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Manny’s Pizza: Community Landmark Lost in Fire

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Awake at the Whisk: Manny’s Pizza: Community Landmark Lost in Fire

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Manny’s Pizza: Community Landmark Lost in Fire

Eight fire crews battle flames today at Manny's Pizza.
Photo by Linda Yenney

Early this morning, a 36-year-old tradition in my home town of Savanna, Illinois was gutted by fire. Beloved Manny’s Pizza, a Main Street focal point in this small town along the Mississippi River, was consumed by flames as firefighters from eight stations across rural Illinois and Iowa battled the tragic fire.

Savanna, Illinois is no typical small town (population 3,188). In a state where the median household income is $56,235 and where 10.7% of residents live below the poverty level, Savanna’s median income is $32,262 and almost 17% of the population lives below the poverty line.  The nearest city with a population over 50,000 is a full 40 minutes away. There are four grocery stores and 11 full-service restaurants in the entire county. This is a town where people rely on one another.

Savanna is also a fairly crime-free and trusting community where people leave their houses and car doors unlocked. If you get into trouble or do something good, you can be sure that everyone will know about it by the next day. The picturesque town is nestled in the hills behind towering bluffs that flank the wide and majestic Mississippi River. When I grew up there, extracurricular activities included boat trips and water skiing on the river, hiking in the tree-filled forests of the Mississippi Palisades State Park, reading books borrowed from the public library (where my mom worked), attending high school sports events, and eating Manny’s Pizza.

Suffice it to say, like the town itself, Manny’s Pizza is not your run-of-the-mill pizza joint. A visit there was always about far more than eating (although that was important, too). Manny’s was where the community gathered—for nearly four decades running until this morning’s terrible blaze. Birthdays, weddings, basketball game victories, tracks records, good report card grades, and the homecomings of former Savanna residents were all celebrated here.

A firefighter rescues historic memorabilia.
Photo by Lucas DeSpain
When most children grow up and return home, they might return to the houses and the families of their youth. In Savanna, we also returned to Manny’s. No visit home was complete without it. And like Cheers, it was a place where everybody knew your name. Whether you had been gone for 2 years or 10, someone dining or enjoying a beer at Manny’s was sure to recognize you and say hello.

Manny’s was also the place the community came together in times of tragedy. This past spring, my heart and joy, my fairy god sister, Rachel, passed away. The night of her wake, Manny’s Pizza was the place where the community informally assembled. Former Savanna folks traveled from California, Colorado, Chicago, and the like to drink to Rachel’s memory and comfort our loss with the familiar taste of our hometown pizza. In pictures framed on the walls, Rachel smiled down at us, wearing her volleyball uniform and posing with her high school team. Old school uniforms hung on the walls. Manny’s held Rachel’s—and Savanna’s—history like a grandmother proudly displays her family memorabilia.

Home for a visit, I enjoy the Manny's Pizza ritual with
my dad and his wife.
And of course, Manny’s pizza was without competition (and still is—they thankfully have a few other locations in the county now serving their pizza. Although none have the history or the memories of the Savanna location). An entire large cheese pizza there cost a mere $10. Served on a crisp, wafer-thin crust, the cheese had a way of melding as one with the light layer of sauce, forming a chewy, juicy top that was in perfect texture balance with the crust. I have eaten my fair share of pizzas in cities from Chicago to San Francisco, and I have never found a pie quite like this one. It simply can’t be replicated.

So, this morning when news arrived that Manny’s Pizza was on fire, the Savanna community (scattered as we are across the nation as folks have grown up and moved away from home) sent a flurry of text messages and Facebook posts about the news. This is not the loss of the mere bricks and mortar of a building. We know that buildings can be rebuilt (and according to one news story, owner Manny Castro intends to do just that). This is the loss of a space that contained all our many shared memories.

Hearts go out to the Castro family—owners of this irreplaceable community landmark. 

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I'm sorry to hear about this, but you wrote about it beautifully, it is easy to see all that it represented for you. Well done.

Jessica--thank you for your kind words. And thanks for reading!
Amber you did such a great job of putting into words what everyone of us feels right now about the loss of such an awesome landmark, not to mention some mouthwatering pizza and tacos. You are right there are two more places to go, but it will never replace the good times and camadarie of Mannys in Savanna.
Wow loss of words to thank you for writing this Manuel (Manny) himself will enjoy reading this. He is my Father-in-law and I'll give him a copy of this. Thank you for your kind words
Great words, Amber. Its a sad story. You are right, Manny's was one of the places that made Savanna home. I was looking forward to eating there with my family after being gone for a year out of the country. I guess it will have to wait until Manny's part 2. Here's to memories!
It will be missed but lucky for us we still have fulton and freeport but its not the same!!
Gonna be missed! My sisters and I got to go there when we made the honor roll...we turned it into a family tradition and drive an hour to treat my daughters Jenna and Hannah when they do the same! Steve Law
It's always heartbreaking to see such a rich history destroyed. Last spring, the hot dog joint I went to with my dad as a kid blew up because of a gas leak the morning of its 75th anniversary. Like with Manny's, the response from the community was immediate, and without it, the owners might not have reopened. It's good to know that while the physical aspect - the place, the memorabilia - is gone, the community that met there is stronger than ever.
Great article! We now live a little over an hour from Savanna. Our son Evan at his first day in class was asked by his teacher also named Evan who made the world's best pizza. Our son answered Manny's. That was the right answer! Your dad was my wrestling and football coach and I know if you show him his note he will know everyone mentioned in this!
Thanks to everyone from Savanna for reading this and for sharing it. I'm very humbled that these words have been passed along. Miss you all! Healing thoughts to Manny and family!

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