Good food makes for good memories
Aside from the ongoing foolishness that is Facebook and the like, few subjects stir up as much regional devotion as BBQ, chili and pizza. And it’s no wonder: Comfort foods we grew up with (and, in many cases, the restaurants that served them) are woven into the fabric of our lives. In the pizza arena, any one person’s favorite – whether it’s Chicago, St. Louis, Neapolitan, New York or Detroit styles, or thin-as-air white pizza, or cooked in a deck oven, on a conveyor or bubbling next to a blazing wood fire – is the very best in the world.
Those of us who grew up in the Washington, D.C./Maryland suburbs still remember the original Ledo’s Restaurant in Adelphi, Md. (literally within waddling distance of the University of Maryland in College Park). Starting in 1955, founder Bob Beall and family provided Montgomery and Prince George’s County residents – not to mention legions of UM students - with many beer-soaked, pepperoni-filled nights around those square or rectangular pies with a pastry-like crust. As an undergraduate, I remember late evenings with friends after lab classes as I plotted how to scarf up the corner slices without appearing overly piggy. Piggy or not, many of us who migrated here from Maryland relive those memories just down the road at 127th Street bayside in Ocean City. The original Ledo’s slogan, “We don’t cut corners,” still applies even today.
The Rehoboth Beach area did have its share of Ledo’s rectangularity. In the ‘80s, former Summer House owners Sue and Richard Krick opened the first area Ledo’s in Dewey Beach. It must have been a challenge, given Dewey’s off-season ghost town ambience back then. In 2011, local guy Marty McDonnell gave the Ledo’s concept another try in what is now the Crust & Craft space in Midway Galleria. Marty grew up in Springfield, Va., and he told me that wherever he lived, a Ledo’s Pizza franchise followed (or maybe it was the other way around). He even dated a woman who worked for Ledo’s corporate offices. In deference to what fate obviously had in store, Marty brought those four-sided pies to Rehoboth Beach. Contrasting the admittedly tepid Delaware response to the pies with the comparatively busy Ocean City Ledo’s, I suspect that much of that can be attributed to brand recognition – note my “regional devotion” observation above.
All this might never have happened had it not been for Major League outfielder, manager and coach, Jim Lemon. Way back when, the celebrity lent his name to a steakhouse near University of Maryland College Park. But as his career fizzled, so did the cachet of the sports-centered eatery. After a few years, the place was resurrected as the Fireside Inn, and the owners struck a deal with the Beall family and partners to serve Ledo’s pizza to their customers. The idea caught on. One thing led to another, and currently there are more than 100 pizzerias in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States that refuse to cut corners.
Ledo’s corporate works hand in hand with its franchisees to ensure that the product is exactly what people remember. After all, without the brand recognition, and identifiable look and recipe, it’s just another pizza joint. I’m a regular visitor to the Ocean City Ledo’s, and given the number of Marylanders who frequent the resort, I don’t believe the restaurant would have survived without dishing up the expected taste and experience that brings back memories for so many.
As an interesting aside, when Marty still had the Rehoboth Ledo’s, he introduced me to Len and Deb, two restaurant regulars who attributed their relationship directly to square pizza. Both worked their way through college at the original Ledo’s; Len worked as a bartender and Deb as a hostess. The manager at the time had a strict rule against fraternizing among servers and bartenders. Long story short, the couple fraternized themselves right out of their jobs and into a long and happy marriage. And all’s well that ends well: They stayed close friends with that very same Ledo’s manager for many years until his passing.
I’ve written a number of times about “taste memory.” Well, memories are memories, and when people fall in love, they tend to fall in love not just with one another, but also with the place where they first met. Longtime lovers display wistful smiles when they recall the restaurants they frequented and the meals they shared. Such is the union of food, love ... and memories.
Bob Yesbek writes and talks beach eats nonstop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.