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.”

Tommy 1 edit

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.

Tommy 2 edit

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

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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