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.