ILLINOIS

It is not in the nature of small towns to make claims, grandiose or otherwise, about the quality of their drinking establishments, and so it is with Bloomington.

One is more likely to hear that the late Adlai E. Steveson called this home, that Lincoln's "lost speech" was delivered here, that there are two universities, here that McLean Stevenson, the actor, and George Lincoln Rockwell, the Nazi, were born here, that Beer Nuts were created here, that State Farm Insurance started here and stayed.

All of which is true, but rather too bad, for it ignores one of the most congenial bars ever founded, which has operated here at the corner of Market and East for 44 years.

The temperance crowd might blanch, but like similar places in scores of towns, the Lucca Grill is an unheralded asset that probably says more about mid-American neighborliness and bonhomie than a bushel of Chamber of Commerce brochures.

A bar, after all isn't much more than a reflection of its patrons and proprietors. The Lucca is a sort of community family room. Half of its charm is the clientele; the other half, its owners, C. F. (Tot) Baldini and his brother, John.

In an era of plastic and cushions, the Lucca is decidedly old-timely, with austere furniture and a vast mahogany bar, sports pennants and political mementos.

Lawyers and bricklayers rub elbows at the bar, talking sports or politics, oblivious to the social strictures that keep them apart outside. Rarely does a drunk stagger out of the place. In its long history, the Lucca has had only a couple of fistfights.

Barbershop singers regularly convene for music at the Lucca after their rehearsals. Entire families show up, either to dine in the second-floor restaurant or to have beer with their pizza. The Baldinis unflinchingly serve spumoni ice cream at the bar.

And the pizza! The Baldinis had a debate before they introduced pizza to central Illinois in 1953. Tot, as wrong about this as he is about the Chicago Cubs, said pizza was a fad tht would pass.

They bought an oven anyway and proceeded to confect pizzas that have few equals anywhere. As far as is known, Calvin Trillin never stopped here for pizza, which is his loss, Ditto Craig Claiborne and the spaghetti.

Patrons of the Lucca are a little hang-dog these days. In a few months. Tot, 61, is going to hang up his apron and retire. John, 63, plans to quit in two years, then turn it over to his son-in-law.

The grill was started in 1936 by Fred and John Baldini, immigrant brothers who named the place after their hometown in northern Italy. Fred's sons, Tot and John, carried on in the family tradition.

When the Lucca celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1976, a committee of talented and devoted customers produced a booklet to commemorate the event.

Bill (Ace) Adams, an avuncular beer-drinker who used to write and edit stories at the Daily Pantagraph, the local paper, wrote that the Lucca, very simply, is "the world's greatest bar," a claim for which there is neither proof nor contradiction.

An anniversary history of a bar is unusual enough to be an event in itself. Adams' research turned out a gem of Americana, with stories about great debates, celebrated visitors and student-customers who survived to become successful citizens.

"I've often wondered if it would be the same if somebody bought the place. I don't think it would and that's because Tot and John give it its special flavor," Adams said.

John Baldini has been McLean County Democratic chairman for many years in a county that rarely elects Democrats. He will ignore business to talk politics.

Tot Baldini begins snapping when John ignores the customers.Or he'll say something like, "Well, I see you didn't wash any glasses again today" when he comes on duty.

The Lucca is this kind of place: Ace Adams once thirsted for a brew, but couldn't break into John's conversation with a small-time politician. Adams left, went down the street to a pay phone, called for John and ordered a draft beer.

By the time he got back, the beer was waiting.