Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Was Sixteen…

and got my first paying job as a waitress. This was in the days when we were waiters and waitresses and not servers. I approached an elderly balding man, and with my best waitress smile, asked if he would like a refill on his coffee.

He looked across the table, looked at his equally elderly wife, and then responded: “Don’t waste your time smiling, Girlie, we’re not giving you a tip.” I realized, while fighting the urge to dump the coffee pot’s contents on his balding head, that my future did not lie in a service industry.

It is funny the memories that came flooding back when Chuck and I walked through the doors of Rastrelli’s Restaurant in Clinton, Iowa. You could have blindfolded me and I would have recognized the restaurant just from the smell of garlic and tomatoes alone. The smell that my mother swore took two years to expunge from my pores after I no longer worked there.

Rastrelli’s was founded by Pete Rastrelli, an immigrant from Fornaci De Barga in the Tuscany region of Italy, and his wife Ida, the Chicago-born daughter of Italian immigrants. “In 1939, this strong-willed, self-taught couple opened Rastrelli’s Revere Candy Shop in the Revere Hotel… In 1950, the Revere Hotel was sold. All of the tenants were being forced to move and so were Mom and Dad. They moved to the north end of town on Main Avenue in the Lyons area…” (from the Rastrelli’s web site).

At the time that I worked there, the entire restaurant occupied the space behind this screen and contained about seven wooden booths, two tables, and a soda fountain.

A candy case from the original Revere Candy Shop now sits just inside the front doors and displays items from the Rastrelli Restaurant history. Over time, the family purchased the spot to the east occupied by Pappy’s Pool Hall and later purchased The Madden building to the west. Both expansions allowed the family to greatly expand the business.

The Madden building part of the restaurant now houses the Baldacci Bar (right) which is named for Ida’s family and is painted to resemble an Italian plaza.

Another room is dedicated to very upscale dining with a menu that includes such items as pheasant and rare seared yellow fin tuna. This area, named Room 39, honors the year that Pete and Ida opened the Revere Candy Shop.

Working at Rastrelli’s was being part of a family. In addition to Pete and Ida, their three sons—Jim, Mike, and Tom—worked at the restaurant. And Jim’s wife Karen frequently filled in as a waitress. But the idea of “family” didn’t end there. Mike and I were in the same class in high school, and we were joined by our classmates Mitch Brick, Alan Dean, Bob Leonard, Arturo Baracas, and my cousin Joe Boeker. And Joe’s sister Ann, who was a year older and went to a different high school, also worked as a waitress. Every night at closing, Pete would make us a large sausage pizza for a late night snack, and then Pete and Ida or Jim would drive us all home.

It was a different time.

If my memory serves me well—and there is no guarantee of that—the early 1960’s menu was quite brief. Back then, they offered spaghetti with meat sauce with meatballs at an additional charge. Today, its pasta. It’s Cheese Tortellini with Fresh Basil, Pasta Carbonara, Tortellini, and Roasted Wild Mushroom Ravioli. But the Spaghetti “Made only the way Rastrelli’s can make it—tender long noodles covered with Rastrelli’s rich meaty tomato sauce” still has a place on the menu. (As does their cabbage salad, a knock-off recipe for which I found on the web.)

The only sandwiches I remember are the hamburger and cheeseburger, but there may have been a club sandwich, a grilled cheese, and a ham and cheese. Now, you can order the Pizzaaaaaaaaaaaarelli (like a calzone), Italian Roast Beef, Rastrelli’s Reuben, The Philly Steak Sandwich, Italian Hero, and Tommy’s Meatball.

And pizza, for which Rastrelli’s was famous, came as cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and mushroom. Just your basics. Today, the specialty pizzas include the Asiago Chicken, Pizza Beneto with Alfredo sauce, and the spicy Saporito.

We had come for pizza. And not just pizza. For what my memory believes is the best sausage pizza ever developed. What makes this so good? First, the house-made tomato sauce isn’t too thick or too sweet. It has the summer bright flavor of good tomatoes accented with only a little garlic and Italian seasoning. Second, the crust is cracker thin and crisp. Third, they use a moderate amount of cheese. And fourth, and what I think distinguishes Rastrelli’s from the also-rans, is the house-made sausage that is fragrant with pepper and garlic and contains no fennel and is
applied to the pizza raw in small “pinches.” So good is this sausage that we workers would, when Pete’s back was turned, snatch small pieces (Yes, raw.) as we walked through the kitchen.

Having been disappointed recently when my memory of favorite foods did not match reality, I approached my first piece with trepidation. Would it be as good as I remembered? No. It would be better.

Rastrelli’s is now owned by my former classmate Mike who was named 2010 Restaurateur of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association. “Mike Rastrelli exemplifies the best of our industry,” said Doni DeNucci, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association. “He is committed to professionalism, his patrons, and his community. Every detail in each of his restaurants speaks to that commitment” (

Mike gave us the grand tour of the restaurant complex (Earlier we had the chance to visit with Jim for a bit.), and in the kitchen we noticed large stack of fresh (unbaked) pizza shells. From 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. that day, a large one-topping pizza would cost $6.99. Mike estimated that they would see 700 pizzas in that three hour period—many to be taken home and frozen for later consumption.

Well, maybe you can go home again—if only for a few hours. Thank you Jim and Mike for your hospitality that day. Thank you for keeping Pete and Ida’s vision alive. Thank you for a 5.0 Addie lunch.