A eulogy for Gracie See Pizzeria

Dec 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Next year, Gracie See Pizzeria will close. And that strikes close to home for plenty of folks from the west side.

For me, Gracie See was that restaurant, that place inextricably tied to memories of childhood — well, the good ones, anyway. I have literally been going there for my birthday since I was a very small child. The restaurant was founded the year I was born. I grew up not two blocks from it. It looks every bit like it’s from another era, back when pizza was a treat, not one of the five food groups.

Walking in from the battered blacktop parking lot into the low-slung, wood-paneled, kitsch-clogged interior, I get a hundred memories hitting me smack in the face: My dad smelling of cologne, the Pez dispensers that used to be by the cash register, the old vinyl jukebox with the corny 45 rpm version of “Happy Birthday” on it. I remember one year in the 1970s, when the waitresses were decked out in red-and-white Christmas outfits; the fringe of white fur lining their short skirts even got my attention as a 7-year-old. People dressed better then; heck, even my dad sometimes still wore a tie in those days.

It all ends next month, on Jan. 31, and the Puleo family is offering all comers a piece of it. Everything must go. They are allowing longtime regulars to take down any photos they appear in on the half-wall over the old cashier’s station, and the kitschy decorations and black velvet paintings the old man bought out in California all those years ago are up for sale, labeled with price tags, giving the restaurant a flea market feeling, as customers walk out with the bizarre totems under their arms. Like the wallpaper of childhood, Gracie’s has a strange brew of interior decoration I’ve seen a bazillion times but seldom considered: the variously decorated drop panels in the ceiling, the print of Leighton’s “Princess and Knight,” the sculptured bas reliefs, the ceramic cowboys and Indians, including the cigar store-sized chief in a headdress by the front door. Only when you know it will all be wiped away do you scrutinize it. Now these tchotchkes will go into basement bars and dens all over metro Detroit.

Some pizza places, such as Buddy’s, have spread far and wide. Not Gracie’s. Aside from a second location on Michigan Avenue out in Inkster, the joint relied on the single Detroit location, just across the road from Dearborn, and the regular customers and neighborhood bowling teams that gathered there night after night kept it a going concern. Time have changed, and the neighborhood is now more likely to enjoy pitas instead of pizzas.

Starting in February, you’ll have to trek out to Inkster location, which lacks the lacquered-on charm of the original location, to get those pies. They always seem to be the hottest in town. You have to use the slice server to get it off the pie in one piece, and yet a half-dozen strands of cheese will have to be cut.

The pies on the menu aren’t just tasty, they’re creative. I used to doubt their BLT pizza until I had a slice of that cool, crispy, crunchy delicacy. They’d even put anchovies on your pizza if you asked for it. (Although I do question the wisdom of naming a pizza “Middle East Explosion.”) Also, as a mom-and-pop operation, Gracie’s never quite knuckled under to modern food service practices. They still made their own meatballs, their own sausage. That gnocci with meat sauce remains my favorite.

I had to go one last time this weekend. I met up with my immediate family there and took a table over by the jukebox. (It has been upgraded to an Internet juke, but it was out of order, thankfully. The idea that somebody could have just come in and played Buckcherry or Nickelback would have been disconcerting.) I had my beloved gnocci, this time in marinara. Their antipasto was still a cut above, the salad arriving decked with pepperoncini, wedges of salami and cheese, bits of radicchio, black and green olives, and cherry tomatoes in a simple vinaigrette. (In the old days, it used to come with thick cubes of salami and ham, but in a day and age where you get rolled salami slices fresh from the Ekrich package on your salad, a thick wedge of cured meat is fine and dandy.)

I also loaded up on gear. I got the shirt, in which “Gracie See” is rendered like the title of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I also got a mug, and was able to pick up a ceramic fox sculpture from its decades-long perch in the west window.

I never did get to order Gracie-See’s contribution to competitive eating: the Godfather, a three-pound order of pasta, Italian sausage, meatballs, mushrooms and meat sauce covered in melted cheese. (But I got the T-shirt anyway.)

I also got something much more interesting. See, about a year ago, I had received a cryptic message from Gracie See that there was a “surprise” waiting for me. I finally confirmed what it was: A line drawing of Yours Truly with the questionable caption “Detroit’s Finest Journalist.” It's a nice little bit of overstatement, likely to thank me for reviewing the place a few years ago. Grace gave the artwork to me, and it’s going up in my treasure den, since I figure it’s the next best thing to a Pulitzer Prize. She has no idea who drew it (I’d love to know), but it’s based on an old photo of me online, one in which my lip is almost curled into a sneer. I’ll take it.

One last thing: Plenty of restaurants last for a generation or two, build up a certain amount of individual charm, then disappear. And you see less and less of it. These days, when every other bar is a white box full of flatscreen TVs, where the kitchen churns out food service fare, and you can examine the place minutely and find no quirky decisions at all, perhaps we’re just beginning to appreciate a place that’s the result of a thousand idiosyncratic decisions. If Gracie See had lasted just another decade, surely some hip entrepreneur would have found a way to gussy it up for a younger clientele delighted by the quirky and kitschy. That would have been terrific.

Unfortunately, time waits for no one. Chances are that by the time my 47th birthday rolls around, Gracie’s will have been flattened, replaced by some brighter eatery with a revamped parking lot and a building clad in EIFS.

Still, almost 47 years is a darn good run. Cheers to Grace and the family for all the happy memories they helped create over the years. Thanks for all the pizza, the pasta, and the waiters who call you hon’ and remembered you year after year.