Tainted mushrooms end immigrant’s Ossineke pizza factory

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Courtesy Photos
Ilario Fabbrini, right, with his wife Olga at their home in San Diego, Calif. Ilario once owned a frozen pizza factory in Ossineke.

Courtesy Photos Ilario Fabbrini, right, with his wife Olga at their home in San Diego, Calif. Ilario once owned a frozen pizza factory in Ossineke.

OSSINEKE — Most people familiar with Ossineke know of the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in town. Few know of the funeral given to more than 40,000 frozen pizzas 45 years ago at a nearby farm.

Three dump truck loads of pizza were buried in March 1972 in the ground 45 years ago by Ilario Fabbrini, who now resides in San Diego with his wife, Olga, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture informed Fabbrini that mushrooms used in his frozen pizzas, known as Papa Fabbrini’s Frozen Pizza, were tainted with botulism.

Although he did not have to destroy the product, Fabbrini opted to do so anyway and made an event of it, which even drew then-Gov. William G. Milliken to the event.

The funeral drew national coverage. Fresh pizza from the factory was served to the attendees and although Fabbrini worked to make the local product successful again, it ultimately went to the wayside.

The Italian native first came to the United States with his grandfather after his father was killed in World War II, Fabbrini said.

Once in the country he joined the U.S. Army and ended up serving in the Korean War.

“Before that I was stationed in San Diego, and I said I always wanted to retire there, and I did,” he said.

After Korea he settled in and started a pizza business in Detroit called Fabbrini Pizza that was known for delivering the pizza to the customers, which was a relatively new concept.

“I got everyone mad in Detroit because I started delivering,” he said.

The business was successful but Fabbrini, who was still in the Army reserve, sold the business when rumor was reserves would be called to Germany when the Berlin wall went up. He never went overseas, but ended up moving to Alpena to work, and restarted his pizza business in town.

“When it was not too busy I started making pizza, and I bought a freezer and stated freezing them, and people started buying them from me,” he said.

Fabbrini’s son, Hilary, said his father would supply the area bars with the frozen pizza and a small cooker and the food became popular in the area.

Soon Ilario Fabbrini, known as “Mario” by Alpena locals, was approached by the Heinz Company to manufacture frozen pizza for distribution all over Michigan and Ohio. The factory, he said, could produce as many as 9,000 pizzas in a day.

In 1966 the Ossineke factory was started and Fabbrini was making pies and distributing pizza for years, employing crews to apply frozen toppings to the pizza on an assembly line.

Everything was going well until he was approached in 1972 by the USDA about the canned mushrooms he used on the pizza.

Fabbrini said he voluntarily recalled his pizza for destruction and started making them again with non-tainted ingredients. And although they made a show of it with the funeral, and a good faith effort to assure customers that the product was safe, the incident was the death knell of Papa Fabbrini’s frozen pizza, Fabbrini.

One reason was because there was a very narrow market for pizza, which was not as popular of a food in the 1970s as it is today.

“In those days you have to understand the space in the grocery store was not more than five or six feet for (frozen pizza),” Fabbrini said. “Today you have hundreds of miles of pizza in the grocery store. In the old days to get space you had to fight for it.”

Fabbrini said when the pizza was pulled from the store shelves, competitors moved in and the factory made fewer people and had to layoff local people. Fabbrini said he called in his children to work, but the factory went downhill.

“There were some good people involved; one woman sent me $5 to help me out which was kind of her,” he said.

Fabbrini eventually sued the mushroom company, but the money was not enough to keep the factory going. Rumors that Fabbrini got a $1 million settlement were not true, he said.

“We got $250,000, and the lawyer took a third,” he said. “We had $100,000 worth of bills to keep the company going for five or six years.”

The company was sold in the early 1980s and Fabbrini said he walked away with around $5,000, and the new company, and pizza recipe, failed soon after the sale.

After Fabbrini retired to San Diego, where he vowed to retire when he was stationed there in the military. He still makes pizza in his home. His favorite toppings include anchovies, pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers.

And although he’s an Italian native, Fabbrini says the pizza most Americans eat is better than what you can get in Italy. He explained that pizza originated in Italy from leftover dough when mothers made bread. They would flatten it, put some tomato slices and cheese on it, as well as other items, and bake it as a quick snack for the children.

“If you go to Germany and you order from a menu they don’t put “Italian pizza” on there, they put “American pizza,” he said. “Sure it was started by Italians but we make a better pizza today.”

Jason Ogden can be reached via email at jogden@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Jason on Twitter @jo_alpenanews. Read his blog, Sunny side up, with Jason at www.thealpenanews.com.