ZELDA BROUGHT ZEST TO PIZZERIA
With bravura, she delivered a slice of Chicago cuisine to midtown.
By Robert D. Dávila -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:01 am PDT Friday, May 19, 2006 Story appeared in Metro section, Page B1
Zelda M. Breslin, the colorful proprietor of a midtown pizzeria who introduced Sacramento to deep-dish pies and ruled her restaurant with a no-nonsense approach to cooking and customer service, has died.
Breslin, who opened Zelda's Original Gourmet Pizza in 1978, died Wednesday of complications from previous health problems, including heart surgery last year and a recent stroke, said her son, Kerry Matthews. She was 67.
For almost three decades, she was the doyenne of deep-dish pizza at Zelda's. She cooked, wiped tables and cracked jokes with customers who came from as far as the Bay Area to taste or take home thick-crust pizzas.
She was a traditionalist, shunning nouvelle cuisine and sticking with traditional meat and vegetable toppings smothered in thick cheese and served bubbling hot in blackened cake pans.
"She built the place from the ground up," said George K. Deukmejian, a frequent customer and longtime friend.
"She had friends come in there who ranged all over the map ... from KC of KC and the Sunshine Band to homeless guys in the alley."
Breslin never advertised, relying on word of mouth to attract crowds of neighborhood residents, college students and suburban families to the dark, crowded pizza joint.
She ran a tight ship, riding herd on restless customers waiting in line, discouraging patrons from lingering after meals and insisting on payment in cash only.
"A lot of people said she was rude, but it was really her sense of humor," her son said.
"There'd be a couple at a table holding up closing. She'd go up to the girl and say, 'You know he's just handing you a line, so why don't you take this out in the parking lot?' and start clearing the table."
She was born and raised in a family of 12 on a farm in Ottawa, Ill.
She was christened by her father, who went to the racetrack the day she was born and bet on a winning horse named Zelda M.
When she was a teenager, he sent her to live with relatives in Sacramento, where she graduated from St. Francis High School.
She returned to Illinois and waitressed at a downtown Chicago pizzeria for about 20 years.
She married Edward J. Breslin, a Chicago Tribune driver, and decided to return to California on a mission to bring Chicago-style pizza to Sacramento.
Zelda's opened on 21st Street to disappointing business, and the couple considered bankruptcy.
"It didn't go over well at first," recalled her sister, Linda Ellington.
"Californians didn't like thick, deep-dish pizza. They were used to picking up little pieces served on tissue paper."
Timely reviews by The Bee and a local TV program brought customers to try out the new restaurant.
Business grew through word of mouth, and Zelda's became a Sacramento institution.
Breslin, whose husband died in 1983, never considered retiring.
She enjoyed running the business, pushing her small staff to work hard to keep customers moving in and out of the cramped quarters, which she refused to expand or relocate.
"She was very old school," employee Janine Banowetz said.
"If she saw something she didn't like, she would say, 'My boss in Chicago would never put up with that.'
"One time, some customers were calling me names and giving me a hard time, and I went into the kitchen in tears," Banowetz said.
"She asked what happened and said, 'Why don't you just kick them out?' She wouldn't stand for it."
Breslin enjoyed traveling, including vacations to a home she owned in Venice, Italy, and ship cruises. She also spent time at a cabin she owned near Lake Tahoe, where she and friends stayed during gambling excursions.
The former Illinois farm girl was a simple woman with a love of animals. Although she was a successful business owner and world traveler, her favorite activities were staying up late and eating rolled-up slices of bologna with her beloved Tibetan terrier, Daisy.
"She loved animals," her son said. "She always threatened to leave my inheritance to the dogs."
Zelda M. Breslin
Born: Aug. 30, 1938
Died: May 17, 2006
Remembered for: Owner of Zelda's Original Gourmet Pizza restaurant in Sacramento
Survived by: Sons, Kerry Matthews of Sacramento and Terry Matthews of Carmichael; one grandson; five sisters and two brothers
Memorial service: Public celebration of life, 3-7 p.m. Wednesday at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 5961 Newman Court, Sacramento. Funeral to be private.
Remembrances: Donations may be made to the Sacramento SPCA at 6201 Florin-Perkins Road, Sacramento, CA 95828; or PAWS, P.O. Box 1037, Lynnwood, WA 98046.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
• The Bee's Robert D. Dávila can be reached at (916) 321-1077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.