Summer days at Miller Beach meant sandy feet, frazzled hair and the glow of too much sun and water. Winter walks were all layers of heavy sweaters and jackets, scarves and gloves but no matter the season or the weather, we always had a yen to eat at one of the restaurants within walking distance of the water.
It was easy to make our way up the pathway leading towards the paved road to where Shelby Street intersected with Locust. Here was The Beach Café for burgers and French fries or in the evening, before we piled into the car to head home, their lake perch lightly dusted with flour and sautéed in butter and prime rib.
But if steak, pizza and Italian beef sandwiches were what we had in mind, my friends and I would head across the street to the Flamingo or walk further west along the beach at the end of Lake Street for pizza and Italian sausage sandwiches with cheese at the curiously named Ono’s.
That was decades ago and though much in the world has changed, for those looking for a little history and a lot of great food, those three restaurants are still around and all more than a half century old.
“It started as a beach store in the 1930s,” said Aga Nikolaj who with her husband Marash bought and renovated the café about two years ago. “Then in the 1940s it became Smitty’s Café after the owners Ernest and Ida Smith. “
In 1962, Joe Hayduk and Joe Kovalik bought the restaurant and would run it for the next 26 years.
“They had great fried perch and excellent tartar sauce,” said Terry Ihnat who worked as a bus boy there in 1964. “Joyce Dial, who had come here as a war bride from Wales, the head waitress, was a wonderful lady. One of my memories of her is when I started and she told me ‘don't call me Mrs. Dial, it's Joyce, and no need to say excuse me, just say, coming through.’"
Indeed, historian James Lane, a retired Indiana University Northwest history professor, remembers people lined outside of The Beach Café on Friday nights waiting for the perch dinners.
“My Uncle Joe would have the priests over on the Sunday after the mass after Lent,” said Michael Hayduk, a dentist in Valparaiso who used to work for his uncle and aunt, Joe and Josie Hayduk. “It was a big blow-out because these guys had given up alcohol and eating meat for Lent.”
Miller Beach realtor Gene Ayres remembers walking into The Beach Café with his dad.
“He would tell them that they were there for Grandma’s dressing,” he said. “It was a special salad dressing that they had there.”
Josie Hayduk who now lives in Valparaiso (the couple used to live over the restaurant) said that people often ask her for the old recipes.
“I once got a letter from Gourmet magazine wanting the recipe for Grandma Allen’s dressing,” she said. “People often ask me for recipes, but to be honest, I never saw a recipe. The cooks made everything from scratch and didn’t write it down.”
Hayduk remembers not only the perch, which was boned and sautéed in butter, as being very popular but also their steaks and smelt.
“We had customers who would do anything for the two Joes,” she said. “If they went fishing they’d bring in what they caught like smelts and we’d put them on the menu.”
Some food items weren’t on the menu said Michael Hayduk. But the family, who were Slovak, would offer ethnic dishes like stuffed cabbages when people would have their communions and other events there.
Nikolajs have kept that tradition featuring Eastern European dishes like baklava – thin sheets of strudel dough layered with nuts and honey as well as ćevapi which is ground pork, beef and lamb mixed with seasonings, then shaped like sausages and grilled.
Almost 60 years ago, Josephine Rizzo and her sister Ann Massa opened a little restaurant just off the beach calling it the Beach Box, selling ham sandwiches for 25 cents, hot dogs for 15 cents and charging 10 cents for a cold pop. Nine years later they changed the name to Ono’s & Jo’s, after their brother Ono Penzato and expanding the menu to Italian food including pizza. Rizzo’s son Sam helped out and though he was in his teens he’d already learned to make pizzas from his Uncle Tony Rizzo who owned a restaurant called The Ricochet in Gary.
“In those days you couldn’t open a place without permission from the mob,” said Sam Rizzo who still owns and runs, with his wife Kathy, the original Ono’s & Jo’s.
They were a restaurant family. Josephine and Ann owned Jo and Ann’s Food Shop in Lake Station and the family also owned the Hitching Post which sold hamburgers and hot dogs in Hobart. Uncle Jack Bianco operated the Pine Grill, a tavern in Gary until he was shot by a robber. With all these restaurateurs, Rizzo learned to cook the foods of his Italian ancestors and he still makes his pizza dough and sauce from scratch using recipes belonging to his Grandmothers Penzato and Rizzo.
“They knew how to cook,” said Rizzo. “You gave them a slice of old bread and they’d add garlic and cheese and you’d have something delicious.”
Their signature dish is The Sicilian, one of his grandmother’s recipes calling for Italian sausage, imported hot or mild Italian peppers, four different types of cheese and garlic. Also on the menu are sandwiches like Italian sausage, Italian beef, strombolis and imported ham and cheese, all for take-out or eating outside at the tables in the backyard.
Kathy Rizzo, who grew up in Miller Beach, remembers eating at Ono’s & Jo’s when young. Though she didn’t know how to cook when she and Sam married 32 years ago she quickly learned.
“I taught her everything,” said her husband as she prepared Italian beef sandwiches topped with cheese and accompanied with au jus and a hot spicy giardiniera, for two customers -- Keith Pollard and Bob Starek.
“I’m 58 years old and I’ve had beef sandwiches from around the world,” Pollard said as he watched Kathy Rizzo cook. “And these are the best.”
In 1941, Gus Romeo opened Flamingo Pizza, an Italian restaurant on 42nd and Broadway in Gary and one of the original pizzerias not only in the city but some say the state. Over time, the Flamingo would move several times, first to 120 West 5th Avenue where an old handwritten menu shows that baked lasagna cost $1.25, shrimp cocktail 75 cents, a large cheese pizza would set you back $1.25, Italian beef sandwiches were 30 cents, a pop cost a dime and the high ticket price for filet mignon was $1.75. In the 1960s, the Flamingo moved to 45th Avenue in Glen Park and by the mid 1970s had relocated to Locust Avenue in Miller Beach.
“The sign is still there,” says Christy Simpson, general manager of Flamingo Pizza of Miller noting that though the prices have gone up they still use the recipes from the original Flamingo making their own dough, grinding their cheese and mixing their own burgers.
“Our steaks are hand cut, the lake perch the real McCoy, we make the original house dressing and nothing is frozen,” said owner Willy Lavack.
Four years ago, Lavack expanded the restaurant but tied the new addition with the history of the area, using bricks from the old Dixie Dairy in Gary and the Memorial Auditorium. The restaurant’s tin ceiling came from the old Sears building in downtown Gary.
Ono’s Garlic Toast
2 slices of Italian or French bread
1 clove or more minced garlic (depending on how much garlic you like)
4 tablespoons butter
DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to broil. Butter the top of each side of the bread with two tablespoons butter. Sprinkle minced garlic on top. Place in oven and cook until butter is melted and bread is a light brown, about four to five minutes.
The Beach Café’s Ćevapi
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
1 pounds lean ground beef
1/2 pounds ground lamb
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 onion, finely chopped
4 pita bread or 4 white bread or 4 rolls
DIRECTIONS: In a large bowl, combine the ground pork, ground beef, ground lamb and egg white. Add the garlic, salt, baking soda, black pepper, cayenne pepper and paprika. Mix well using your hands. Form into finger length sausages about 3/4 inch thick. Arrange on a plate. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for one hour to one day, to let the flavors settle and the mixture become firm. Preheat the grill, medium-low heat. Lightly oil the grilling surface. Grill ćevapi until cooked through, turning as needed. The grilling usually takes about 30 minutes. Serve in rolls or as is.
Source: Beach Cafe
Josie Hayduk shared her recollection of the original perch recipe from the Beach Café circa 1960s.
1 pound perch filets
3/4 cup finely ground cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper
DIRECTIONS: Mix cornmeal, flour and seasonings. Melt butter in a large skillet. Dip perch into cornmeal mixture, covering both sides. Sauté in butter until golden brown on both sides.