Column on Pizzeria Uno/Due in Sun-Times
Thu, 01/5/06 3:17 PM
Are pizzeria pair now serving a more humble pie?
January 5, 2006
BY MARK BROWN SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Memories can play tricks, and nothing ever tastes as good as it did when you were young. I know that.
But after a trip to Pizzeria Due the other night, I couldn't help but think I hadn't been eating the same deep-dish pizza that I fell in love with some 30 years ago, and to which I've remained loyal ever since.
Maybe it was the crust. Maybe it was the tomatoes. Maybe it was my imagination.
To satisfy my curiosity, though, I decided to track down some of the women who would know the most about it: the chefs who prepared from scratch the deep-dish pies that made Uno's and Due's so famous that it became synonymous worldwide as "Chicago style."
And guess what? They tell me it's not my imagination. Over the years, Uno's and Due's really have changed their pizza -- and not for the better, the former chefs say.
This accusation is roundly denied by the restaurants' Boston-based corporate owners, as well as the local manager of the two restaurants.
They say they haven't changed a thing since acquiring Uno's and Due's from the widow of founder Ike Sewell in 1992, except perhaps to require pizza chefs to measure out ingredients instead of estimating, which they say was necessary to ensure a more uniform product.
But Aldean Stoudamire and Elizabeth Thomas told a different story.
'They went the cheaper way'
The two women are among a group of African-American cooks who were the oft-overlooked secret ingredient in Uno's success, providing the "mother's love" that made each pie special.
Stoudamire, 66, spent 38 years cooking at Uno's before retiring as head chef in 1996. During much of that time, her sister, Mary Helen White, was the chef at Due's. Thomas, 70, split 32 years between Uno's and Due's before retiring shortly after Stoudamire.
"They put their heart and soul into those pizzas. You could tell." said Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno, who observed the sisters while researching his 1981 book The Great Chicago-Style Pizza Cookbook, which included a photo of Stoudamire at work. "They had the feel, you know. The touch. They didn't even have to weigh out the dough."
Both women began under Sewell and continued cooking at the restaurants during the early years of Uno Restaurant Holdings Corp., which now has more than 200 company-owned and franchised units, including locations in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
"It had started changing before I retired," Stoudamire said. "Little by little, they started changing."
The new owners fiddled with the recipe, she said. They fiddled with the ingredients. They wanted things done their way.
"After the franchise got in, you was just another number," Stoudamire said. "The franchise guys come in with their own rules and everything."
"When they got new management, they went the cheaper way," agreed Thomas, who said the managers began switching everything from oil to cheese to yeast, although she said they returned to the original yeast after there were problems.
Not talking about franchises
Both women say they have no information on current practices at the restaurants, except comments from friends and family that the pizza doesn't taste the same.
If you're trying to gauge their credibility, keep in mind that I went looking for them. They didn't come to me with an ax to grind.
Stoudamire, for one, seemed perfectly content never to think or talk about pizza again. She lives on her family's farm in Georgia now, taking care of her 99-year-old mother. She rarely even eats pizza these days.
In Chicago we know the pizza sold at Uno's franchises around the country bears little resemblance to the product the flagship restaurants made famous. That's a different story. But we have always been promised the Boston owners were dedicated to preserving the unique character and food of the original restaurants here.
'Why would you change it?'
I received the same assurances Wednesday from Uno's CEO, Frank Guidara, who insisted nothing has changed since Sewell's tenure, not even the pizza ovens. He said the Chicago restaurants still buy the same ingredients from the same local suppliers, contradicting the former chefs. Guidara joined the company last February but said he had checked with others to confirm his information.
"Why would you change it?" Guidara said, noting the success of Uno's and Due's, which have increased sales every year and rank best in the company in terms of fewest customer complaints.
"People must be pretty satisfied," he observed.
True enough, but maybe all those tourists just don't know any better. I didn't say it was bad pizza, just not as good as it used to be.
I was going to say that only in Chicago would we argue about whether a restaurant had changed its pizza recipe. But that's not true. People everywhere take their pizza seriously.
We're just the only ones who know what we're talking about.