Lefty Driesell didn’t want the party to end. So when the University of Maryland honored the Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach, raising a banner in his honor in 2017, he ended his acceptance speech by inviting an audience of friends and family to join him for pizza at Ledo Restaurant. The night went late at his favorite hangout, and Driesell’s party consumed several slices with his preferred topping, chewy pieces of bacon that don’t get cooked until they’re placed on top of pizzas before they slide into the oven.
Driesell’s big night was one of many special occasions that took place at the original Ledo Restaurant, a Maryland landmark with a history dating back to 1955. But after 65 years across two locations, the founding family that runs Ledo announced in November it was closing the iconic Italian-American restaurant in College Park, which had operated under different standards than the franchising operation that split off to spawn more than 100 locations across the East Coast.
Owner Tommy Marcos Jr. sold the original Ledo Restaurant to a management company that already operates several franchises for the chain. Jim McGinnis, who brokered the sale, says Marcos has offered to consult on recipes, and management group Chesapeake Hospitality plans to renovate the space before reopening it in 2021. But for longtime fans like Driesell, there’s nothing like the original, and the retirement of the second-generation owner represents the end of an era.
“No opposing fans were there after games. It was all Maryland,” says Driesell, who took his staff to a regular lunch at Ledo for 15 years. “[Co-owner] Tommy Marcos was a big-time fan. He was a super guy. Very friendly, upbeat. He was a great businessman. Restaurants are not successful if they don’t have good management and food. I’ll always remember Ledo.”
Marcos called the end of his family’s involvement in the business “bittersweet.” A series of health problems convinced him to sell after a 43-year tenure. His father, Tommy Marcos Sr., and partner Robert Beall opened the first Ledo Restaurant in 1955 in a strip shopping center in nearby Adelphi, which was a long walk for hungry Maryland students. Still, they found the rectangular pies with flaky crusts, cooked in metal pans that were common in the 1950s, worth the trek.
Ledo pizza is more about the middle of the square than the corners. It’s a combination of pastry-thin crust with sweet sauce and a light layer of cheese that puts the focus on generous toppings. Marcos estimates that the restaurant sold more than 1 million pizzas over the years, including 200,000 since 2015.
His customer base went beyond students and famous basketball coaches. At one point, a big white limo sporting “My Way” on the license plate arrived to pick up a pie for Frank Sinatra, who gave a concert at the old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Rolling Stones also ordered takeout. The Doobie Brothers came by. So did many professional athletes, like Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, Jets quarterback Joe Namath, Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas, and Washington Senators All-Star outfielder Jim Lemon.
Marcos Jr. says a sense of family drew many regulars. Ledo was a second home for Maryland kids and a homecoming destination for alumni. Grandchildren of some of the earliest employees worked at the restaurant, which moved to nearby Knox Road in 2010. Marcos says the original Ledo has employed more than 10,000 people.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn said restaurants like Ledo become part of a community’s identity.
“It’s important to have institutions that people associate with College Park,” said Wojahn, who’s a fan of the special taco pizza, topped with spiced beef, picante sauce, cheddar and smoked provolone, iceberg lettuce, and diced tomatoes. “It’s a place where you knew the bartenders and the servers. I’m really going to miss that.”
Maryland sports and Ledo Restaurant were always tightly aligned. Marcos Sr. became a Terrapin Club member in 1958, attending both road and home football and basketball games until his death in 2010. Fans crammed into the old restaurant in Adelphi, lined with photos of Terps athletes and members of the Washington Senators baseball team on the wood panel walls, before and after games. Driesell always dined at Ledo after home games. He was a big fan of the spiced shrimp and Italian-style egg drop soup, as well as the pizza.
“They were the old crowd,” Marcos Jr. says. “They went to all the games. They loved Maryland. Everybody knew each other.”
Dave Pacella, an offensive lineman on the Terrapins football team in the 1980s, says his recruiting visit included a visit to Ledo, where he grew to love the slices of pepperoni the kitchen cut extra thick as a time-saving measure.
“We got a pizza late-night,” Pacella remembers. “It was thin, a little greasy because of the pepperoni and sweet sauce and a different crust. I thought it was so different. I always go to Ledo whenever I’m in town. I could eat it cold all day long.”
Tom McMillen, a star center who anchored Driesell’s great basketball teams of the 1970s before playing in the NBA and becoming a congressman, was a ham-and-pineapple fan.
“My brother and I went there every Friday night,” McMillen says. “So many times teammates and friends would order pizza for the dorm. It was a staple.”
After arriving in College Park in 1969, Driesell served Ledo pizza to reporters before games and at midweek press conferences. That tradition continued until the recent closure.
“When people come to cover games, especially from out of town, you want to show them a slice of your community, literally and figuratively,” says Doug Dull, a 1981 Maryland graduate who spent 10 years as a sports information director for the athletic department.
“Everybody looked forward to it,” says Zack Bolno, who also worked as a sports information director at Maryland. “I knew the press room would be quiet when the pizza came.”
Rich Daniel, a 1986 Maryland graduate who owns the DC Divas women’s football team, says customers were drawn in by a sense of family. Eating at Ledo Restaurant “was like a Thanksgiving meal you only get a couple times a year” he says. “Other people make pizza, but you don’t have a square or the same sauce. It was unique. ... It was comfort food.”
The Ledo chain and original restaurant separated decades ago. Sons of the original partners opted to franchise in 1989, but the Marcos family decided to concentrate on the first restaurant. Beall’s family operates the Ledo Pizza chain, with sales of $120 million in 2018, according to Pizza Today. All that expansion led to some locations that were inconsistent, offered a watered-down version of the original, or skimped on the cheese. At the original Ledo, customers could always expect the high level of quality that came from Marcos Jr.’s management.
Marcos Jr. decided to sell the restaurant last spring and eventually found a buyer, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been devastating for restaurants. The decision wasn’t easy for Marcos Jr., whose daughter works as a part-time manager. He’s sentimental about the restaurant and its history. The name came from his father’s service in World War II. Marcos Sr. flew over the Himalayas during World War II and landed after a mission at an airport on Ledo Road. With sign-makers charging by the letter, the elder Marcos looked to that memory for an economical option.
“My dad always said the restaurant was his golf game. I understand now,” Marcos Jr. says, explaining how the business was more like a hobby. “You enjoy being there, talking to the customers, employees. It begins to become a family, and that’s what I’ll miss. It’s been a good ride.”
Rick Snider discovered Ledo pizza as a Maryland student in 1980 and blames his waistline on eating way too many. His favorite topping is pepperoni. No, sausage. No, pepperoni, sausage, and extra cheese.