The story behind Papa Del’s pizza is deeply personal
By Tony Fitzpatrick
What’s in a Papa Del’s pizza? A famished campus, a floundering student and a failing fraternity are the unlikely ingredients of this culinary icon, a favorite among alumni and one of the most famous brands ever to come out of the University of Illinois campus.
Each week, Papa Del’s sends its pizzas to points nationwide; indeed, in summer 2010, 76 members of the San Francisco Bay Area Illini Club dined on 19 pizzas shipped to them cross-country for a trip down Memory Lane. It’s been rumored that the pie has smuggled its way into Japan, Europe and Asia, and it’s commonplace to find alumni within a 50-mile radius of C-U jettisoning their plans to visit the Green Street eatery and yield to their jonesin’.
While the first Papa Del Pizza restaurant opened in 1970 at the corner of Wright and Healey streets in Campustown, the story of how it got there really begins in the spring of ’68 when the Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity needed at least 20 new pledges in order to survive.
The old man of the house
In those turbulent times, when many students disdained the Greek social structure, let their hair grow and remained prideful of their rebellious sides, fraternity president Bob Monti ’69 enticed freshman recruits with the tradition-smashing promise of a house with no hazings or rituals. I and about 20 others – mainly streetwise Chicagoans hoping that fraternity status would finesse us into becoming irresistible to sorority girls – took the bait.
One fall night in 1969, I had my first prototype of Papa Del’s pizza at the PSE house at 1004 W. Nevada St., Urbana. I’d heard that Monti, whom we fondly called Papa (in deference to his lengthy, five-years-and-counting status as an undergrad) and/or Del (in homage to the canned goods manufacturer), would be making pizza. I couldn’t fathom Pops doing anything more elaborate than what my mom or sisters did with a Chef Boyardee pizza kit, so I indifferently headed out to find a pickup basketball game. Back at the house, I followed my nose to the dining room, where a handful of guys languished contentedly around fare that looked to me like elephant ears or maybe ridgeless Belgium waffles. I had never seen a crust so thick nor smelled a pizza so aromatic. I took my slice with me and opened the swinging door to see a jumble of emptied, black skillets on the stove proper and Pops at the counter, wielding a big cutter, slicing open a creation garnished with half-dollar-sized pepperoni on crust that fairly oozed over the edges of a deep pan.
I closed my eyes and took a bite: heaven, the best pizza, to this day, that I have ever tasted.
To most of us, Pops, born in 1946 (the first year of the baby boomer generation), still seemed to have one foot back in 1945. While he wasn’t outspoken or overtly political, he was quietly conservative, traditional, old-school, delighting in telling stories of enigmatic, long-gone brothers and what we young-’uns thought of as antiquated pranks. During the years of the Vietnam War, Monti had bounced from major to major, uncertain of his future and staying, like many of us, one step ahead of the draft board through college deferments. His life changed the evening of Dec. 1, 1969, during the nationally broadcast draft lottery, when we heard Monti’s birthday go uncalled until the 340th ball was selected, meaning he never had to spend another minute worrying about being drafted.
Or choosing a major, either; he dropped out.
A band of brothers
“I began to look for an empty campus building to open a pizza restaurant,” Monti relates. “I sold every used car that I had, borrowed money from my family and came up with just under $2,000 [and took over] the site of what had been Olympic Pizza.”
It wasn’t quite the blind plunge into the eatery business; food is in the Monti DNA. Both his grandfather and father were restaurateurs for a period, and Monti knew the tough commitment ahead, having worked in Bi-Gimini, his parents’ Lombard restaurant.
Heralded only by a leaflet campaign, Papa Del’s Pizza had a “soft” opening on a football Saturday the third October weekend of 1970. So far so good, but the lack of dinner in UI residence halls on Sunday evenings proved problematic. “We got slammed” with orders, he recalls. “I got on the phone and begged guys at the house to help me out.”
Monti’s PSE “band of brothers” came to his rescue on that day and many others in the coming years. Most of the guys who helped him were the same ones he’d recruited to the fraternity barely two years earlier, now toiling as suds busters, deliverymen, oven men or bookkeepers. All told, about a dozen fraternity brothers worked for Pops in their (and the establishment’s) salad days, as it were. “I always had the best help because nearly everybody was educated at the University of Illinois,” Monti says. “I’m not sure I might have survived in another environment.”
Although the tiny, 70-person dining room was perpetually packed, the delivery arm of the business took in 60 percent its revenues on Sundays. On the wall, workers charted production records – 125 pizzas in one day, then 150, 175, 200 – upward so quickly that Monti had to buy and install another set of ovens. But even before the records started to be set, Monti knew he’d turned the corner in January 1971 when his bookkeeper told him he’d made a modest profit of a few hundred dollars after barely three months of operation.
Monti opened a pickup and delivery branch on Green Street in 1975 and in 1989 expanded it into a larger establishment. In 2009, he set his sights on a market beyond Campustown when he established a pickup and delivery site, this one managed by his children, Andrea ’99 aces, Rob and Meredith, at Champaign’s Crossings Mall.
‘I created a monster’
Over four decades, during which his pizza has been routinely rated Champaign-Urbana’s best, Monti has gathered countless fond memories. In the early days, he regularly cooked a holiday meal of steak and lobster for his employees (with beer taps free-flowing). He saw numerous employees become so drawn to each other that they married (like Monti himself, who wed waitress Beth Bennett ’70 las in 1973). Lute Olsen would bring his Iowa basketball coaching staff to the restaurant on the eve of Illini games, devouring pizzas with “everything” (except anchovies). Monti closed the place to the public at 11 one evening to feed the Baryshnikov ballet troupe performing at Krannert; shipped pies to the hotel where Ol’ Blue Eyes and his pack were staying; and in 1998 delivered pizzas with sausage, bacon and pepperoni (“the Holy Trinity of pork,” Monti says) to President Clinton and staff on Air Force One at U of I’s Willard Airport. When the plane went off the runway, Pops and his crew theorized that the controls got away from the pilot, who may still have had grease on his fingers.
After more than 40 years in the business, Papa Del, who still manages the Green Street site himself, has no thoughts of stepping aside. “As long as I can rock, I’ll be there,” he says. “I created a monster, but it’s my monster – and I love it.”
As do alumni, who remember the wait that was worth it – 40 to 50 minutes from order to table – and the joy of that freakingly good deep-dish pie.
Fitzpatrick ’72 LAS is the author of “Signals from the Heartland,” featuring several UI researchers and alumni, and has recently completed a novel set in the 1980s Midwest.