Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Pizza Was Great at Babe's--And So Was the Guy Who Ran the Place

The first pizza I ever bought in Des Moines was at Babe’s.

I was in town to interview for a job and, when I asked the people who were interviewing me where I should go to get something to eat, they all said, “Babe’s.”

The pizza I had at Babe’s 46 years ago was delicious then, and the pizzas I had many times afterward at the distinctive downtown restaurant were delicious.

Certainly the pizza we enjoyed there the night before our first child was born was one I’ll always remember.

But the sausage-and-mushroom or cheese-and-green-onion pizzas weren’t what made Babe’s restaurant what it was back in those golden years.

The real reason for going into Babe’s was Babe himself.

Babe Bisignano.

Restauranteur. Businessman. Funny guy. Sports fan. Teller of tall stories.

He was one of a kind.

I mean, it’s not every night that a guy can walk into a restaurant with his young son a couple of hours before a basketball game, eat some great food, reach into his pockets, find no money, no checkbook, no credit cards and walk out of the place without having to pay for the food.

The guy, of course, was me.

When Drake was still playing its home basketball games at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, I thought it would be a good idea to take the youngest of my three sons to Babe’s for a pregame meal at Babe’s one night.

Kevin was 7 or 8 at the time. I knew he’d enjoy the food, but the real reason for taking him there was to have him meet Babe.

Babe hung around our table – talking sports, talking nonsense – during the 45 minutes we ate.

Then, when it was time to go, I fumbled around for some money or a credit card to pay the bill.

All of my pockets were empty.

I went up to Babe and explained my predicament.

“Don’t worry, your meal is on me!” Babe roared.

“No, it’s not!” I countered. “Thanks for understanding tonight, but I’ll bring you a check tomorrow.”

And that’s what I did.

Babe and I laughed about that incident many times afterward.

The second floor of Babe’s restaurant was where my oldest son, Lonn, and his bride-to-be, Julie, held their rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding.

I don’t know who enjoyed it more—Lonn and Julie or Babe.

Lonn was the son who was born on Sept. 11 -- yes, 9/11 -- in 1959, the day after his mother and I dined on a couple of Babe's fine pizzas.

On the night of the wedding rehearsal dinner, Babe seemed to spend every minute hanging around the kids, making sure everything was just the way it was supposed to be.

He made it a thoroughly enjoyable evening for everyone.

From the day I arrived in Des Moines, Babe’s was always a hangout for people from the newspaper.

At 11:30 a.m. every day, groups from the office walked to Babe’s for lunch.

In the fall, there would occasionally be a sports information director from Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Missouri or some other place in town to “advance” a game.

They were always popular guys. The groups going to Babe’s were bigger when the publicity folks were there because they knew the cost of the meals would wind up on the sports information directors’ expense accounts.

But later, the sports information directors quit traveling and Babe’s quit making pizzas.

The restaurant closed in 1991, and Babe died Sunday at 92.

I’ve been missing his pizza for years. Now I’ll miss him.

Vol. 4, No. 338
April 20, 2005