‘Exotic food’ proven to be favorite

An early menu from the Pizzarena in the city of Marquette is seen. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — These days, when you can get them at restaurants or food trucks, get them to go, or get them delivered, it’s hard to imagine a world in which pizza is not one of the Upper Peninsula’s favorite foods.

Yet, when Marquette’s first pizza places opened, they were considered the most exotic of establishments at which to eat.

In the 1950s, the only way most people had ever even heard of pizza was as something you bought in a box — a Chef Boyardee box, to be specific.

The company, which had produced K-rations for the U.S. Army during World War II, used the same concept to introduce Americans to the dish, including all the needed ingredients in a single box.

So, around 1961, when plans were announced for Marquette’s first pizza-only establishment, public reaction ranged from exclamations of joy to “Pizza? What’s pizza?”

The latter reaction, though, soon changed.

Bimbo’s Pizza was a joint venture between two investors from Ann Arbor and a Marquette couple, Clark and Katherine Lambros. The latter two had been working at The Coffee Cup, a downtown restaurant owned by Katherine’s mother, when they decided to strike out on their own.

The couple bought the other two investors out, and Bimbo’s became one of the favorite places for Marquette teenagers to hang out.

Shortly thereafter, Marquette’s second pizza place opened up. Bill and Carol Leydon started a place that was mostly take-out called The Pizzarena in a building on Hewitt Avenue just off the corner of Fourth.

Just as with Bimbo’s, the exotic dish they served-pizza-took the city by storm. Unlike Bimbo’s, though, most of their product was either picked up or delivered.

That led the Leydons to decide to move and open a bigger location, where more people could sit down and eat. In October 1966, the new Pizzarena was opened at the corner of Presque Isle and Fair, right across from NMU’s Kaye Hall and a rather hungry population of college students.

By the 1970s, the pizza business had grown by leaps and bounds and both original establishments found themselves changing. Bimbo’s added a liquor license and a regular menu, changing its name to Vango’s in the process.

It is still going strong more than 60 years after it opened.

The Pizzarena, meanwhile, stayed open at its Presque Isle location for over 20 years before finally closing. By then, Marquette had over a dozen places where residents could enjoy a pie or slice, either from franchise restaurants (Marquette’s first Domino’s take out location opened on Third Street in the mid-1970s) or locally owned establishments (ranging from Italian restaurants to a place like Nebbo’s, which was located above the legendary Andy’s Bar in downtown Marquette).

These days, pizza is a food staple, available everywhere. But back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s hard to overstate just how exotic the cuisine was, especially in the growing restaurant scene developing at the time in Marquette.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The history of restaurants in Marquette-not just pizza places-will be the subject of a documentary debuting tonight at the Marquette Regional History Center. “The Greasier the Spoon” talks to restaurant owners and food fans to look back at some of the famous-and infamous-dining places from the past 174 years. The screening gets underway at 6:30; the show will also be available for purchase as a download (with bonus features) beginning Wednesday night. To find out more about “The Greasier the Spoon,”contact the Marquette Regional History Center at 906-226-3571 or visit marquettehistory.org.


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