Sotirios Panopoulos arrived in Canada by boat in 1954 with little more than a passion for his departed Greek homeland and a belief that boundless opportunity awaited in his adopted land.
He took the friendly-sounding Sam as his first name, rolled up his sleeves and got to work, eventually opening a restaurant which he ran with a brother. He returned briefly to his birthplace for a bride with whom he raised a family in London, Ont. In time, he became a prominent figure in restaurant circles and the Greek-Canadian community in southwestern Ontario.
Mr. Panopoulos, who has died at 82, endured a brief and unexpected blizzard of international attention earlier this year after the President of Iceland denounced pineapples on pizza, a delicacy of debated appeal for which the Canadian took credit as culinary innovator.
A gregarious figure who delivered even blunt assessments with good humour, the retired restaurateur proved to be a crusty defender of his sweet-and-savoury creation in appearances on the BBC and other outlets.
"He can say whatever he wants," Mr. Panopoulos said of Iceland's Gudni Johannesson in an interview on CBC's As It Happens. "He sells fish over there so he has to put fish on his pizza."
The death of Mr. Panopoulos was noted by Time magazine and The Washington Post, not to mention The Daily Telegraph of London, Aftonbladet of Stockholm and La Repubblica of Rome. In England, Pizza Hut offered free Hawaiian pizzas to honour a man they called the Great Panopoulos and the Lord of the Pineapples. An online petition urges the government to produce a Heritage Minute celebrating Mr. Panopoulos's kitchen genius.
For most of his working life, pizza was a mere footnote to an immigrant's tale of long hours, family connections and finding a niche in a new land.
He was born to Georgia and Vasilios Panopoulos on Aug. 20, 1934, in the mountain village of Vourvoura in the Peloponnese. He was one of five children. His father was a farrier and saddlemaker in the hardscrabble region, which suffered greatly from the Depression, German occupation and a civil war. As a boy in wartime, Sotirios was recruited to make surreptitious deliveries of medicine, according to his son, Bill Panopoulos. Despite the tribulations of the era, the young man maintained his education with the ambition of becoming a dentist.
He was still a teenager when he decided to join an older brother in Canada. He sailed across the Mediterranean with a first stop at Naples, where he ordered a local specialty from a waterfront vendor – a roll sliced in half, topped with spaghetti and sauce.
In Ontario, he worked briefly in the mines in Sudbury before moving to Elliot Lake, then Wallaceburg and, finally, settling in Chatham, about 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto, where he and brother Nikitas ran the Satellite Restaurant at 145 King St. W. The Satellite served all-day breakfast and offered late-night delivery. The hiring of a cook of Chinese ancestry allowed the brothers to expand an already extensive menu, adding sweet-and-sour dishes which may have inspired his pizza.
It was on a trip to nearby Windsor that he got a taste of a food whose growing popularity with teenagers and housewives made it a sensation. Mr. Panopoulos decided to add the dish to the menu in 1962.
"Then we tried to make some pizzas," he told the CBC's Helen Mann in February. "Along the way we threw some pineapples on it and nobody liked it at first. But after that, they went crazy about it. Because those days nobody was mixing sweets and sours and all that. It was plain, plain food."
He added savoury ham and, later, salty bacon to pizzas with the contents of a drained can of pineapples, naming the pink-and-yellow pie the Hawaiian after the label on the can.
Even delivering a pizza was a problem. The restaurant cut pizza-sized circles from cardboard boxes scrounged from a neighbouring furniture store, wrapping the package in aluminum foil.
The restaurateur's concoction went uncredited for decades until an anonymous contributor added his name to the Wikipedia entry for "Hawaiian pizza" on July 15, 2009. The following year, Sarah DiGregorio of the Village Voice in New York sought out the creator after a reader asked whether Hawaiians eat the Hawaiian pizza. (The answer: Yes, but it's not a favourite.) Her inquiries led Bob Boughner of the Chatham Daily News to interview Mr. Panopoulos. He was later featured in an article on the website Atlas Obscura in 2015 and many more reporters came calling after Iceland's President offered his unkind review.
Recipes published by U.S. newspapers in the late 1950s included pineapple pizzas, though these were to be served with almonds and cinnamon as dessert pies.
The family does not wish to debate the merits of the claim. "It's not our story to tell," his son said.
Mr. Panopoulos sold the Satellite in the mid-1970s, later opening the Family Circle restaurant in London. He retired about a decade ago and when not defending pineapple pizza to the world's media spent his days as a doting "papou" (grandfather).
He died at University Hospital in London on June 8. He leaves the former Christina Limberopoulos, his wife of 50 years; a son; a daughter; four granddaughters; and a sister, Katerina Papamichael, of Athens, Greece. He was predeceased by brothers Elias and Nikitas.
While Mr. Panopoulos long ago gave up working in a kitchen, he still enjoyed the occasional pizza, though he preferred a popular brand of frozen, thin-crust pizza over takeout.
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