Mario’s Pizza restored neon recently joined the growing list of Tucson Historic Landmark Signs. The biomorphic shape, blinking lights and glowing tubes are not only a classic example of mid-century industrial art but combine to to create an urban artifact that is embedded with the story of immigrant entrepreneurship, twentieth century American-Italian cuisine and post-WWII design.
The restaurant just south of the intersection of Fort Lowell Road and First Avenue originally opened on May 21, 1958 as the second location of Marco’s Pizza (a local chain) named for owner Marco Perfetto. Census records show that Perfetto was born “about 1898” in Italy. He immigrated to Detroit before moving to Tucson for the health of his wife Anna. In 1953 Perfetto bought his first restaurant, the popular Pinky’s Drive-In at 3424 E. Speedway, and changed the name to “Marco’s Restaurant”. He completely remodeled the building and changed the menu to classic American-Italian fare. By 1958, Marco and Anna, hoping to retire, encouraged their sons to take over and expand the family business. The Perfetto’s opened additional locations across Tucson. Gino would run Marco’s on North 1st Avenue and Rudy would run Marco’s at 5601 E. 22nd Street. In 1964 the chain expanded one last time, opening a small location at 3714 S. 6th Avenue.
The building on North 1st was located in a growing suburban node with notable neighbors including the new Amphi Plaza Shopping Center, Goodman’s Market, and Spring’s Hardware. Next to Marco’s was the 1st Avenue Beverage Depot, owned and operated by noted hunter and marksman Louis Zadrow of the “Zadro Cup” shooting championship.
The Mario’s Pizza building which remains intact today is an example of vernacular modernist commercial architecture, styled to suit its “suburban” location on the northern edge of 1950’s Tucson. The slope of the roof combines with the angled façade to create an expressive motif that is reminiscent of “Googie”. Googie style is a form of futuristic commercial architecture, named after a Los Angeles coffee shop designed by John Lautner. Perfetto family members believe that the building was designed by son Gino, a degreed engineer.
The sign’s striking asymmetrical design complements the architecture of the building without mimicking it. Although there is no record of who designed and built the Marco’s sign, Acme Neon, one of Tucson’s oldest and largest neon sign companies was located just two blocks north at 3400 N. 1st Avenue. The sign’s construction is typical of the late 1950s with single-tube neon and tiny incandescent “chasing lights” attached to several hand-painted sheet metal cabinet components. The sign design is an excellent example of the transition away from the fanciful, illustrative neon sign designs of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, like that of Caruso’s “spaghetti chef” on 4th Avenue. The overall shape is triangular, formed of several elements: at the top, a dog-bone shape softens the angularity of the design and showcases the business name rendered in a hand-drawn cursive font and neon. Below that is a jumble of different size rectangles containing menu items in neon block capital letters. The typography, neon, and chasing lights were each deliberately chosen to catch the eye of passing motorists, and the sign pole itself leans daringly out toward the road. By the 1970’s, signs would become more conservative, using white fluorescent backlit plastic panels instead of colorful gas lit tubes.
For immigrants, restaurant ownership featuring their heritage cuisines was a common way to “live the American dream”. In the mid 1950’s there were nearly a dozen first-generation, immigrant-owned Italian restaurants in Tucson including: Caruso’s (Zagona family) [would later open Vince’s], Fazio’s (Fazio family), Italian Village (Leonardi family), La Cucina (Pavone family) [would later open Pavone’s], Lil John’s (Giuffre family) [would later open The Roman Villa], Mama Luisa’s La Cantina (Casadei family), Mazzola’s (Mazzola family), Original Restaurant (Pezzullo family), Procaccino’s (Procaccino family), and Vito’s (Vito family).
These Italian restaurants, often remembered for their red and white checkered tablecloths and dripping candles have become exceedingly rare. They are an endangered species. Today only 3 of these restaurants survive.
One explanation for the decline of independent Italian restaurants was the rise of the national chains, and the homogenization which accompanied this trend. The first chain to arrive in Tucson was Shakey’s in 1964. Its “ye olde public house” was randomly de-Italianized, featuring “black Bavarian beer”, honky-tonk, ragtime, banjo and piano music nightly. Village Inn Pizza Parlor arrived the following year in 1965, sporting British Colonial motifs, housed in rustic A-frame buildings. Pizza Hut joined the fray in 1967. Another threat to business like Marco’s was the invention of the frozen pizza. In 1954 the “Yankee Doodle pizza”, debuted in magazines as an A&P sponsored recipe. The so called “pizza” was made with canned baked beans poured over a (previously frozen) biscuit dough crust. The pizza proved popular enough to be merchandised, and by the 1960’s, Yankee Doodle pizzas were sold in Tucson P&S Marts and Food Giant stores for less than 50 cents each.
In this competitive environment some restaurateurs like the Perfetto family managed to expand by embracing new market trends like Marco’s “call-and-dine” (carry-out). At the height of Marco’s popularity, 3 generations and at least 9 family members could be found working behind the counter.
By 1979, the family sold the last remaining Marco’s on 1st Avenue, and the name was changed with just a simple modification of the letter “C” on the sign to become Mario’s. Both the building and their restored sign have endured for 60 years, and now serve as a thriving, functional reminder of a significant time in sign design and economic history of Tucson.
If you love legacy places like Mario’s the best way to support their survival stop in for a slice of pizza.
If you know of a lost Tucson neon sign or a project we should highlight – contact us at email@example.com.