The Twin Cities have but a handful of icons they can claim as their own:
And, of course, Lucca Grill.
In the midst of Bloomington-Normal’s revolving door of restaurants aimed at satisfying a ravenous appetite for dine-in and take-out, this downtown corner eatery with the red and white awning and dime-thin pizza has stood the test of time and trend, celebrating 75 years this week.
Before “Pizza! Pizza!” and Pizza Hut, before Domino’s delivered, Lucca has been a place to belly up to the bar after work, take out-of-town guests, celebrate a milestone, and meet up with friends, again and again. Long an unofficial shrine of local Democrats, it hands out Kennedy half-dollars in change and good naturedly cajoles those less liberal.
Through the years, celebrities from Arlo Guthrie to Jimmy Fallon, and more recently the Stanley Cup, have made their pilgrimage. Its pizza was once shipped to South Vietnam.
“It’s just an old-fashioned good place — good food, good service, good people,” says retiree Jay Wilson of Bloomington, a regular as he finished a lunch of grilled cheese and loaded baked potato soup at the bar last week. “It’s just got a lot of nostalgia.”
Tin ceiling, dumbwaiter
That ambiance permeates the Bloomington building at 116 E. Market St., where Italian-American brothers John and Fred Baldini began the business named for their parents’ hometown of Lucca, Italy, on Dec. 9, 1936.
Ornate tin ceilings, painted forest green, umbrella the downstairs. A worn mahogany bar traverses one side, dead-ending at the pizza oven in the front window. Small TVs hung at each end are usually tuned to sports. Seemingly phone-booth sized bathrooms are shoe-horned in a corner, while a nearby dumbwaiter is still in constant use, shuttling food and drinks to a lower-key upstairs dining room.
“I’d look like an Olympic speed skater if I had to run up and downstairs every time somebody needed a beer,” jokes manager John Koch, who shares day-to-day oversight with manager Tony Smith.
Behind the bar sits a 1959 photo of John F. Kennedy and Fred Baldini’s son, John, who later ran the business with his brother, Charles, nicknamed “Tot.” Nearby is a framed copy of the last payment made by current owner, Chuck Williams, to the younger John Baldini.
Collegiate pennants donated by customers surround the upper walls; below hang neon beer signs, sports jerseys and newspaper stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others.
Near the main entrance is a small framed photo of Lucca bon vivants Priscilla Blakney and her late husband, Karl.
“I love it. They don’t change things. They’re always good to you, just very good to you,” says the 88-year-old Blakney, of Normal, who has a drink named in her honor at Lucca.
No typical regulars
Blakney and Wilson are among the varied group of kindred spirits linked as Lucca aficionados.
Late Tuesday night, after a 2½-hour rehearsal down the street at Second Presbyterian Church, a group of barber shoppers from the Sound of Illinois Barbershop Chorus gather around the large round table downstairs to unwind with a Barber Shopper Special pizza, beer and more singing.
The barber shoppers and Lucca have long had a mutual admiration society. In decades past, Tot Baldini used to have the barber shoppers serenade his wife via telephone.
“He’d get the phone and hold it up and signal us it was time to sing,” remembers barber shopper Jim Stahly Sr., who recalls singing “Paddlin’ Madelyn Home.”
The following night, Marvin Rexroat of Bloomington stops by with a group to celebrate his 48th birthday.
“It’s the pizza I come here for and it’s good,” says Rexroat, who tops his only with pepperoni.
Thursday morning a group of Twin City elder statesmen — some former classmates from the class of 1943 at Trinity High School, all longtime friends — hold court at the large round table. A box of carry-in doughnuts accompanies the coffee they are quickly served. Donations are tossed in a bowl on the table.
There is chatter about World War II, an upcoming cruise, an impending great-great-grandchild, and age jokes from the group’s youngster, 79-year-old John Snyder.
“We settle all the problems of the world in an hour and 15 minutes,” chimes 88-year-old Jack Reidy of Bloomington.
That evening, Ryan Bertrand and his wife, Jennie Edwards Bertrand, make their usual appearance. The Bloomington couple came to Lucca on their first date in 1993, and have been returning every Thursday night since 2000.
“I just appreciate having a place to come that I feel comfortable,” says Edwards Bertrand, a campus minister at Illinois State University.
Consistency — and more
For many it’s the familiar that provides comfort, so tolerance of anything new varies. There are those adamant that Lucca should never change; those who like change when it occurs; those who don’t realize it’s changed even when it has.
That’s a balancing act for Koch and Smith, who try to make updates both subtle and thoughtful.
The green tile downstairs recently gave way to an earthy shade of carpet called coffee bean. An interior wall was replaced and refinished. A poster a customer recently brought back from Lucca, Italy, now hangs there. Similar touches were completed upstairs earlier this year.
Gluten-free pizza has been added to the menu; Lucca is liked on Facebook.
“The important things don’t change — the people, the feeling you get when you walk in, the beer and the food,” says Bertrand. “I think this is one of the places that makes Bloomington Bloomington.”
Koch initially attributes the Lucca’s long life to a pragmatic business mantra he sums up in one word: consistency.
“Deliver a quality product at a fair price, and the rest will take care of itself,” he explains.
But in later conversations, he and Smith acknowledge the intangible, that after three-quarters of a century, they are caretakers, that this venerable, welcoming place is an old friend to many, with a “feeling” all its own.
“We belong to the Lucca more than the Lucca belongs to us,” says Smith.
-- Before it was Lucca, the building at 116 E. Market St., Bloomington, also was home to another restaurant and a hardware store and, upstairs, an African-American social club.
-- Pizza arrived about 1953, after the younger John Baldini brought back a recipe from St. Louis. Brother Tot was skeptical the fad would last.
-- The most popular item on today’s menu: hands down, the large A La Baldini pizza.
-- Once upon a time, that Baldini pizza used to come with anchovies. Today, it’s just savory sausage, pepperoni, ham, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and pepperoncini.
-- Employees hand out about $70-$80 in Kennedy half dollars for change weekly.
-- While the glass door into the restaurant says Lucca is closed three days a year — Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas — that number is really five. It’s also closed Easter and New Year’s Day.
Lucca Grill honors club
The Lois: Roast beef sandwich, with grilled onions, green peppers and Swiss cheese; honors employee Lois Durbin, who has worked at Lucca for 40 years.
Barber Shopper Special: Pizza with sausage, mushrooms and onions; pepperoncini served on the side; honors the Sound of Illinois Barbershop Chorus.
The Priscilla: Drink with Dewar’s and water; honors longtime regular Priscilla Blakney.
At the bar: Three barstools have nameplates on the back honoring customers as Lucca “Goodfellows” — Bob and Jean Coan, and Karl Blakney, all deceased.
Activities planned Wednesday through Dec. 11 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Lucca Grill include:
-- Food and drink specials, including 75-cent Schlitz drafts
-- “Occupy Lucca” broadcast with WJBC at 2 p.m. Wednesday; interviews and contests
-- “Lucca Palooza,” at 4 p.m. Dec. 11 (doors open at 3 p.m.); performances by Eva Hunter, Chris and John Parkhurst, Ed Anderson, Berchtold and Stear, and a grand finale performance by Dan Hubbard. Musical acts will alternate playing hour-long sets between upstairs and downstairs.