A Tale Told Over Spaghetti
Café di Napoli
816 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 333-4949 (take-out: 814 Hennepin Ave., 333-9019).
Imagine this: It's 1938 and the very young, very handsome son of an Italian fruit wholesaler is entrusted with the management of his parent's new, beautiful restaurant. Let's call this young star Joe. Joe's restaurant is ringed by a gorgeous mural of Naples--Mount Vesuvius pipes smoke on one wall, Roman ruins glow on another. Swells in brand-new hats perch at the lunch counter and sip ice-cream sodas. In the huge, sheltered booths vaudeville stars like Laurel and Hardy enjoy highballs and spaghetti after performing at a nearby theater.
Then, suddenly, the war. Joe reports to the Fort Snelling induction center--where new soldiers get their uniforms, their haircuts, their physicals, and their assignments--and when the officers find out what his background is they put him in charge of the mess hall right there at Fort Snelling. It's Joe's job to calm and inspire all of Minnesota's young and frightened soldiers--and he's supposed to do it with food. He whips them up vats of fresh mashed potatoes slathered with butter. He feeds them giant tenderloin steaks, pork chops, roast beef, roast pork, pies, fresh milk--the country is still in the shadow of the Depression, and a lot of the new soldiers have never eaten this well in their lives. It does a lot for morale.
When time came for these new soldiers to go to the bases out East for training, Joe went with them, cooking sides of beef on a stove the likes of which he had never seen--a coal-fired grill the size of a tabletop resting on a box of sand the size of a Packard (to prevent anything in the train car from catching fire). KPs carried buckets of potatoes and pails of beef through the troop train, and it was some of the only comfort these young soldiers had on the long, cramped journey.
After a few months feeding kids in the civilization of Fort Snelling, Joe was shipped out to North Africa, where he had the unenviable job of trying to feed an army on powdered eggs, powdered milk, dehydrated potatoes, Vienna sausages, and an endless diet of Spam prepared in a tar-paper kitchen on a gasoline-fueled grill.
When the fighting ended Joe found himself the head of a series of officers' messes, in Marseilles, Dijon, and a little town outside of Naples. The officers pooled their money and sent Joe out in search of fresh eggs, butter, and vegetables. Joe found himself flying over Mount Vesuvius and peering into its fires--the last time he had seen the volcano it had been puffing away quietly on the south wall of his restaurant back in Minneapolis.
He dealt with lots of unglamorous but essential tasks--like getting the European towns' water systems to work, because you can't do much in a kitchen without water. One time, he was scouring Naples for shoes for his Italian waitresses to wear (shoes were even harder to come by than chocolate) and he ran into a soldier who had been a bartender back home, at Borklin's bar.
They were two young men far from Hennepin Avenue, probably the only two boys in Naples who knew what it meant to pick up a date, board a Minnesota streetcar creaking through the ice, try on hats at Donaldson's, catch a show at the Pantages, and wind up the evening over a skillet of ham and eggs at Gimitro's. Joe took the bartender back to his mess hall with him, and prepared him a pasta feast on real plates--the soldier had almost gotten used to eating from the tinny lid of his mess kit.
Little did either know that 50 years in the future would find Joe still serving Minnesotans plates of spaghetti--for of course, this is the true story of Joe Piazza, king of Café di Napoli. Though it's the true story with the desert, the shelling, and the war generally left out. Café di Napoli is the sort of magical place that calls for the prettifying language of screenplays and fairy tales. It's a clear, well-polished window into another era.
The murals and the booths in the original restaurant are pristine and speak of a world when the middle class had plenty of time for the niceties of an unhurried lunch. The bar has dim lighting, and the showcase fuchsia booths face out onto the main floor, evoking a time when one got dressed and did one's hair for a drink--a place for ladies and gentlemen. Never mind that the clientele these days is just as likely to be high-schoolers and seniors on a budget as it is to be ladies with cigarette holders.
And never mind even that the menu is stuck in the Eisenhower era--you'll still never find a more perfectly comforting plate of spaghetti. (Spaghetti sugo, a marinara sauce, or Genovese, a meat sauce, costs $5.95. Spaghetti with a meatball is $7.20, extra meatballs are $1.85 each, and a kid's portion is $3.05.) You're not much likelier to find a fresher cannoli ($2.85), or a more eagerly refilled cup of coffee ($1.25). Set a straw-wrapped bottle of chianti on the table (the $18 Ruffino is the bottle with the classic candle-holding design) or a welling-over glass of Pinot Grigio ($2.60) and you'll feel like you're sitting in a moment freed from ordinary time, which of course you are.
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.
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