Joe Piazza can name all the sights you could see outside his window that are long gone--the trolley cars, the James Cafe, the Gopher Cafe, the Hotel Elgin, Dutro's (the fresh-fish place), and theaters like the Pantages and the Century. He paints a picture of the streetcars gliding from block to block, dislodging passengers at every corner, a world where the streets were busy with foot traffic because all the shopping there was to do and all the entertainment there was to watch were downtown.
Then came the dark days of the '70s and '80s, when white flight gripped the city and people were afraid to venture downtown. Joe credits the restoration of the Orpheum and State with stemming that tide, and with the re-establishment of a theater district, Café di Napoli found itself in the funny position of being the least expensive restaurant on the block. Which is funny because it used to be one of the more expensive restaurants on a block that catered solidly to the middle class, and now it's the only solidly middle-class restaurant on a stretch that caters to the upper-middle and upper classes.
Today Joe's grown children, Nancy and David Piazza, take care of most of the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, though Joe is there most days as well. David says he remembers sitting at the lunch counter, spinning on a stool; Nancy is immortalized devouring a plate of spaghetti in a publicity photo in the back hallway. That back hallway also holds a picture of Aunt Gussie, who worked at di Napoli for more than 50 years; a sketch dedicated to Gussie signed by Laurel and Hardy; a photo of Joe dining with the Andrews Sisters; and a copy of 1938's grand-opening menu, when plates of pasta sold for 35 cents. That back hallway, which leads away from Café di Napoli's precious green room, is like a little time capsule charting di Napoli's saga--a tale told over spaghetti.