I was introduced to the restaurant/hospitality industry, really, from birth. My father was in the vending machine and pinball business and by the time I came along he had been in it for 14 years. Some of my earliest recollections are having a day off from school and “helping” with the family biz. That entailed riding from restaurant to restaurant all day with dad as he cashed up the location – counted the money in each machine, rolled the coins and figured out the split with the proprietor. Cool!! This also was part of my education in business and salesmanship: “Networking”. Definitely a term that was not used at that time in business. Dad called it keeping the customer happy and he would say, “Remember, one hand washes the other”! So that’s how the restaurant “bug” first bit me.
That’s why I have always had a respect and concern for the local operator, the independent Risk Taker. Now, some years later, I have invested most of my adult life in this industry directly or indirectly, but I have come back to my roots in CNY. Those memories of the 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s restaurants keep coming back to me. These were the restaurateurs who laid the foundation for the independents of today. Back then, chains were hardly even heard of. They barely existed and where they did, it was in the major metro areas.
These local folks were innovators and probably never realized the impact they would have on the local cuisine and flavors. Unfortunately, many of those ideas and flavors have faded into obscurity. For sure many of the Old Guard knew what hospitality was. When you walked into their restaurant it was like you were family. Some of them set service standards that we only dream of attaining today. Now I am not saying you can’t find the same today on the local scene, but there certainly are fewer quality local choices or at least it seems so.
One of my favorites was Poodle’s and Jim’s. They were originally on North Salina Street. They opened at 5am and closed at 3pm which was Jim’s shift. They opened again at 9 or 10pm (depending on who the Mainliner at Three Rivers Inn was that night) and closed at 4 or 5am. That was Poodle’s shift. There was a counter to sit at or booths against the opposite wall. When you sat at the counter you could watch the magic unfold right before your eyes. Either one of those two could prepare every order called out to them and carry on a conversation with customers at the counter. You could get a real Fritatta (Fritaad). The current “Fretta” served around town isn’t quite the same. Or how about a pepper and egg sandwich on fresh Italian bread from Columbus Bakery? Or better yet…a meatball or sausage in a “heel”? The “heel” was the end of the point loaf with the soft white scooped out and then filled with whatever you ordered. This is where the “heel” sandwich was commercially born. It was to be copied countless times. All of the soups, sauces, gravies and meatballs were made fresh in the back kitchen, usually by Ralph Delpiore, who was Poodle’s brother and a brilliant food artisan. He was a true chef by any standard. By the way…Jim (Stagnita) and Poodles (Anthony) were brothers-in-law! The Delpiore family carried the food tradition on into the next generation. Ralph, Jr. was also a quality restaurateur. His last full sized endeavor was Jack’s Reef – another venue with a great history. But more on that later.