Observations, Opinions, and Recollections of a Restaurateur and Writer
by Francesco Pasqualino
Main Street Rag Publishing Company has published my book of poetry, Red Bicycle Dreams. A Book Launch and Linger, featuring baristas preparing specialty coffee drinks, along with an assortment of Italian cookies and pastries are being planned. For more information, or to order Red Bicycle Dreams online, please click the link: Red Bicycle Dreams.
As a restaurateur, I am proud to say we are having our busiest year in our almost 50 year history. As a writer, I am also proud that many of the poems and short stories I have written have been published in literary journals and newspapers. With this backdrop, Attenzione! will share my insights into the restaurant business.
Attenzione! is just a small part of a much larger creative process. The phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is widely credited to T. Bert Lance, the Director of Budget and Management in the Carter Administration. I believe with all my heart that "If you don't keep fixing it, it's going to get broke." And this is the reason for Attenzione!
Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.
Most guests to Pasqualino's Italian Restaurant are not familiar with our history. This story, "Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli." provides a glimpse into my family's opening of our restaurant in 1971, and also details how our family's philosophy towards food has shaped our menu. After this brief introduction of our restaurant's opening, "Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli."focuses on mobsters in the years immediately following the 1972 movie release of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Back then, if you were Italian and lived or worked in a predominately Italian neighborhood, you knew or did business with someone somehow connected to organized crime."Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli" details my ringside seat observations of mobsters trying to live up to the Hollywood image they were cast in after organized crime was romanticized and exploded into the mainstream of American pop culture. I also provide a contrast to the stereotypical mobster image enamored by the American public by introducing gentlemanly mobsters like Leo, who was the most likable killer you would ever meet, and intellectual mobsters like Nini who could quote Shakespeare and play the piano with virtuosity. Though much of the story focuses on the criminal side of Italians, "Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli." also honors the millions of honest, hardworking Italian immigrants who came to this country in search of a better life. Although some of you may have been around at that time and may also share many of the experiences I describe, I want to point out to readers that I purposely left out names, changed some of the names, and used full names only when historical facts could identify the characters. Click the following "Read more" link to open "Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.".
The organic/vegetarian co-op
penalizes me 10 percent
because I’m not part of their group.
You would think they
would soar like eagles
above the supermarket giants,
and understand my inner-hippie
need to be free,
to walk in with cash in hand
and have the checkout clerk
scan my smile
as my only footprint
of being there.
“Supermarket rebel,” was published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 07, 2017. I have to admit that I took poetic license in writing this poem. The fact is, I am a member of the East End Food Co-op. I love to shop the Co-Op. The Co-op has been continually defining the future of food for over 40 years. Community-owned and operated, with a strong emphasis on locally-sourced foods from small family farms and other local artisans, the Co-op has been a leader in providing environmentally-responsible, sustainable, “clean foods”.
I also love the small, neighborhood grocery store feel that the Co-op has. As you shop the Co-op, you are far removed from the coldness of big-box stores that have hijacked our shopping experience. With a friendly, helpful staff who know many of their customers by first name, the Co-op continually proves their business model of “putting people and planet before profits” works.
Recipe for Success
I say this at the risk of being banned at many area restaurants. But I don't have a problem with the Allegheny County Health Department's attempt to apply a grading system in its inspection of restaurants. As an owner of a successful restaurant that has been in business for over forty years, I believe that all restaurants should be held to the highest levels of food safety and cleanliness. We are entrusted, not just with the comfort and nourishment of our guests, but also their health.
In fact, if it was up to me I would have the ACHD video tape, and post their inspections online. Consumers need a more informed opinion as to the places they choose to dine. The general public usually does not have the inside information about restaurants those in food service have. Although there are a lot of restaurants in Allegheny County to choose from, with a record number of new and exciting ones opening every day, the restaurant industry is like a small town, where everyone knows each other. Restaurant owners, suppliers, delivery drivers, and contractors talk. They know which restaurants are not paying their bills, and they know which ones to avoid because of their lack of cleanliness and food safety.
While I certainly can sympathize with restaurant owners who say the grading system is unfair and can represent only a "snapshot in time." In the beastly pace of running a busy, frantic restaurant, things do slip through the cracks. My restaurant is not an exception.
We are not without faults. We realize that mistakes can happen, but by us working together with the ACHD, we go above and beyond standard regulations, and if something does go wrong, we can minimize any negative impact.
But these goals can only be achieved with a dedicated, professional, and knowledgeable staff. We offer our staff wages well above minimum, and we gladly pay for, plus compensate them for attending Food Safety certification classes. Because of this teamwork work approach we recently had our best ACHD inspection report in our history, and one of the best reports ever given to a restaurant.
Restaurant owners must be willing to make a commitment to provide a clean, safe, dining environment for their guests. Our restaurant has not been around for over forty years, by not constantly changing and trying to improve. These qualities are recipes for success.
Word of Mouth
A restaurant's success is always tied to what others say. A good recommendation, coming personally from the heart, is the original social media platform, bringing in a steady stream of new customers. Our success has always been driven by this principle. Throughout our history, we have devoted very little resources to direct advertising. We allow our food to speak for itself, not specials, coupons or discounts. The only direct advertising we do is through Shady Ave Magazine. Editor Nancy Polinsky Johnson does a great job in highlighting many of the neighborhoods we serve. We consider our commitment to Shady Ave Magazine as an investment in our community.
Running a very busy restaurant is a compliment in itself. However, there is nothing more rewarding than when a guest takes the time out to tell us how much they enjoyed their dining experience. I receive compliments daily, and I am thankful for the kind words.
Recently, one compliment took me by surprise. While talking to a couple (first timers), they told me they had just returned from Italy, where they took a cooking class. I was deeply touched to find out the chef-owner of the cooking school recommended us when he found out the couple were from the Pittsburgh area. I said, “You must be talking about Massimiliano Crocetti?” Turns out Massimo was here in Pittsburgh a couple years ago for an extended stay. In a visit to our restaurant, we took him for a tour of our kitchen. We are always proud to show off to others in the food business not just our attention to detail in cleanliness and efficiency, but also our commitment to cooking many of our recipes from scratch. What adds even more depth to this story, is that the couple, Vic and Nicolena are also restaurateurs, serving wood-fired pizza.
Mother's Day Rush
I want to thank all of our customers who helped make Mother’s Day, 2017 the busiest day in our forty year history. Although I had anticipated being busy, as Mother’s Day is traditionally a busy day for most restaurants, I was not only surprised with the amount of business that day, but also the kindness and generosity of an overwhelming amount of our guests. Although I had extra people on staff, some guests waited one to one and a half hours for tables. Although we warned our guests about the long waits, all of dining room guests decided to stay, and in spite of two hour waits for phone in orders for take away, most orders were placed anyway. I will never forget the loyalty and graciousness of our guests that day.
I am also thankful for the performance of my family and staff, many of who worked from open to close without taking a break. But on this Mother's Day, I want everyone to know how important my mother is to the success of this restaurant, not just in the quality of our recipes, but also that one can be an example of strength, determination, and attention to detail, even at the age of eighty. Because my mother makes rare appearances in our dining room, many of you are unaware of her extraordinary commitment to her life's work. My mother is a remarkably strong woman, and resists all efforts on my part to reduce her schedule or duties. Our restaurant is successful because of her dedication and special attention to our recipes, many of which were perfected in her kitchen decades ago.
November 23, 1931 - November 12, 2013
Every community, rich or poor, has many treasures. They may be people or businesses who define and enrich the community. Some may gain national or international prominence, but they always remain a part of the fiber of their hometowns. Henry Fiore is a Pittsburgh treasure, and with the artwork he produced, will likely remain a lasting treasure.
Henry was a talented artist with national and international acclaim for his rich and vibrant watercolors, many of which grace the walls of our restaurant. Henry and his family, along with their wide circle of friends, dined in our restaurant many times. Pasqualino’s was also proud to host the wedding ceremony and reception of Henry and Marianna's granddaughter, Chelsea to Greg Bodack. I was deeply touched that Henry and his family honored us with their special day.
Most of us will remember Henry for his vivid landscapes and seascapes, but many of us were fortunate enough to have been graced by his wide smile, and his kind, thoughtful, and uplifting ways.
Men Who Cook
“The shoemaker has the worst shoes in town.” I’m certain most people heard this old adage about professionals who don’t have time or energy to apply their trades to their own lives. In my line of work, an owner of a busy Italian restaurant, nothing can be further from the truth. I actually enjoy cooking at home. Knowing my way around a kitchen is certainly an advantage, so preparing a home-cooked meal is definitely much easier for me than most. I also have the benefit of a ready supply of ingredients from which to pick and choose. Along with baking our own breads and preparing our own sauces; our meats and produce are delivered fresh daily. For me, after working a dinner rush at my restaurant, cooking at home helps me catch my breath. In my kitchen at home, I can transition from the beastly pace of a frantic kitchen, to being a somewhat tolerable human being. Working in a busy, well-organized restaurant demands a tremendous amount of attention to detail. Cooks work in a culinary automaticity to present identical meals that no matter how creative the dish is, the entire meal from prep to service must be defined and controlled. But at home, I am free to improvise, to create something different in whatever time frame the meal requires. Luckily, I inherited a taste for the simple recipes of my family’s southern Italian ways of cooking, which significantly cuts down preparation time. I look for simple recipes with few ingredients, adding spices and herbs as to not mask the flavor, but to gently coax any hidden flavors out of the main ingredient. I often combine two or three different recipes of a dish, taking what I like from each. Many of the dishes I serve in the restaurant have come about because of this experimenting with multiple recipes.
But why are so many other men taking up spatulas and grill pans and starting to talk recipes with each other, especially since most men I talk to have no culinary background other than perhaps washing dishes in a restaurant or delivering pizzas while in high school. Everyday I talk to more and more men, who are taking an active, if not lead role, in the preparation of their family’s meal. And they seem to be enjoying it. The types of men joining this culinary revolution, along with their reasons why are as varied as there are different shapes of pastas. Perhaps the simplest of reasons is the change in the family structure over the last few decades that brought on a significant realignment in traditional roles. In previous generations, the kitchen at home had been the domain almost entirely reserved for women, but in this fast-paced new century, families are free to develop whatever plan makes the flow of their lives easier. As far as I see, I have heard no complaints from men or women on the subject. A man cooking in the kitchen is now seen as active and confident. Women certainly see men who cook as a positive part of their lives.
Another reason is the sharp rise in dominant male television celebrity chefs. With the introduction of reality television shows such as Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay, and cooking networks such as the Food Network with chefs like Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, cooking is easily accessible. These chefs are not cooking up complicated Julia Child recipes with never-heard-of-ingredients. They are real men, who swear and argue. Whatever the reasons, a man cooking in the home kitchen adds depth and flair to the dinner table. Every cook has a different repertoire of recipes and a different approach to cooking. With husband and wife sharing the cooking of meals, each night’s dinner is a culinary adventure.
A great dish for men to prepare is risotto. Veneto is famous for its rice dishes. While pasta is very popular, many Italians prefer rice. Although the recipe is easy, risotto requires constant stirring, and upwards of forty-five minutes to cook. But risotto's smooth, creamy flavor makes the time well spent. The risotto's gentle stirring and easy pace hints at a man's confidence, and at least for a short while, the total control of his life. Along with sharing a bottle of wine, the combination of the risotto's aroma and gentle stirring is calming, sort of hypnotic, or meditative, pulling you in, and inspiring conversation.
All those quick nodding years of hello goodbye,
just another customer in a hurry to a busy old man
working alone behind the espresso counter.
Unusually warm for an end of December night
I wandered in late.
By then the walls were already stained
with the musty amber of coffee grinds
left too long in the basket.
Though no other customers to attend,
he brewed us a fresh pot, and I stayed to help clean up.
All the while his eyes fixed
beyond the clear plate glass windows
to a white taxi idling beneath a tall streetlamp.
Though born a half century apart,
the grains of wood in the corners
of our picture frame of family
formed a nearly perfect match.
He wished me as son, his only worth,
then turned the sign in the window
over to CLOSED.
In memory of Leone and Lucille Cavazza. Leone passed away in 2007 at the age of ninety-nine, Lucille a year later at age one hundred. Leone was the owner of Sausage Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh's Strip District, a company his father started before the turn of the century. Leone's company was our first Italian foods supplier and remained our only supplier of imported foods until he sold the business at the age of eighty-nine. A frequent traveler to Italy, dining with the founders of what today are the largest international exporters of Italian foods, his guidance, support, and advice was instrumental in the success we enjoy today. After his retirement, we became the closest of friends.
I was recently introduced to Chris Fennimore, Director of Programming and resident Head Chef at WQED. Chris was kind enough to invite me into the WQED studios for a tour of the kitchens where the station's local cooking shows are produced. More than a dozen of these local shows have been turned into national cooking specials which air on other public television stations. Talking recipes with Chris, an iconic celebrity chef who helped pave the way for the television chefs of today, has been inspiring.
Our discussions of cooking eventually expanded to other subjects. Most particular, Masterpiece, one of the few television shows I can truly say I look forward to watching. If you are not familiar with Masterpiece, you are missing the best television has to offer. Masterpiece Classic offers series such as Downton Abbey which utilizes elaborate set designs for quickly moving and evolving personal dramas set against historical events that make for compelling and intelligent television. Masterpiece Mystery serves up murder and intrigue with true to life characters in plot lines that keep you guessing up to the very ending. Sherlock is edge-of-your-seat, up to date, hi tech excitement from beginning to end. Sherlock is so rich and intricate in story and photography that you should watch again online on the Masterpiece website to catch everything you missed.
But I strayed a little from the subject of food. So, when I found out Chris was looking for potato recipes for a new cookbook and show, One Potato,Two Potato, I offered Chris a recipe my mother made with her mother as a little girl growing up in Italy. The recipe is quite possibly over one hundred year old. This is one of a very few old recipes we make at home, and more than likely will never be introduced in our restaurant. Up until now the recipe has never been committed to paper, so its possible spelling is Zippili (zeep-p-lee). Chris kindly accepted the recipe and invited my mother and I to appear on the show.
At first my mother was reluctant to appear. Chris and I agreed that without her, the recipe would lose something in its translation. She reluctantly agreed, but her nervousness about being in front of a camera never fully convinced her that she made the right choice. I didn't find out until the morning of the taping, that the show was to be broadcast live. So as not to further exacerbate her frazzled nerves, I never told my mother. After meeting with Chris and his staff to create different stages of the recipe, we settled in, waiting for our turn to appear. Between staff, volunteers, and other cooks waiting to present their recipes, there were at least one hundred people in the studio. Because of the heat from cameras and lights, the studio is kept purposely cool. One staff member offered to get my mother's coat for her, another offered her a chair. Watching the first two presentations made her even more nervous. She mumbled about the waste of time, asked a couple of times why we were doing this. I tried to relax her as best I could, hoping we would be on soon.
When my mother's turn came, all her anxiousness evaporated. She quickly and naturally took control of the show. Chris, being the gentleman that he is, along with doing enough of these shows to realize the different dynamics of each guest, was quickly relegated to my mother's assistant. I guess something rubbed off on her from watching every episode of Cakeboss, her favorite program. My part was little, offering anecdotes about the recipe. While my mother and Chris did all the work, I told the audience how Zippili, in Southern Italy, is always served on November 11, the traditional day for the touching (first taste) of the wine. Zippili is also served on December 13, the feast day of Santa Lucia. On that day, all Catholics are prohibited from eating bread. But for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, fried bread mixed with potatoes is OK to eat, but not baked bread. If anyone can answer this question, please let me know.
After my mother finished her segment, she was greeted with a rush of congratulatory hugs and kisses from many of the staff at WQED. The next day she asked when we could go on again. But that enthusiasm quickly evaporated a few weeks later when Chris invited us to do another show, cooking any recipe of my mother's choice. She simply said no, without another word spoken. I never mentioned the idea again. My thanks to WQED for the respect and kindness they showed my mother.