Italian Ate

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The Italians are among the most amazing people anywhere in the world. Ask any Italian. But make sure the person you ask is not a Sicilian, or they will kill you.

OK, enough of the Italian jokes. Point it, where I grew up, there was a large and vibrant Italian community. Loud, even. When our state elected the first Italian ever elected to high office as governor, the Italian community rejoiced, and so did everyone else because he was a great governor (a trait that does not necessarily run in family lines, I quickly add).

In many parts of the US along the eastern seaboard, your basic diner was established, initially owned, and may still be run, by “Greeks.” I put “Greek” in quotes because the exact Greeks in question are typically Cypriots or Cretans, and by “Cretan” I mean people from the island of Crete. The simple version of the story (subject to correction if you can provide a better one): During the post World War II era, but I think concentrated in the 1050s, diners became incredibly popular in the US, and that was about the time that many people were leaving Greek speaking regions of the Mediterranean because of unrest pertaining to British-Greek-Turkish conflicts. Both of those phenomena, the rise of the diner and the exodus of Greeks, ran for decades before and after the 1950s, but it happens that the two historical streams flooded, intertwined, and ponded up in the 50s, resulting in a rough equivalence between “Diner” and “Small Eating Establishment owned by Greeks” in many parts of the US. These were not, I repeat, not, Greek restaurants. Yes, you could get a Greek Salad at one, but mostly you were there to have breakfast of eggs and bacon, or a club sandwich, or something along those lines.

This digression to Greek restaurants is to demonstrate the potential relationship between large scale immigration or migration and the rise of a novel category of business opportunity, which has been known to link an ethnicity with a kind of business, often for a generation or more. Where I grew up, I believe a similar phenomenon happened a few decades before the rise of the Greek-owned American style diner: The Italian Restaurant.

I now live in Minnesota. There are very few, if any, valid Italian restaurants here.

Shortly after moving here, a friend visited from California, and a few of us, all of having lived formerly in or near Cambridge/Sommerville, Massachusetts, decided to go out and eat.

“Hey, I think I saw an Italian restaurant down by that intersection by 610, that might be good,” someone said.

“OK let’s try it. What’s the name?”

“Not sure, ‘Olive something,’ I think.”

“OK whatever, lets go.”

I was pleased to see that this restaurant was crowded, that meant it would be good. We put our name in and waited, finally got seated. We ordered a variety of dishes, salad, etc. The restaurant was OK. Having grown up among Italian restaurants, where the lowest ranked ones were excellent, “OK” in normal English means “very disappointing.”

We had eaten, of course, at an Olive Garden, a chain run by General Mills corporation, now the largest Italian themed chain in the US. Olive Garden restaurants are at present located roughly in correlation with population density in the US. But at the time, we all (who went to dinner that night) had been living in an area of the country where chains were mostly forbidden by zoning laws, and that was 20 years ago. But here is the point: Other than the Olive Gardens that seem to be located at every major highway intersection in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, there are hardly any Italian restaurants, or for that matter, Italians.

And if you find one, it might suck, like one I went to several years ago where they did not know how to drain pasta.

Anyway, I have proof. I recently perused a survey run by my (very) local newspaper here in the Western Suburbs of Minneapolis. When I got to the section on Italian Restaurants, this is what they had:

A handful of pizza joints that mostly aren’t very good (and by the way, a pizza joint does not count as an “Italian Restaurant” on the east coast, though the Italian ethnic link is important and noted). A handful of pizza joints and and one Olive Garden.

I hereby call for Italians who know the restaurant business to move en masse to Minnesota and fix this problem. Anything you’ve got, we’ll take. We don’t deserve it, but we will enjoy it.

Buon appetito!

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15 thoughts on “Italian Ate

  1. “I hereby call for Italians who know the restaurant business to move en masse to Minnesota and fix this problem. Anything you’ve got, we’ll take. We don’t deserve it, but we will enjoy it.”

    So my takeaway is: Olive Garden isn’t the Italian restaurant you deserve but it’s the one you got. (Same is true here.)

  2. While going to SFU I lived for a few years in an area of Vancouver called The Drive – which in the 70s was a predominately Italian part of the city. There were some great (and not expensive) Italian restaurants there. There were also a fair number of Greek places too. That whole area is now a vibrant multi-ethic community that I always made a point of going to for a meal when going to visit friends and family. In fact, Joe’s Pool Hall (Italian run) was my introduction to espresso and cappuccino 🙂

  3. St. Paul has Cosetta’s. There is Bucca Di Beppo in both cities. But you don’t need to subject yourself to OG unnecessarily.

    1. Bucca is a chain, so I’m not sure that counts. The Capital of Minnesota has one Italian resturant that is not a chain? See, there’s the problem.

      There are about five Italian resturants that are not a chain in the greater Twin Cities, maybe four. In Boston’s North End alone, in an area the size of Northeast, there are 37. In my old home town, not a large city, there are 19.

      All of the above does not count pizza. As noted a pizza joint is not an Italian restaurant. But, in Albany and a few other places, some of the pizza joints are actually Italian restaurants that just foreground pizza, so there are even more counting those.

  4. There are other restaurants here such as Yanarelli’s, but I don’t recommend Yanarelli’s too highly. It’s a bit of a limited menu. I’m sure there are more, aren’t there?

    I can’t really think of many on Phoenix, either. Not homey, the founder came from Napoli or Siena and the whole family smells like oregano type of italian restaurants, either.

    In San Francisco, I frequetned a red velvet walled stereotyical italian restaurant near 20th and mission. Caricatures on the walls of italian singers like Sinatra and Dean Martin. Rumors were that the Mafia owned it, as well as the president of the car dealership I worked for.

    I’d tell the name, but I can’t remember, and they’d probably also kill me.

  5. If you love Italian food, as I do – you have just GOT to check out this recipe video for ragu (meat sauce), which must be started on Saturday if you want it for Sunday. You won’t believe what he puts into this masterpiece. THIS is why YouTube was invented:

    Go to youtube and put this into the search field:

    ” Neapolitan Ragù (Rich Meat Sauce): the original recipe by Antonio Sorrentino “

  6. Sadly, the restaurant you pictured (Lombardo’s ) is closed as is V & R’s across the street. Sam’s on Southern Boulevard closed this past summer (Covid and the lack of help)

    My sister (HS class of 1971) lives in Annapolis and Italian sausage – real sausage – is not available in supermarkets there.

    I went to St James ’62 and AHN ’66 which put me in Betty Jo’s class and a year behind your brother. Interesting blog.

    1. I was wondering if anyone was going to notice that!

      You must have lived in the Delaware Ave neighborhood.

    2. yes – see comment about my being a classmate of Betty Jo . (Besch Ave, Myrtle Ave(near Hackett) and Kelton Court off Whitehall road.

  7. Yes, I saw that. Besch is one of those very obscure streets that terminated overlooking Hacket.

    As you may know, we were on Stanwix Street, but after my older sibs including BJ moved out, my parents (with me) moved to Hackett and Cardinal. (I also lived later on Myrtle somewhere for a while.

    I remember Kelton Ct, nera the RR tracks. Someobody I knew lived neare it, maybe on Mariette?

    1. Besch (and Delaware and Magnolia and Barclay) all were dead ends with significant hills past the end of the street that went to a dirt road that was later developed as what is now Hackett Blvd. Kathy Keleher and siblings lived on Stanwix.

      I live on Cardinal on the first block in from NS.

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