair.  I listened to talks about Dinosaur Valley State Park, Oklahoma City neon signs, old Phillips 66 stations in the Midwest, Civil War-era cycloramas, various marketing initiatives, and more.  Our two keynote addresses were from author/historian Michael Wallis and Dylan Thuras from Atlas Obscura.  I gave the last talk of the conference, highlighting photography as a preservation tool.  I learned a lot and made many new friends over three days.

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I also lead two field excursions during the conference.  The first trip was a neon tour of Tulsa.  We only had two hours, which meant I had to make some tough decisions on what we could see.  Aside from the fact that our final stop was a great disappointment (Stokely Event Center had assured me they’d be present with all their beautiful signs lit up, but the place was dark when we arrived) it was nice to share some of our beautiful signage with a passionate crowd.  The second tour was a half-day trip from Tulsa to Foyil, OK to see a bit of the Mother Road.  Everybody loved the Blue Whale and Totem Pole Park!  Photos from those trips are below:

NCPTT Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions

On Saturday, I hopped back onto Route 66 for a different reason: commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the Bunion Derby.  If you’ve never heard of it, I recommend reading the whole story but the summary is this: it was a 1928 Trans-American Footrace from L.A. to New York that was won by a 20 year old Cherokee man from the Claremore area named Andy Payne.  The Oklahoma Route 66 Association has held occasional motorized relays to celebrate the event.  A plaque is carried from the western border with Texas all the way up to the Kansas border on the historic highway.

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I carried the plaque from downtown Sapulpa, through Tulsa, and up to the Blue Whale in Catoosa. I was joined by a few other enthusiasts on a cold morning with Samantha riding shotgun. When we arrived at the Blue Whale, I was shocked to see a massive caravan waiting to drive the next leg of the journey…complete with police escort!  I fell in line once the plaque hand-off was completed and stayed with the gang through Claremore (where the Cherokee Nation read a proclamation to one of Andy Payne’s nephews) and on to Foyil, where a statue of Andy Payne graces travelers on the side of Route 66.

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The last week was full of fun and learning.  It was a real treat to be involved with both events and I think our visitors really enjoyed Tulsa. I marked a whole bunch of new locations to visit around the country, too! It’s time to start planning my next road trip.

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A Teachable Moment

It’s not a shocking statement to say I spent a little time on Route 66 this weekend.  What made this trip much different, though, is the fact that the time I spent cruising the Mother Road wasn’t behind the wheel of my Mustang.  I spent Saturday walking a stretch of Oklahoma 66 with approximately 50 others (mostly teachers) in support of Oklahoma’s education system.

If you’ve been following the national news, you already know that Oklahoma’s teachers walked out last week.  They rallied at the capitol building to demand better teacher pay and better funding for their schools, which has been among the lowest in the country.  Although a little progress was made last week, it hasn’t been enough to get us out of the hole.  As a part of the walkout, a group of teachers from the Tulsa area (including the superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist) started walking to Oklahoma City from Tulsa on Wednesday, April 4th.  Their route took them down old Route 66, stopping in small town school gymnasiums to sleep on wrestling mats as they trekked 110 miles southwest.

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Although neither Samantha nor I have children, we believe in their cause and wanted to show our support. We woke early on Saturday, April 7th (my 37th birthday) and joined two friends on a drive to Stroud, OK.  The skies were cloudy and the temperatures were below freezing; we passed half-a-dozen car accidents due to the slick streets and icy bridges.  We arrived in Stroud in one piece as a light snow began to fall.  We walked into the Route 66 Coliseum on the eastern edge of town, signed in, and set out with Team Turtles (the slowest of the three groups) at about 8:30 AM.

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Our journey that day took us from Stroud to Chandler with a lunch stop in Davenport. I’ve driven that section of Route 66 many times (in fact, just a few weeks ago with a group of TCC students) but walking the road was much different.  I took in my surroundings differently due to the slow pace; as much as I wished the snow would stop, I appreciated the beauty of it on the redbud trees.

I also gained a stronger appreciation for the simple act of putting one foot in front of another. It was terribly cold; the wind chill was in the teens when we started and eventually the snow turned to sleet.  Shortly before our mid-day stop in Davenport, thankfully, the weather cleared and the clouds broke up. The afternoon sunshine was most welcome.

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The teachers received support from a great many people. Motorists waved, honked their horns, and shouted encouragement as they drove by.  Residents that lived along Route 66 came out of their houses as we walked by to offer water and snacks.  When we entered Davenport (and, later, Chandler) there were welcoming committees of local teachers, parents, and students cheering us on.  There were only two or three instances of people giving a thumbs-down or shouting at us to get off the road.

By the time we ambled to our destination in Chandler, the group had traveled sixteen miles. I spent a few miles after lunch inside a support vehicle due to a hip issue but Samantha and our friends (one of whom is a teacher in Verdigris, another Route 66 community) walked the entire day. We celebrated our survival with a fantastic dinner back at the Rock Cafe in Stroud. Special thanks to Jerry McClanahan for the lift back to our starting point!

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The historic significance of the march was not lost on me.  Shortly after Route 66 was established, tenant farmers in Oklahoma uprooted and set out for California, leaving the Dust Bowl behind to seek a better future for their families.  Oklahoma educators are using the same highway as a path to a better future for their students and the families of the Sooner State’s future.  I admire the many teachers and other staff I met on the day’s journey, including Dr. Gist who was walking right along with them. I was a broken man after a single day and cannot imagine walking for an entire week!  My hat is off to them; their passion and commitment will surely lead to the brighter future they are seeking.

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When Pizza Was New

I’m entering the final weeks of writing and editing for my Lost Tulsa Restaurants book — it’s exciting and a little nerve wracking!  But it feels good.  I am really happy with what I have and am eager to hear what the publisher thinks.  I’m not sure how long the turnaround time is between submission and publication; I’m hoping it will be out by late summer.

In my research, I’ve sorted through photo archives, museum collections, and libraries.  I’ve spent countless hours scouring the Internet.  But my favorite part has been sitting down at a coffee shop or in someone’s living room, learning directly from people that were there.  Whether I am listening to a family member or a former employee, everyone has been eager to share their story. It’s an honor to be a vessel to get that story out to a larger audience.

Today I want to share an article that was shared with me — from Toni Hile, daughter of Tommy Alessio.  Tommy ran several restaurants in Tulsa from the 1950s to the 1970s, most notably Villa Venice (first at 66th and Lewis and then at 51st and Harvard.) The Alessio story is one of my favorites and here is part of why:  Tommy introduced pizza to the city of Tulsa.

It’s weird to think of a time when pizza wasn’t a ubiquitous dining option. It didn’t catch on until after World War II and the Allied soldiers brought knowledge back with them. Even then, it wasn’t a main course! The below article and photos come from the Tulsa Tribune dated April 12, 1953 and written by Sal Veder. It’s meant to introduce Tulsans to the Italian dish and encourage them to try it for themselves. It’s when Tommy was running his first Tulsa restaurant, right on Route 66.

(If you’re interested in some of Tommy Alessio’s recipes, Toni published a book of them recently.  I own it and it’s fantastic! Recipes from the Villa Venice.)

It’s Italian Pie

Tommy was in the kitchen.  Specks of white flour decorated his face and his hands were buried in a mound of dough.

Tommy (his correct name is Thomas J. Alessio) was busy making one of his preferred dishes.

Pizza neapolitan.

If you don’t know what it is or haven’t tried it, then, brother, we say to you: “You haven’t lived.”

Pizza, an Italian raised dough specialty that is made with either meat, cheese, shrimp, mushrooms, or a variety of other foodstuffs, is one of the most delicious dishes on the Italian fare.

When prepared properly, it melts in your mouth leaving a sweet, but not too sweet, warm feeling in mouth and stomach and a desire to consume more.

But, it has to be prepared properly.  Although simple to put together, it is nevertheless a painstaking job and takes a culinary “thumb” to make it right.

Tommy learned to make it when a youngster in his native Italy.  Through the years he has added his own individual flourishes which add vitality to its taste.

“It’s funny,” Tommy chuckles, “here it serves as an hors d’oeuvre while in Italy it is a main course.  Of course, in Italy food was hard to come by and every bit was made to count.”

Tommy, who operates the LaScala restaurant at 234 W 11th St, makes another point about pizza.

“Since we’ve been open here for the past 15 months, we’ve had little call for pizza.  I don’t think people know what it is and in a way are afraid to try it.”

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Flying saucer?  No.  It’s flying pizza leaving the hands of chef Tommy Alessio.  With a flip of his hands Tommy sends the dough flying.  In this way he achieves an almost perfectly circular piece of dough into which he will put filling to make a delicious Italian pizza.

“When I was working in San Francisco (Tommy spent 12 years in the Pacific coast city working in such famous eateries as John’s Rendezvous, Vanessi’s, Bimbo’s 365 Club, the Bal Tabarin, and Joe DiMaggio’s on famed Fisherman’s wharf) there was a tremendous call for pizza.  It was the same in Chicago.”

The Alessio family settled in Chicago after coming to the United States when Tommy was 11 years old.  There Tommy, now 42, learned the restaurant trade and was working at the famous Pump Room before he went to the Pacific coast and into Army World War II service.

Stationed at Camp Gruber, Tommy met and married a Tulsa girl, liked Tulsa so well that he decided to settle [here.]

But getting back to pizza, Tommy imparts his recipe on the dish.  Only one suggestion.

“You should have a brick oven to make it bake right,” Tommy says.

To make the 12-inch round pizza you should have 2/3 cup of water (half milk may be used) 1 tablespoon of melted shortening, 1 teaspoon sale, 1/2 oz compressed yeast, combined and 1 teaspoon of sugar, about two (2) cups of sifted flour to form a medium dough.

“From there it is simple,” Tommy says.

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After tomato paste is spread over dough with ladle, chef Alessio scatters cheese and meat over dough.  Mushrooms are added later and raw pizza is put into a brick over to cook.  This is how a finished pizza looks. A delicious Italian dish, pizza is known more in America as an hors d’oeuvre.  “In Italy pizza is served as a main dish.  It is simple to make,” Alessio says.

“Combine water, shortening and salt and when lukewarm add dissolved yeast.  Add flour a little at a time and beat dough until smooth.  When it is too stuff to beat, turn it onto floured pastry cloth and knead for several minutes until it is smooth, adding oly enough flour to prevent dough from adhering to hands.”

“When dough is smooth, shape it into round patty, cover with a towel or bowl and allow to rise in warm room until doubled in size.”

“After it has doubled, pat and roll rough to fit inside a 12-inch round pan that has been greased with one (1) teaspoon unsalted shortening.  A medium-sized baking sheet may be used.  Roll dough about one (1) inch larger than pan in which it is to be.  Cover dough with any type filling desired (anchovy, meat, tomato paste, cheese, etc.) and let stand for 20 minutes.  Bake it in a preheated oven at 400 degrees F. for 30 to 40 minutes.”

“I usually add a little ‘hot stuff’ to spice the pizza up,” Tommy said.

And there, as the bebop might say:

“Man give me some of that mato pizza.”

1958 Villa Venice

From the 1958 Tulsa Phone Directory

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Tulsa: Oil Capital of the World

This morning, Samantha and I went out to the Holland Hall Book Fair.  We attend annually, not only to bolster our own library but to gather a collection of children’s books for the Tulsa World Book Drive.  It was pouring down rain, but the place was packed.  I quickly tired of the crowd and retreated to a corner of the gymnasium, where I found the Rare Books section.

In the back corner, my eyes were drawn to a little spiral-bound book standing upright.  The cover featured a beautiful charcoal drawing of the Tulsa skyline & looked nearly identical to the cover of an old Bishop’s Restaurant menu I’d seen at the Tulsa Historical Society.  But it wasn’t a menu; not at all.

Oil Capital

This booklet was more than 30 pages of drawings by architect Paul E. Corrubia.  It was assembled for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in 1937.  On the back of each page was a small write-up about the photo promoting the city.  It was stunningly beautiful.  Although I had originally put my name down for an auction bid, I quickly changed my mind and bought it outright.  I didn’t go in expecting to spend any money, but it was just too significant to pass up.  I scanned a few pages in when I returned home and thought I’d post a few here for all to see, along with their appropriate caption.  Enjoy!

Oil Capital Skyline

Symbolizing the undying Spirit of Tulsa, the Oil Capital’s skyline is one of the crown jewels of the Magic Empire of the youthful Southwest. Modern skyscrapers, ever clean because Tulsa’s fuel is natural gas, stretch into the Oklahoma sky out of the rolling prairie in tremendous tribute to the twentieth century pioneers who builded this Arkansas river giant.

Union Railroad Station

Since the railroads first opened the Indian territory, Tulsa has been favored with major rail facilities and today the Frisco, Santa Fe, M-K-T, Midland Valley, and Sand Springs lines serve her. Tulsa’s three million dollar union depot is an architectural masterpiece, with four great overpasses taking city streets over the trackage. Forty-five railroads have offices in Tulsa.

The National Bank of Tulsa Building

This 24-story office building with its imposing tower is one of the landmarks of Tulsa. Specializing in oil financing, the National Bank of Tulsa, too, is a financial landmark. The development of every major field in the Southwest if reflected in the growth of “The Oil Bank of America.” At the same time, this institution offers individuals and commercial interests in Tulsa, banking services to meet every need.

International Petroleum Exposition

Number 1 show of the oil industry is the International Petroleum Exposition, held at intervals of two years in Tulsa with every oil producing nation participating. A non-profit institution directed by the world’s leading oil men, the Exposition features exhibits worth ten million dollars of every phase of the “black gold” industry. Elaborate permanent buildings house it.

Center of Petroleum Education

Black gold thrust Tulsa forward in magic growth, making her Oil Capital of the World. Tulsa also is the home of the University of Tulsa, heir to Oklahoma’s earliest educational heritage. Vision of Tulsa’s leaders led to the University’s College of Petroleum Engineering, strategic center of petroleum education. Imposing and scientifically equipped, the Phillips Engineering Building is devoted entirely to petroleum and chemical engineerings.

Livestock Pavilion

Tulsa is the capital of the great eastern Oklahoma agricultural empire, famed for the variety and excellence of its products and the progressiveness of its farm population. The annual Tulsa Four-State Fair, of which the Livestock Pavilion is a permanent structure, embodies all phases of this vast industry. The Tulsa Stockyards is a busy trading center for sale of beef cattle, sheep, hogs, horses, and mules raised in this region.

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