By Dave Allston –
The 1960s yielded many crazes, like go-go boots, Ouija boards, bellbottoms, and sea monkeys. However, one craze that has stood the test of time is pizza! For many it would be hard to imagine a menu plan without this staple. It’s tasty as a meal or late night snack and can be prepared a million different ways. Pizza is still relatively new, with a presence in Ottawa of just over sixty years. The craze reached Kitchissippi and has been unabated since. Its history in the neighbourhood is traced through a few key milestones and one key individual.
A relatively obscure menu item at some Italian restaurants across the United States for the first half of the century, pizza emerged in the 1950s as a new favourite snack at popular teen destinations, particularly drive-in movie theatres in California. Hollywood also had a hand in boosting pizza’s popularity as it was promoted by stars like Jackie Gleason, Perry Como and of course, Dean Martin, whose hit song “That’s Amore” popularized the wondrous “pizza pie.”
There is no evidence of pizza in Ottawa until the early 1950s, when legendary Rideau Street restaurant, Imbro’s (“Ottawa’s first genuine Italian food establishment”) added it to the menu. Its popularity grew and by 1954 Imbro’s was promoting their “Home Made Pizza” in newspaper ads, an Ottawa first. The second Ottawa restaurant to do so was the Prescott on Preston Street, in December 1956. The Miss Westgate restaurant was “introducing” pizza for the first time in August of 1958, a Kitchissippi first.
In Ottawa, pizza first became commonly available at the grocery store, in pie plates, canned, or frozen (“like eating cardboard” recalled west-ender Bruce Chapman – his father in the ‘50s vowed never to buy another). In late 1956, Chef Boyardee promoted their boxed “Complete Pizza Pie Mix” which became hugely popular for the next 20 years and is remembered by several long-time residents as their earliest memory of pizza consumption.
By January of 1958, the owners of Imbro’s noted they were selling 150 pizzas a week. It might be interesting to note that the battle of thin vs. thick crust was already beginning, with the Ottawa Citizen noting that “Mike (Imbro) sniffs his disdain of the paper thin shells of American-born pizzas.” By the end of the year, it was said that across the U.S., over 25,000 pizzerias existed, selling more pizzas in the U.S. than in Italy.
Though pizza was increasingly popular at the grocery store and a handful of restaurants, dedicated pizza parlours were slow to arrive in Ottawa.
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It was the summer of 1961 when Ottawa Rough Riders players George Brancato and Doug Daigneault opened Ottawa’s first pizza parlor at 612 Somerset St. W. (They added a second location by Lansdowne Park at 813 Bank St. later that fall.) They were the first to offer pizza delivery. These pizza places lasted only a couple of years but the concept proved to be a success in Ottawa.
Kitchissippi’s first pizza parlour was a short-lived one at 283 Richmond Rd. (now MHK Sushi), known as Zappia’s Pizzaria, which operated for about a year between 1963-1964. The Albertan Billiards hall at 1310 Wellington (now Herb and Spice) briefly operated a small pizza restaurant when they first opened in 1965. Peter’s Pantry on Richmond at Croydon (though just outside Kitchissippi, a favourite restaurant for many over the years) featured pizza as one their main dishes when they first opened in May 1965. But the true story of pizza in Kitchissippi, and in many ways Ottawa as a whole, starts and ends with David Presley.
In 1963, the first Peppio’s Pizzeria opened in Ottawa at 869 Bank St. Presley, then a teenager, frequented Peppio’s and became interested in the business. Two years later in 1965, the 21-year-old opened his own Peppio’s, and also introduced subs to Ottawa for the very first time. Peppio’s would be renamed Cicero’s soon after due to trademark infringement, and Presley would see the Cicero’s name explode in Ottawa. Cicero’s had 13 locations at its peak, including one in Winnipeg and one in Southend-On-Sea, England, which was the first of a planned expansion to as many as a dozen other countries.
Presley opened arguably his most well-known and longest-running location at 1079 Wellington St. W. (now Taqueria La Bonita) in November 1968, in a 1,200 square foot former typewriter store.
Hintonburg’s Cicero’s became a “sort of community centre for the neighbourhood,” Presley recalls. “We got to know all the kids, and the kids all respected me. And I respected them, and helped look after them, helped make sure they didn’t get into trouble. They were all good kids, maybe a rare one or two that were trouble.” A few long-time Hintonburgians I spoke to recall the socializing, pinball games, and part-time jobs just as much as they remember the food.
Presley grew up around carnivals, and in particular Ottawa’s Super Ex. “It was in my blood,” he says. The future (and eventually final) president of the C.C.E. was involved with the Ex as a boy, when he would show up on setup day and help guide the “lot man” to exactly where the rides and booths had been located in previous years, saving the crew valuable setup time.
When the Ex’s pizza merchant slot finally opened up in the mid-60s, Presley’s persistence and friendly past dealings with Ex manager Jack Clark resulted in his being awarded the gig, which he maintained until the end.
The job was lucrative (“I’d make as much at the fair as I would all year in a store,” he recalled), and Presley soon branched out doing fairs and carnivals across Canada every year, including the Calgary Stampede. He brought along several neighbourhood kids each summer, providing them with a chance to see Canada and earn good money. “I was their tour guide, and made sure they saw everything. I gave them a running commentary while on the highway,” he says. “It was the full experience for the kids, and a good one.”
It is no surprise that Presley is still so well regarded, and often recognized by the ‘kids’ from Hintonburg many years later.
“My heart was in the fairs,” he says, and so the Cicero’s name eventually became limited to that. The Hintonburg store closed in 1985, and his location at 344 Richmond Rd. (now Lexington) was bought out by Eddie Champagne (who had managed the England location as well). Eddie changed the name to Puzzles in 1983 until it closed in 2010.
Neighbourhood competition came by way of one of Presley’s partners, Ralph Tannis, who left to open the first of what would become the Fat Albert’s chain in 1970 in a former wig shop on Laurier near Bank. Tannis’s eighth store was a block from Cicero’s at 1087 Wellington St. W. and it operated from 1974 until the mid-1990s. Go Go Pizza at 1093 Wellington (1970-1978), the Honky Tonk Piano Pizza Parlor at Somerset and Bayswater (1971), and Napoli’s Pizza, which first opened in 1977 in a house on Hinchey next to the train tracks and moved to Richmond Road in 1983, also covered the community’s pizza-related needs. Newport’s in Westboro opened in 1973.
Virtually everyone I have spoken to on this topic remembers their first pizza. Steve Harrison recalls: “My first pizza my mother brought home was from the Grads,” (an infamous tavern on Somerset). Paul Johanis says pizza handling wasn’t necessarily instinctive! “Just to prove how clueless we were about pizza, when I was asked by my friends to pick up a pizza on my way to their house on Carruthers, I collected it at Cicero’s and carried it under my arm like a binder or a school book,” he recalls. “It was quite a mess when we opened the box! Lesson learned. Never did that again.”
It’s interesting to consider how far pizza has come in a short time, thanks in part to early entrepreneurs like David Presley who helped build on a foodie craze that shows no sign of fading away.
Dave Allston is a local historian and the author of The Kitchissippi Museum. His family has lived in Kitchissippi for six generations. Do you have early memories or photos to share? Where did you and your family go for pizza in the early day? Use this form to contact us!