They came from the worlds of sports, politics and education. Former Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell was there. So was former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel, who just turned 85. University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan paid his respects, as did athletic director Debbie Yow. The institution that was being honored last month wasn't a museum or an opera house, but a local treasure just as important: Ledo's Restaurant in Adelphi, which is celebrating 50 years in business.
On Oct. 3, 1955, a tobacco farmer named Bob Beall and a young sheriff's department employee, Tommy Marcos, opened Ledo's in a strip mall on two-lane University Boulevard, a half mile west of the College Park campus. (Beall left Ledo's in 1958 to open the Fireside Inn, another local landmark.) When University Boulevard was closed for widening, business was so bad at Ledo's that workers emptied nickels from the pinball machines each night just to keep the lights on. Today, Ledo's pizza addicts around the country owe a huge debt to those pinball machines.
Today Ledo's is known throughout the region and along much of the East Coast for its distinctive, square pizzas. ("We're square 'cause we don't cut corners.") The square pizza was born of necessity, not design. Ledo's couldn't afford the round trays promoted by the pizza industry, which gave the appearance of more pizza, while offering 40 percent less. Ledo's served pizza on cookie trays and, later, on the cafeteria trays it still uses today. Its dough maker was not an expensive machine but a guy with arms like Hulk Hogan's.
Ledo's pizza was born by accident. One night, the regular chef was off, and Ledo's had a chef from Jimmy Comber's, a local nightclub. The substitute chef started experimenting with sauces and cheeses. The rest is pizza history.
Ledo's caught on with the sports crowd first. Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas hung out there along with lots of Washington Senators and New York Yankees. Driesell would bring his players in on game day to bulk up on pasta and would return triumphantly after the final buzzer with his famous "V" for victory. The place would go wild. DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten celebrated most of his 1,274 victories at Ledo's and proposed to his wife, Cathy, there. The political crowd soon followed, led by former Prince George's County executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., who made the Ledo's backroom his political backroom.
Ledo's never advertised except in church bulletins, but its pizza became famous by word of mouth. Frank Sinatra ordered Ledo's takeout when he was in town. So have Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.
A Ledo pizza has a flaky, thin crust, almost like pie dough. The tomato sauce is the slightest bit sweet. Instead of mozzarella, the cheese is smoked provolone made from whole milk. The dough is kneaded by hand, and the sauce is made fresh daily. Not everyone likes Ledo's pizza, but you discover quickly that these people are from New York and New Jersey, so their pizza opinions really don't count.
In 1989 Ledo's began franchising. Ledo Pizza Systems did more than $50 million in business last year, and it's now the 26th-largest pizza chain in the country with 71 restaurants from Pennsylvania to Florida (but none in New York or New Jersey).
The franchises are driven by a Ledo's diaspora, people up and down the East Coast who grew up in Maryland or went to school here and whose taste buds never forgot.
Meanwhile, the original Ledo's, run by Marcos's sons, Jimmy and Tommy Jr., keeps churning. Each month, it consumes 5,000 pounds of flour and 10,000 pounds of provolone cheese. Ledo's makes 90 quarts of fresh tomato sauce each day. The line still stretches out the door on Friday nights.
Today, most restaurants are impersonal and impermanent. The people, locations, decor and menus seem selected by some corporate marketer. Few become cultural institutions, part of our psyche, our biography and our collective taste buds. The original Ledo's is different. The booths, the waitresses, the pictures and, most of all, the pizza, remain unchanged. Someone who graduated from the University of Maryland 25 years ago who returns to College Park will find nearly everything changed -- except Ledo's.
People say Ledo's has character. What they really mean is that Tom Marcos has character. He is the Cal Ripken of restaurateurs. Marcos, who turns 81 next week, still works six days a week. He shows up at 6:30 a.m. and leaves at 3:15, has dinner with his family and returns at 7:15 to work until past midnight. His consistency is the reason we still have his pizza.
After 50 years, Ledo's is a staple of Maryland life, bringing together sports, politics, education and incredible pizza. Sociologists say that one way to measure an institution's importance to a community is to try imagining life without it.
Maryland without Ledo's? Unthinkable.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is email@example.com.