While New York City sees a constant shift in its restaurant scene, one family-owned restaurant is still going strong after 70 years.
Since Patsy’s Italian Restaurant opened on 56th Street in between 7th and 8th Avenue in 1944, it has only had three chefs: Pasquale Scognamillo (or Patsy, as he became known), his son Joe, and his grandson, Sal.
Four generations of Scognamillos have worked at the restaurant, including Sal’s brother, Frank, and Frank’s son, Paul.
Today, the restaurant is famous for being Frank Sinatra’s favourite, but it’s drawn in a slew of celebrity diners, from George Clooney and Al Pacino to James Gandolfini and Tony Bennett.
“The Scognamillo family dynasty is not unlike the Sinatras’…theirs is in food and ours is in music,” Nancy Sinatra wrote in Patsy’s first cookbook, “Patsy’s Cookbook: Classic Italian Recipes from a New York City Landmark Restaurant.”
We visited the historic eatery to learn about its fascinating history and to see why it’s become a beloved hit with some of entertainment’s most noted names.
*Note: Patsy’s Italian Restaurant on 56th Street and 8th Avenue is the only location associated with the Scognamillo family.
Thanks to its location and the love of music that Pasquale Scognamillo had, Patsy's quickly became a popular spot for Broadway performers. It took Pasquale, who was given the nickname Patsy from immigration officials on Ellis Island during his arrival to New York in 1928, 14 years to raise enough money to open his own restaurant in the city.
It also became a favourite for countless celebrities, whose photos elaborate the restaurant's walls. 'Everyone who came to Patsy's for dinner was treated like family,' Ben Stiller wrote in the restaurant's second cookbook, 'Patsy's Italian Family Cookbook.' 'Titans of industry, entertainers, people on a first-time trip to New York all came through, and all, it seemed, felt the same way -- special,' Stiller wrote.
For celebrities like Stiller, whose parents would pop into Patsy's after performing on the 'Ed Sullivan Show', and George Clooney, whose mother used to dine at there restaurant while she was pregnant, Patsy's has been a restaurant they've visited, dined at, and had memories in for years.
The restaurant also became known as Frank Sinatra's favourite. He would have dishes from Patsy's flown over to his gigs and regularly come in for a meal. Sinatra introduced celebrities like Jackie Gleason and Rosemarie Clooney to Patsy's, who then brought in celebrities like Tom Hanks and George Clooney -- a chain reaction the Scognamillo family calls 'the six degrees of Frank Sinatra.'
For Sinatra, the space was one he could relax in with privacy. He had a secret entrance located next to the restaurant that he would come in from. Once he arrived upstairs, there were a set up curtains he could close so that no one could see who was dining inside.
'His old-world way of making his patrons feel at home was, for me, just like visiting my own grandparents,' Nancy Sinatra wrote about Pasquale in the restaurant's first cookbook. Since Patsy's time in the restaurant, guests were consistently greeted and thanked for stopping in.
'Patsy's philosophy was 'This is our home and this is a dining room, it's just a bigger version,' Sal told us. Patsy, pictured here in the restaurant's kitchen in the 1960s, even used to wear the same colour jacket as the waiters because he didn't want customers to feel like they couldn't ask him for bread or assistance if they knew he was the owner.
That hospitality is part of why Sinatra loved the spot too. Sal remembers one Thanksgiving, Sinatra called and asked if he could come in for dinner. The restaurant was always closed that day, but Sinatra was going through a rough professional period, so Patsy called the family and arranged to bring Sinatra and the family in for the meal. 'When Sinatra found out what my father did that day, he never forgot it,' Sal told us.
But food has always been an integral part of the Scognamillo family, who had a kitchen on every floor of their three-story home in Queens, New York. That's why Patsy's son and Sal's father, Joe, learned how to cook from his father and began working at the restaurant at the age of 11. Joe took over as head chef in 1952 and has been an employee of the restaurant for more than 70 years.
Joe (pictured on the left) was able to pass his cooking skills on to his son, Sal (pictured on the right), who was just short of 23 when he began working in the restaurant. Many of the classic Italian dishes on the menu, including the linguine with clam sauce and eggplant parmesan, are made the exact same way they were more than 70 years ago.
Sal's sons, Joseph (on the left) and Peter (on the right) both currently work at Patsy's. Joseph, who is currently 20, started working here part-time at the age of 11 and manages the front, while Peter, who is currently 17, started working part-time at the age of 9 and fell in love with the kitchen.
Family remains an integral part of the restaurant. Every day, Sal sits down with his family to share a meal at 3 p.m., between lunch and dinner services. 'I used to think it was normal to work long hours from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day…I didn't get to see my dad when I was younger, so it's nice to get to spend the day together here,' Joseph told us.
Today, their celebrity clients include everyone from Michael Bublé, Regis Phillip, and Burt Lancaster to Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, and Gene Kelly. It's often a popular spot for birthday parties for celebrities like Tony Danza, and last year the restaurant hosted a celebration in honour of Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday.
All of the dishes at Patsy's are rooted in traditional Italian cooking, focusing on seasonal produce and local products. The Scognamillo's have been using the same cheese supplier -- Di Palo -- for 72 years and source their meats from DeBragga and Pat LaFrieda. They have also been selling their signature sauces online and in gourmet grocery stores nationwide since the restaurant's 50th anniversary in 1994.
Patsy's is a 'red sauce' restaurant, so the majority of their dishes are made using high-quality tomato sauce. On their menu, you'll find signature dishes like spaghetti and meatballs made with veal meatballs served in a rich tomato-basil sauce. There's also off-the-menu items like Sinatra's favourite dish, which was a very thinly pounded Veil Milanese served with arugula salad.
There's also various traditional Italian desserts like ricotta cheesecake and sfogliatella -- multi-layered dough that's baked and stuffed with fillings that often include ricotta, sugar, and candied orange peels.
Patsy's has two floors of dining space. Besides its celebrity regulars, the restaurant also draws in international travellers and has even seen mafia figures back in its day. According to Sal, Mario Puzo once told his father, Joe, that Don Corleone's character from 'The Godfather' series is based off of seven people he met at Patsy's.
There's a sleek, mirrored staircase that leads to the upstairs dining area, where celebrities would often sit and close the curtain in privacy. Sal's wife, Lisa, has also been working at the restaurant for the last few years, assisting with their in-house council. For Sal, part of their secret to their success is the the fact that they stayed small to continue offering their guests a welcoming atmosphere.
Since his 31 years at Patsy's, Sal has seen everything from Billy Joel standing and singing happy birthday to a surprised guest to Frankie Valli tearing into a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. 'I never work a day in my life because I love what I do,' Sal said.
Source: 'Patsy's Italian Family Cookbook'
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