.A Slice of San Jose History on Almaden Road

Remembering George Kukar’s fight against City Hall

The ghost of late restaurant critic Joe Izzo walked me from House of Pizza to Sam’s Log Cabin, making Almaden Road a much better place.

The history of House of Pizza should be required reading for every politician in this whole town, now and forever. The story should be issued to every City Hall employee, especially those in the planning department.

To make a long story short, in 1950, before we had convention centers and museums, back when San Jose’s population was about 60,000, and back when Auzerais still went all the way through to Market Street, the legendary George Kukar opened House of Pizza at 395 Almaden. Twenty years later, the city built a new library on San Carlos, which included a scheme to widen Almaden Avenue right through House of Pizza, so the restaurant was moved 75 feet to accommodate the scheme. Then in the early 1980s, the city needed a new convention center, which required wiping out the whole neighborhood south of San Carlos. In one of the most heroic battles in San Jose history, Kukar fought the whole process for years and eventually gobbled up a new location a few blocks down, but not without compensation from the city. That location, at 527 Almaden, is where the current House of Pizza still stands.

Inside the restaurant nowadays, I can’t even remember what’s changed over the decades and what hasn’t. There’s an autographed Evel Knievel poster—“I’d die for this pizza,” it says—right next to a “Ross Perot for President” sign.

Up by the register, one sees two Mercury News restaurant reviews that Joe Izzo wrote, one in 1983 and the other in 1988. Each is blown up to poster size, right next to the famous Farrah Fawcett poster from the previous decade. 

At that point, I had no choice but to devote the rest of my column to Joe Izzo because not only was he a friend, he was an institution in South Bay food writing, for both the Merc and Metro. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 61.

Izzo was perhaps the first interesting food critic the South Bay ever had. In the late ’70s, he co-wrote A Forkful of San Jose, essentially the first restaurant guide ever published about this town. You can still find it at garage sales around Naglee Park.

I did not come to know Joe until many years later, in 2001, when I read his review of Sam’s Log Cabin, another storied San Jose establishment. I did not care about San Jose at all until I started writing about it—pretty much around that same time, 2001—and I recall that particular review being an immediate inspiration, especially the way Izzo weaved old-timey history with food, stories, characters, buildings and the rest. He was a fabulous writer.

In this case, his story just happened to be about Sam’s Log Cabin, which originally opened on Willow Street in 1933, back when the neighborhood was known as Goosetown and filled with Italian immigrants. In that story, Izzo bantered about the “mind-boggling festoon of memorabilia dating way back to the beginning” and the “old wooden rooms with curios and trinkets.” Pictures of old-school wrestlers and sports figures like Joe DiMaggio looked down at the timbered quarters from their picture frames. In a glass case was the original off-sale liquor license bought for $25 by then owner Sam Gibino, Sr.

With memories of that story in my head, I then left House of Pizza and walked down Almaden to Willow, before hanging a right to gaze at what used to be Sam’s Log Cabin. This stretch of Almaden is one of the oldest ’hoods in San Jose. Ghosts of long-gone dive bars make themselves apparent.

Sam’s Log Cabin finally closed in 2005, yet thanks to the heroes of Pejack Films, we can at least watch a YouTube video from the final years, including fabulous footage of Joannie, the silver-haired host, pointing to Joe Izzo’s 2001 Metro review on the wall. Talk about ghosts.

Even though Sam’s Log Cabin is long gone, House of Pizza still lives on. I owe it to Joe Izzo to continue haunting the landscape. And that I will do.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Grew up in that neighborhood 1961-1981, lived down the alley from the Famous ” 10 burgers for a buck”Burger Bar. Delivered the SJ Merc with bounderies of Lick ave on the west First st on the east W Virginia on the north and Alma on the south. I delivered to Sam’s and a few other liqour establishments Bruni’s Tap Room on First st,Stella’s on Willow. My Uncles Lou and Joe Guerra had Guerra sporting goods selling Guns and liquor out of the same store next to the 5 spot for years. Thank you for jogging my memories of the good old days in Goosetown!

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  2. My father R J Seifert work with George Kukar up on the hill the big Kaiser perm ,we watch all the movies my dad loved George’s pizza, we had a house right behind the last move on Almaden I lived there for 18th years . My dad Owen the house all his lives 101 . My sister and I sold the house two year ago. I remember Sam log Cabin!

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  3. Joe Izzo was also a teacher at a school for F… Ups like myself. It was called Moorpark . It was located behind Valley medical center. Kids from All over the city who loved in group homes or on pprobation went to that school. This was 1984.Jow was the koolest laid back dude ever. He loved being Italian . He would tease us when we messed up never judged or criticized. In fact he would make fun of us for not being slick enough not to get busted . He would lift up his hand and bunch his fingers like ol school Italians would do scrunch his face and sat “wats a Matta you.” Joe was there for everyone when a fellow student was killed over the weekend. He let us talk about it bought us lunch and gave us space to process . Joe Izzo was like a Homeboy with an education. He could relate to anybody. I will never forget him and the humane way he always treated us with.. Thank you for honoring someone very special to my personal history. By the way I am from that Barrio and the next block over on Willow St. I was able to get the 1st Headquarters for LOWRIDER Magazine historical Landmarks status with the City of San Jose. It’s located at 282 Willow St. I took it thru Historical Landmarks commission on November 2 2022

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