By Maryellen Burns
The story the Sacramento Bee wrote for Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson’s obituary was that in 1954, he and Ed Plummer – a college friend and fishing buddy – each put in $850 and rented a defunct mom-and-pop grocery store at 57th and J streets to open a neighborhood draft beer place.
They later added pizza, using a recipe Johnson knew from his childhood, some of which he spent serving as a recipe interpreter between Italian housewives and his mother, who was Swedish.
That might be the official story, but I much prefer the one I was told by Dr. Patrick Edward Melarkey. He was nearing 80 and wanted to share some of his stories for an oral history or possibly a book.
We had initially met working on the committee to save the Alhambra Theater and the George McGovern presidential election campaign in 1972. He was Chair of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and had an unsuccessful run as Mayor. I worked on his campaigns, not just out of deep respect for his political leanings but because of my fondness for him while hanging out at his restaurant and nightclub, Melarkey’s Place, at 1517 Broadway, across the street from Joe Marty’s bar and El Chico’s restaurant. Later he became a neighbor. Much later, my dentist.
To call Pat’s language crusty is an understatement. I’ve left out some of the more colorful language here, and his descriptions about Joe Marty and his racism and misogyny, but otherwise this is his story word for word.
“Eleanor Lineburger was the cook at Joe Marty’s for years. She was raised right across the street from me. If she was alive, she’d tell you the same story. Shakey got thrown out of Sacramento Junior College. He had a routine. He always played a Jazz Ragtime Piano. And then he teamed up with a friend of his who was raised around the corner here, too. A very prominent attorney, who is now dead. Shakey is dead too. And they had this routine where Shakey would dress in this white suit, and his friend would dress in a long black dress with a white mop. And they would start singing like Tom Lehrer and they would make fun of everybody. So, they would sing at the Junior College and they made so much fun of the Dean that he threw them both out of school. Shakey got the job at Joe Marty’s because his father was a very prominent attorney, he got a job as a waiter. Well, El Chico actually, but we all just called it Joe Marty’s. Eleanor always made this pizza which had been made by the Italians for centuries. Shakey would go back and watch her make it. He had a little notebook that he kept in his shirt pocket and a little pencil and wrote down all the ingredients. Then he would watch how she put it together. The dough was made in a big Hobart mixer, using a dough hook. Then she’d knead it a little bit more by hand, cut it into balls the size of your fist. She’d dust a little flour over each one and then put it into the refrigerator for 24 hours or so. She’d take them out and roll them when they were still cold. No hand-tossing.
The sauce was just a mixture of tomatoes and herbs. Fresh in season and big cans in the winter. Mozzarella cheese, parmesan, pepperoni, ground beef, Italian sausage, salami, mushrooms and black olives or a veggie option — onions, mushrooms, olives, green peppers, tomatoes put on top. Then it was baked at the highest heat in the oven. Only the World War vets, or little kids ordered it with plain cheese and a little tomato sauce, Neapolitan style.
Later, when she got swamped, he would offer to go in and make the pizza with her. It took him a while, because she had a special way of feeling when the dough was ready, how much extra to knead it after it came out of the mixer. He did that for a little over a year and then he and Ed Plummer, went off to start their place. They intended to do pizza from the very beginning. They wanted a place large enough to host Dixie Land Jazz bands and to play their own music. They picked the spot near Sac State because it was so close to students. They thought from the beginning that they could put a pizza parlor in other college towns. They were keen businessmen. They had a plan.
The parlor opened on the weekend, but the pizza ovens hadn’t arrived yet, so they only served beer. He took the profits from the beer sales and bought ingredients for the pizza the following Monday. The dough used a blend of white flour and Tortilla Flour, a little yeast, salt, water and Crisco. Eleanor always claimed that there was no yeast in her dough. That might have been
the only change that Shakey made to her recipe. He didn’t own the place for very long. 13 years or so before he sold the business for 4 million. They might have called it Shakey’s Pizza but the recipe for the sauce was different. They used commercial sauce and sent it out in packets. Nothing was done in house anymore.
I never spent time in the kitchens, really, we always had a chef or cooks, but I didn’t attempt Eleanor’s pizza (which was the best ever). Our ovens just weren’t hot enough.”
Pat didn’t remember the measurements but Eleanor’s niece provided me with the following recipes:
12 ounces all-purpose flour, sifted
4 ounces Quaker Harina Preparada Tortilla Flour, sifted
6 ½ ounces water, lukewarm
½ tablespoon sugar
½ tablespoon instant dry yeast
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Crisco Shortening, room temperature
Handful Cornmeal Four, for rolling out dough
1. Combine Water & Sugar add Yeast and proof 5 minutes. Add mixture into Mixer.
2. Add remaining ingredients and mix using Dough Hook to form Dough Ball.
3. Place Dough in container twice the size of Dough Ball and let rise several times, punching down dough in between rises.
4. Divide Dough in half form balls and wrap with cellophane. Refrigerate until ready to use.
5. Roll out to desired size on Cornmeal Flour, add sauce, toppings, etc…
6. Bake at 450° on hot Pizza Stone for 6-8min or desired doneness.
Pizza Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 can (28-ounce) crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 basil leaves, finely chopped (or 1 tablespoon dried basil)
In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and onion, and sauté until transparent, three to five minutes. Add tomatoes, sugar, marjoram, salt and basil leaves. Reduce heat slightly, and simmer, stirring frequently, until thick, 25 to 30 minutes. Makes about two cups. Use as directed below.
For this recipe, if you can’t find fresh mozzarella, substitute the best regular mozzarella you can find.
Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough
The key to real Neapolitan style pizza is the use of a good durum wheat pizza flour. Our local pizza parlors used commercial flours and yeast and made the dough in a large Hobart stand mixer that made 60 quarts at a time. The key was to let the dough to proof in the fridge for at least 24 hours.
This is El Chico’s classic Italian pizza dough recipe. Soon, I’ll share the story of El Chico restaurant, which had two locations. The one on Broadway and the other on Freeport Blvd.
I buy the flour from Corti Brothers or online. That is, when I make it. It is much easier to purchase pre-made dough at Taylor’s Market or Trader Joe’s.
4 cups Italian 00 flour if you can find it (all-purpose flour also works)
3 teaspoons salt
2½ teaspoons instant yeast
2 cups tap water
Place ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix until there is no flour left in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to proof on the counter for 12 hours. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and portion into three balls. Put dough balls into plastic bags or containers and allow to proof in the fridge for 24 hours. This is simple and takes time, but the flavor is incredible!
Roll out to desired thinness. Place all the dry ingredients on the pizza first and then drizzle the tomato sauce on top. Tomato sauce on the bottom makes for a soggy pizza.