The Origin of “Cheen-chee-nati” Pizza Pie

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“My mother was a Minella,”   says a large guy at the doorway to the two eighty year old men taking tickets.      “Well, we won’t hold that against you!”  laughs one of the snarky ticket takers.   They add commentary to everyone walking in the door and ask the ladies helping serve salads, what glass of wine they’re on.

Less than 10 minutes later in walks none other than  Buddy LaRosa.    He gives a warm Italian hug to the quieter ticket taker, Donald,  and gives him a firm man-kiss on the cheek.     It’s not long before he’s making his rounds, holding court as the Pizza King of Cincinnati.  But here, at the undercroft of San Antonio Church in Cincinnati’s South Fairmount, our Little Italy,  Buddy LaRosa is  just another cousin.

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Buddy LaRosa holding court at the San Antonio pizza dinner.

Buddy’s a regal old man – about five foot five if he’s in dress shoes  – with his silver hair slicked back, wearing an embroidered untucked white shirt.     He’s a Don, a Godfather, a food legend.      Although he grew up in Little Italy, his mother sent him halfway across town to Roger Bacon high school, my alma mater, to be educated by the Franciscans, the patrons of Italy.

His maternal Aunt Dena was a Minella too.     She was the one he got the sweet San Marzano marinara sauce recipe from which he used to open Papa Gino’s Pizza, which would become the ubiquitous 67 location LaRosa’s Pizza powerhouse.       Aunt Dena was also one of the original San Antonio ‘Lot Ladies’, the women of the parish who would serve Cincinnati’s original 1938 pizza pie recipe from the lot of their church at the summer festival.      The non-Italians who came to the festival back then to hit on the gorgeous  dark-haired Italian girls, mistook the pizza for strawberry shortcake.     Can you imagine a time when people had not yet heard of pizza?

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This is the recipe they’re serving tonight, along with the more American and familiar recipe with sauce and grated provolone cheese.    The original recipe comes with sweet sun roasted San Marzano sauce and finely grated Romano cheese, as pizza originally came.   Our American palates later smothered it in melty provolone and mozzarella cheese.    The original pizza reminds me of the heavy pizza my grandmother would make for us kids when they watched us.      It was heavy on the sauce, and light on the cheese, and Grandma would load hers with a mass of sautéed onions.   But she was Polish, not Italian.   She and Grandpa pronounced it pizza pie with the two zz’s not “pitza.”

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San Antonio Original 1938 Recipe Pizza Pie with meat (the original didn’t have meat)

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Original Ladies of the Lot Pizza – hand stretched crust with simple sauce of tomatoes, sea salt, olive oil, basil, and garlic, with pecorino cheese, fresh basil strips, and “blessed” by the ladies with a sprinkle of olive oil (although the festival pizza is made by the men these days)

 

Standing at the door waiting for my carryout from the annual San Antonio Original Cincinnati Pizza Dinner, I have a rare glimpse into Cincinnati’s Little Italy – or what’s left of it.    There are Carmellas and Salvatores in the crowd in this tightly packed undercroft beneath Cincinnati’s second oldest Italian Catholic Church.       You can only eat in, if you’ve purchased your tickets ahead of time.   The tables have reserved placards with names like Panaro, Minella, and others.         I’m competing with the large crowd of hungry parishioners for my carry out pizza, but the ladies have given me a complimentary glass of Paisano red wine while I wait, and a lesson in Little Italy’s history.

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In the early 1900s to the 1960s, this neighborhood was a thriving concentration of Italian immigrants, many from the Salerno region, like Buddy LaRosa’s maternal family, near the beautiful Amalfi Coast of Italy.    The hills of Little Italy in Fairmount were covered in vegetable gardens and vineyards, as these immigrants tried to re-create their hilly Italian villages in Germanic Cheencheenati.

Salerno is where the sweet San Marzano tomato is native, and where the in the bay, the native Salernan aliche or anchovy swim in abundance.  They were used as a prized ingredient on the original Little Italy home pizzas as well, according to Donald’s partner in crime, the louder of the two ticket takers.      He relayed a story that as a kid his mother would say she was making pizza with aliche.    He would say “I’m not eating pizza with leeches.”    It took years to clear up that confusion.

This Italian parish still holds mass in the small 1922 church above where the pizza is being eaten in mass quantity.   They do not have a pastor, but many of Cincinnati’s retired priests love coming to the parish committed to keeping their Italian heritage alive.    Even the older members are second or third generation immigrants, and few still speak Italian.       They no longer parade the statue of Mary they call Maria di Constantinopoli Felitto along Queen City and the side streets of Little Italy, like the did in the early days, and as they did in the Old Country, where the statue was made and carried to Cincinnati.

 

They do venerate the local hero, Sr. Blandina, an Italian immigrant Sister of Charity, who helped start the parish and is now up for sainthood.     She unfortunately preceded the 1938 Lot Lady pizza, but the parish is eating pizza in her honor.        The banner of the parish’s Holy Name Society also adorns the walls, along with numerous historic photos of the parish through the years.

I’m enjoying my glass of wine and being heckled by the snarky ticket takers, and have the honor of tasting Cincinnati’s original pizza pie.

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Jets and Sharks and Aglamesis Ice Cream

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George Chakiris, center, in Academy Award winning role as Bernardo in West Side Story.

In 1961, George Chakiris won the Academy Award  for best supporting actor in his role in the groundbreaking movie-musical West Side Story for the role of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.    Although Greek, his brown skin was close enough to play the head of the New York-Rican gang, the Jets.    He made big news in the Cincinnati Enquirer upon winning his Oscar. Although he lived in New York City, he was born in Norwood, Ohio, and Cincinnati claimed him as their hometown hero – kind of the George Clooney of his day.

But he didn’t really remember much about Norwood, as his parents left with the family for Los Angeles when he was barely seven years old.     His father had aspirations of acting, and wanted to escape a discouraging Greek father, who ran a successful confectionary business in Norwood.      George’s father Stylianos “Steve” and his mother Ekatarina, father Aristotle,  and siblings, ethnically Greek,  had come to America from Turkey in 1916.

One of the first jobs Steve landed was at a Greek confectionary in Norwood called the Metropolitan.  It was owned by two immigrant brothers from Sparta, Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis.    Nearly 100 years later the Aglamesis ice cream is still being made and a hometown favorite.    The brothers would open another ice cream parlor in the Oakley neighborhood, and eventually sell the Norwood Metropolitan store.

After leaving Cincinnati, and in Hollywood, California, the nineteen year old George was able to take dance classes at the American Academy of Dance.    This led him to his first roles on screen.     He danced alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   The next year, George danced alongside another hometown fave actress Rosemary Clooney,  in the number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,”  in White Christmas.     Fans clamored to know who the handsome dancer over the shoulder of Miss Clooney was in that scene.    Paramount was flooded with fan mail.

Although the Aglamesis taught George’s father, Steve Chakiris,  how to make their incredibly creamy and delicious ice cream, his passion was to be on the silver screen.   Steve had a great voice, taught himself how to play the mandolin, and loved the antics of Charlie Chaplin.   His father would have none of it.  The profession of actor was, in Aristotle Chakiris’ opinion, degrading and unthinkable.   “No son of mine will do anything but dip chocolates, scoop ice cream and make sodas,”  Aristotle might have said in a thick Greek accent above the shop at 1925 Sherman, where his grandson George would be born in 1933.    It took two generations, but George fulfilled his father’s dreams of becoming a successful actor.

In the 1920s, with the family knowledge of ice cream and confectionary, Aristotle had opened the Grecian Garden, which was a soda fountain, beer garden, confectionary, and lunch stand.   They served malted milk sundaes, ice cream sodas, sandwiches and beer.  It became popular with Norwood residents and created a good living for the Chakiris family.

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George became lifelong friends with his West Side Story Co-Star, fellow Norwood, Ohio, resident, Rita Moreno.      They would return to Norwood in 2011, and then help dedicate a new costume at the Rosemary Clooney House Museum in Augusta, Kentucky, having a celebratory White Christmas dinner at the Beehive.    George went on to have an illustrious career on stage and television.   He never married, and now 83, designs jewelry for his own business.   But thanks to the Aglamesis for teaching his father and grandfather the confectionary and ice cream business, he was able to fuel his passion for acting, singing and dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

Frisch’s Brawny Lad and Big Boy Mascots

 

 

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The illusive Frisch’s Brawny Lad mascot from 1953.

In 1953 carhops and burger joints were popping up all over Cincinnati.    Frisch’s was already five years into business with their Big Boy double decker and pull up service.   A new chain called McDonald’s had not come to Cincinnati yet -that wouldn’t happen until 1959, when Rob Groen opened the first franchise in Monfort Heights.

But the Frisch’s family might have seen the invasion of the Scottish coming.   In 1953 Frisch created two new sandwiches called the Brawny Lad, and the Swiss Miss.    With the Brawny Lad he created a new mascot using the Big Boy clad in Scottish kilt and bobby hat.    The Scottish clad Big Boy mascot is hard to find in local Frisch’s menus and ephemera, but I came across it for the first time in an old Cincinnati Woodward High School yearbook.

The Brawny Lad and the Swiss Miss both featured burgers on a rye bun – something the Germanic populous of Cincinnati loved.    The Brawny Lad is a steakburger on rye with a large slice of Bermuda onion.     The Swiss Miss, is a steakburger on rye with a slice of Swiss cheese and that famous Frisch’s tartar sauce.       Both sandwiches grace the menu today, and like my father, you can order a mashup of both sandwiches, by getting the Swiss Miss with a Bermuda onion.

Unfortunately for us burger mascot collectors, Frisch never created a mascot logo for the Swiss Miss, although a gender bended Big Boy with a blonde pigtail wig and dirndl would have been hilarious.    Maybe some marketing firm advised the Frisch family that only one logo, the Big Boy was needed, and the more logos you create the more it dilutes your brand.

Frisch did create a different Big Boy mascot in 1952, than the West Coast Big Boy from California.   He slimmed his mascot down, gave him striped instead of checkered overauls, gave him a sidecap of a soda fountain jerk, put him in a running pose, and gave him reddish or blonde hair.  Bob Wian’s original Big Boy was more pudgy, standing, and without the soda jerk cap.   Later the slingshot in the back pocket of the East Coast Big Boy was removed for it’s mischievous attribute.

Sadly, no statues, bobbleheads, or banks of the Frisch’s Brawny Lad were every created, but if they had, they would be coveted collector’s items.

 

 

 

 

Fred Graeter, the Younger Brother, and His Tutti Frutti Ice Cream

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The Italian Tutti Frutti Ice Cream

The Graeter’s family story is one fraught with tragedy and westward-ho wanderlust.   If it wasn’t for several somewhat tragic events in their family history we might not be enjoying our Black Raspberry Chocolate chip and instead might be eating a creation called Tutti Frutti Ice Cream.   And it’s really the woman behind the man, Regina Berger Graeter, who is responsible for the implementing the French Pot method that today makes Graeter’s ice cream what Oprah Winfrey says, is “the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.”

The Graeter’s ice cream story starts romantically enough.   A young couple from the Kingdom of Saxony in Germany, Louis Carl and Julia Graeter, followed the waves of German immigrants and brought their two year old son, Louis Carl Jr., to Madison, Indiana, in 1854, for a better life.       They settled into a northern Germanic agrarian community there, had four more children, Fred, Caroline, Charles, and Clara.   Louis Graeter, Sr., took on the trade of barber.

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A young Graeter family photo in Madison, Indiana.   A snarky Louis Jr at left and Fred on far right.

By 1870, the oldest son, Louis Jr., struck by wanderlust, moved East along the Ohio River to the larger industrial city of Cincinnati where he started making ice cream.   Family lore says that he left Madison because his father was so mean to him.   In 1879, Louis’s younger brother Fred, then 16,  joined him in the trade.     Together, they operated an ice cream and candy confectionery at 437 West McMillen Street.   The rest of the Graeter family would join them in Cincinnati by 1880, but the patriarch, Louis Carl Sr., would die in Cincinnati in 1884.

But then Louis Jr’s wanderlust took hold again.   In his mid thirties, and married to Anna, Louis, in 1888 said goodbye to his wife, brother and family to try his luck in Stockton, California.   He left his brother with an indebted confectionery business.   Fred had found himself a wife Laura, whom he married on April 5, 1887.

Stockton had been a major hub for the California Gold rush from 1848-1853.   By the time Louis had arrived, Stockton had become a major transportation and commercial center. Flour mills, carriage and wagon factories, iron foundries and shipyards surrounded the San Juaquin River valley. The manufacturing of agricultural tools became a major industry there. Several local inventions revolutionized farming techniques, including the Stockton Gang Plow and farm machinery produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company. Many other industries flourished in Stockton making it one of the most industrialized cities in California by the end of the nineteenth century.

After Louis left town, Fred and Laura moved the ice cream operation in 1889 to 419 Race Street and continued the ice cream and confection business, digging themselves out of debt and into profits.     Fred learned very fine French and Italian methods of ice cream production and apparently introduced some high end products that none of the other local ice cream manufacturers had.   The Columbus Indiana Republican reported in 1891 an amazing new ice cream creation that Fred Graeter introduced to the region at the wedding anniversary of his brother–in-law, Edward Huber in Indiana.

“The ice cream was made by Mr. F. L Graeter of Cincinnati, and was very fine, being something entirely new to this market composed of layers of different flavors of ice cream and lemon ice.”

This describes what was known at the time as Tutti Frutti, which in English means ‘all fruit’.    It’s basically a many layered ice cream like spumoni, but more elaborite, with alternating layers of fruit ice creams and fruit sorbets.   A Recipe book “Ice Cream and Cakes” from 1900 details the Tutti Frutti creation, also called “macedoines de fruits glaces” in France.

“It is composed of alternate layers of water ices and ice creams, either in molds or small paper forms – and of various colors, arranged to give a pleasing contrast of tint and flavor, such as vanilla, chocolate and orange, or peach lemon and pistachio, or any other combination the fancy might suggest.”

Where Fred Graeter learned this technique in Cincinnati is a mystery. He must have studied under a French or Italian confectioner, but who or where that was is unknown.   Perhaps he was competing with the other soda fountain competitors like Mullane’s, and needed to differentiate.

But all that cool product development came to an abrupt end in 1896, when Fred became too sick to tend his business.   He had a series of tragic events befall him.   Starting in 1890, he and his wife lost their young twin sons Huber and Otto.   Then, in 1891 he met with a terrible accident, where he had his right hand cut off by an engine.   Finally, in 1891, his wife Laura was granted a divorce on the grounds of neglect (he made her work all day, even when ill and he paid her no attention).     But, by 1893, Fred was remarried to Mary Beal.

Fred intended to sell the ice cream business to Robert Ochiltree and Charles Nolloth, but gave a preference option to his brother in California, for the purchase of the business at $2812.     Louis Jr. took advantage of the opportunity. At 47, Louis took his brother up on the offer and returned to Cincinnati, leaving a second wife and son in back in California.

Then in 1900, Louis Jr., met and married Regina Berger, over 20 years his junior, and one of ten children of Anton Berger, an immigrant from Tyrol, Austria, who was president and operations manager of the Bantlin Company, a prominent saddle company in Cincinnati and also, President of the Calhoun Loan and Building Company. Aha – a father-in-law with available capital and ability to loan even more money to a growing business – score!

 

Louis and Regina moved the business to 967 McMillen Street, where they made ice cream and candy in the back, and sold them in the front, while living in the upstairs apartment. They even opened a second store at 351 Vine Street – a confectionary and oyster parlor, taking advantage of the ice needed for cooling both products.

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Regina and Louis Charles Graeter

Fred recovered, and re-opened his confectionery on 419 Race Street, which he was still operating by 1909.   But more tragedy struck. In 1909 his nephew, Theodore Chambers- who he had adopted after his mother died, and the same year his brother left for California – ran off with his money and was nowhere to be found.

One more tragedy would befall the Graeters.   In 1919, Louis Graeter was hit by an automobile while he was exiting a streetcar and died.     Regina, now a widow with two teenage sons, took over the business.   She insisted upon the small batch, French pot ice cream method, which they still use today.

The business grew to 10 stores in Cincinnati by 1930, and the Tutti Frutti creations of Fred Graeter became long forgotten.

The Corned Beef Conundrum

Corned beef, carrots, and onion on a white plate

When St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent as it does tomorrow, Irish Catholics all over the country are faced with a huge spiritual dilemma.    Are they allowed to eat supposedly the most Irish of dishes – corned beef?   If their local bishop allows the dispensation, everyone wipes their sweaty brow and face plants into their tub of green beer and all is ok again.

But, if their local archbishop does not give the dispensation, then the Irish Catholic is faced with a dark decision.    Do you break the fast for a symbolic ethnic identity event, or do you offer it up the most important of spiritual sacrifices?

Locally, the Bishop of Covington, Kentucky, the Most Reverend Roger Foys, has allowed the dispensation in his address to the faithful of his diocese:

“This year the celebration of the feast of St. Patrick falls on a Friday (17 March 2017).  As is our long-standing custom in the Diocese of Covington when this celebration occurs on a Friday of Lent, the observance of the law of abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent is dispensed on this day.  This dispensation applies to all the faithful of the Diocese of Covington as well as to anyone present in the Diocese of Covington on that day.  Those who avail themselves of this dispensation are encouraged to undertake some other form of penance, especially the works of charity and exercises of piety. (cf. Canon 1253, Code of Canon Law)”

Cardinal O’Malley of Chicago has also OK’d corned beef eaters as well.   We only have radio silence from Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr on the topic for faithful Cincinnati Catholics.

I never understood the dispensation anyway.   What message does it send to young, impressionable Catholics, that you can just change the rules midstream into Lent.   The same situation doesn’t apply to sin.   It’s not OK to steal on one day intentionally, if we do a good work the next day.   So, why would you apply that backward theology to the only visible sacrifice Catholics make in our spiritual calender.    It always seemed wonky to me growing up in the Catholic Church.     It breeds the Sunday morning Catholic syndrome in my opinion. That’s someone who goes to mass on Sunday and forgets about the gospel message the rest of the week.

We’re all told in school the importance of the Lenten sacrifice and how it makes us closer to Jesus and his 40 days in the desert before his ultimate sacrifice.    Reversing the rules lessens that emphasis.

Why do we feel it’s important to eat corned beef only on St. Patty’s Day, anyway? It’s not Irish at all, in fact.   If your Irish ancestors came during the era of immigration the majority of Irish came, during and after the potato famine, they NEVER ate corned beef.     They would have been lucky to have eaten pork, which was the most commonly kept livestock.   In fact, fish would have been more common than beef or pork.

Corned beef was  something that came into the New York Irish community from the Ashkenazi Jewish community.       It became a cheap form of meat that the poorer Irish immigrants could afford in their early days of integrating into the American melting pot of immigrants.   If this were more widely known, then maybe corned beef as a symbol of survival would feel more right as a dispensation.   But everyone assumes it was something the Irish brought over with them, which  they most certainly did not.

If you really want to be Irish tomorrow, you should eat fried fish, potatoes and soda bread.     Leave the corned beef for the Reuben at Saturday lunch and offer it up!

 

 

The Dayton Ohio Fish Fry and Waldorf Sausage

 

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At Our Lady of the Rosary Fish Fry in Dayton, the unusual appearance of a sausage on the menu.

One of the things you won’t find at a Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky Catholic Lenten fish fry is meat of any kind.    It’s all about the fish and of course, the tarter sauce.   But travel north less than 50 miles to Dayton Ohio, and it’s unusual not to find sausage on the menu at a Catholic Church fish fry.   In fact, many of them are called Fish Fry and Sausage Dinners.   But why would Dayton Catholics test their faith?

There’s no special papal dispensation that I have been able to find that allows Dayton Ohio Catholics to eat their native Slavic and German sausages on Fridays during  Lent.    Well, the fish fry(s) that do include the sausage options are either held on Fridays outside of Lent or on Saturdays during Lent, so Dayton Catholics don’t have to break the fast.  Many of the old legacy Catholic churches in Dayton had strong Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian and German influences from the early immigrants whose behinds lined their pews.      If they were held on a Lenten Friday, the meat option might have been the smartest business move for a Catholic fundraiser to bring in other non-fasting, non- Catholics into their donation box.

The Amber Rose is the last remnant of that Eastern European influence in Dayton.    It’s the only place in Dayton, Ohio, that you can still find cabbage rolls, pierogis, and chicken paprikash on the menu.  They even have sauerkraut balls.

But back to the sausages.    There is something called the Waldorf sausage that makes its way out in the Dayton public for these Lenten Fish Fry and Sausage Dinners.   Holy Trinity Parish carries the Old Focke’s Meats recipe for their all pork smoked Waldorf Sausage.      Our Lady of the Rosary, with a strong Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian and German influence, has both Waldorf and Hot Polish Sausage at their Fish fry.     The Antioch Shrine has an Annual Lenten Fish Fry and Sausage Dinner.

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A 1963 ad for the beloved Focke & Sons Waldorf Sausage.

The Focke’s Waldorf Recipe is from the William Focke and Sons Meat Company in Dayton, which was founded in 1875 by Bernadina Focke, a German immigrant, and said to be Dayton Ohio’s first female business owner.     She set up a card table selling meat at the Dayton Arcade, and nearly 100 years later her family business was a Dayton icon.

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The meat business was passed along to Bernadina’s sons and lasted to 1972.  Their Waldorf all pork sausage became a beloved Dayton local sausage and the recipe outlasted its business.

So if you want a true test of faith go to a Dayton area Saturday fish fry,  but don’t worry – you won’t break the fast.

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Jalebi – The Indian Funnel Cake and Food Memory in “Lion”

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Jalebi – India’s most beloved street sweet.

 

My favorite scene in the new movie “Lion” is when actor Dev Patel’s character Saroo is transported back to his childhood India when he sees Jalebis at a friend’s party in Australia.   Jalebi is an Indian street food / dessert that Saroo desired as a hungry child in northwestern India.   It was always out of his reach but his older brother promised one day he would have one.   Saroo responded that they would buy the whole jalebi food stall!

 

Shortly after that scene, Saroo fell asleep and became trapped on a train waiting for his brother that takes him over a thousand kilometers away from his village to Calcutta.   He becomes one of India’s lost children. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple and grew up in a comfortable family.   The unexpected jalebi reminds him of his first family to whom he’s still lost after 25 years and sparks him on a journey that results in getting the answers of their whereabouts.

 

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A five year old Saroo with his older brother eyeing the jalebi vendor.

This lovely scene shows the power of food memories to transport us back.   As soon as the scene played, I connected.   I have a similar food memory from about the same age.  My food memory centers on the smell of the apple crisp of my grandmother.   Any time I smell the combination of baked apples, cinnamon and butter, I am transported to the snowy winter of my 6th year, when my grandparents came to stay with us while my parents went on a business trip.     The ground was covered in snow and my brother and I ran from the bus to our house to escape the bitter cold. When we opened the door, we both got a wiff of the apple crisp my grandma was just taking out of the oven.   That smell and memory cemented in my psyche and can be recalled like a movie trailer.

 

Jalebi is one of India’s most beloved sweet treats.   I first came into contact with it at my local Indian restaurant, Baba India in Oakley, a few years ago.   It can sometimes be found on their lunch buffet and is basically the Indian version of the funnel cake. It’s made by extruding a thin batter of wheat and chickpea flower into hot oil in large spirals that are then soaked in warm syrup flavored with cardamom and saffron.   The end result is a bright, orangey, crispy sweet treat.

 

The movie is worth seeing not only for the power of the food memory scene, but the many layers of the theme of finding your origin.