It's 1:30 in the afternoon and Nick Perrino and his son, Joe, are arguing about mozzarella cheese. Nick--a hardy 77 years old with a chest big as an institutional soup cauldron and an accent as thick as good spaghetti sauce--insists that cheese from a 20-pound block tastes different than cheese from a 5-pound block. Joe--trim and businesslike in a white shirt, red sweater vest, and lawyerly tortoise-shell glasses--thinks they taste the same when they're melted.
As is their custom, the two sit at the round dining table that often serves as the nerve center of the Home Run Inn pizza dynasty. OK perhaps "dynasty" is going a bit too far. But last year, 40 years after Nick took over his mother-in-law's ailing Home Run Inn tavern at 4254 W. 31st St. in South Lawndale and turned it into one of the city's first pizza parlors, Nick and Joe opened a second restaurant in Darien. And in 1986 they opened a three-story, state-of-the-art frozen pizza factory that they hope will eventually have Mr. Tombstone frantically looking over his shoulder.
The factory sits behind the main restaurant, a sturdy brick structure built over, under, and around the original parlor, dominating the surrounding neighborhood of squat bungalows like a castle in a cornfield. It was a smaller version of that building--along with Nick's secret pizza recipe--that Nick says Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, tried unsuccessfully to buy from him for $5 million in the 60s.
And inside the Italianate parapets of that building, where Joe and Nick debate, waitresses of many ages and cultural backgrounds, with metal coin changers strapped to their hips, speed by on their way to serve patrons so varied they seem to have issued from a giant Lotto ball scrambler containing representatives of every race and nationality in Chicago.
Joe and Nick are arguing about cheese in a manner audible to patrons in nearby booths. Between bites of Chicken Vesuvio from the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, Nick points his fork at Joe. "What do you know about cooking anyway?" he challenges. It was Nick, after all, who got the pat on the back from General George S. Patton for serving iced cocoa to troops at his steamy Florida base, rather than hot cocoa, as the nationwide Army menu prescribed. "To me that was the greatest day in my life," Nick says seriously.
Not that there weren't a lot of other highlights in his five-year stateside career as a mess sergeant during World War II. (He got the job because he used to make sandwiches at his father's ice cream parlor, which doubled as a whiskey dispensary during Prohibition.) There was, for example, the time he devised a better way to serve food on a troop train.
Nick lays seven folded napkins, each representing a train car, end to end on the table as he explains the system. The middle napkin is the mess car. Instead of having the food delivered from there to the troops' seats, he had the soldiers in the three cars on one side of the mess car march single file to the other end of the train. They'd do an about-face and file back through the mess car, picking up their food as they returned to their seats. "It was more efficient that way, and nobody got hurt when you spill soup on them," says Nick, who still considers himself a master of restaurant traffic flow.
And then there was the time Nick vanquished the pesky water spots on Army silverware. Nick calls for a spoon to use as a prop. A nearby busboy scampers off to get one. That story complete, Nick is about to launch into another when he's interrupted by 73-year-old May Fleming of Cicero, who says she used to patronize the Home Run Inn 40 years ago, when it was a storefront operation and the neighborhood--now a mix of blacks, Hispanics, and white ethnics--was all Polish and Bohemian.
Nick is delighted. They reminisce about the old neighborhood, how Blessed Sacrament used to be the finest Catholic church in the city, how Nick has been there 60 years and still lives next door to the restaurant like he wishes his son Joe did.
"This is what I enjoy," Nick says. "Talking to people that was here years ago and they come back." He asks a waitress to get some Home Run Inn calendars for the woman from the trunk of his car. Then another waitress shows up at the table with a giant framed photo of the old, plank-sided saloon, the one--Nick says, beginning the story--whose windows were occasionally shattered by well-hit long balls from Piotrowski Park across the street (hence the name Home Run Inn); the saloon where his father-in-law died behind the now formica-topped bar when Nick was still in the service; the one Nick saved from bankruptcy during the Depression, when he was working at his uncle's gas station after his father went back to Italy (never to return) and Nick was courting his future wife, Loretta; the one with modest living quarters in the back where, after his hitch in the Army, he and Loretta shared a mattress on the floor while his mother-in-law slept on box springs.
"Where's the picture of my mother-in-law?" he barks in midtale, and a bartender hustles off to look for it.
After the Army, he says, "I started out making bread for customers to eat with their beer, free." Some veterans who'd served in Italy mentioned their fondness for pizza, so he started serving free pizza; then he started charging a buck for it, and from there his business mushroomed.
"After a while, the people used to come here and they say, 'Make me a pizza, don't bake it all the way,'" Nick says. "This happens three, four times, and I get a little disgusted, so I say, 'Why you don't want me bake it all the way?' They say they take it home and cut it in half and put it in the Frigidaire to bake it later. This gives me an idea."
Thus was born, in the late 1940s, the frozen Home Run Inn pizza found today--often next to the even tastier Home Run Inn frozen lasagna--in stores all across the city. "Now we have five distributors and we can't make enough pizza," Nick says.
Sometimes Nick still finds it hard to believe that a kid born in tiny Bari, Sicily, who "used to cry for a piece of bread" when he was young, and who, with a second-grade education and no knowledge of English, came to this country alone at 16 to join his father and uncle, could have succeeded so spectacularly. Could own a factory that produces 15 to 20 thousand pizzas a week and a restaurant that produces 6,500 to 7,000 pizzas a week--1,800 on a good Friday or Saturday, and they don't deliver. A restaurant whose walls are festooned with photos of him with every mayor from Daley to Washington (not to mention innumerable shots of Governor Jim Thompson, who once made a campaign stop there); with a computer keeping track of orders, a recording of a sultry-voiced woman touting Home Run Inn pizza, lasagna, and T-shirts while callers wait to place orders by phone; a staff of 180, 30 of them working shoulder-to-shoulder at any given time in a kitchen that is a cross between an electronics assembly plant and Santa's workshop.
He's proud of it all, and not at all shy about showing it off to visitors, even if he winds up picking up a freshly baked and boxed pizza from a conveyor ramp and loudly and publicly censuring the kitchen supervisor for allowing a warm pizza to be sent freezerward. "if you pack 'em before you cool 'em, they spoil," he says.
Eternally respectful of and patient with his father's methods, Joe, who walks into the kitchen mid-harangue, pays little attention to the flare-up. "Old Army tactics," he says.
Joe admits he and his father work and think differently. When Nick points out, for example, that everything--from the 15,000 pounds of sausage (a special mix of veal and pork) prepared there weekly to the paddles used to put pizza into the giant rotating oven he helped design--is made on the premises, Joe says, "Put it this way, we're vertically integrated."
The two also have different ideas about how to ensure the future and continued success of the business. Joe talks about selling pizzas out of state, possibly franchising or opening a restaurant in the fashionable Clybourn corridor, lowering production costs. Nick hands a visitor a box of five fresh-baked (and very delicious as it turns out) sausage pizzas and wishes him well.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.