Friday, February 21, 2014

Requiem for a restaurant legacy

Jerry and Chuck Caniglia, and their restaurant. (Almost looks
like they were Photoshopped into the picture!)
Every now and again, I joke that as a kid my only experience with Italian restaurants was that you got spaghetti or mostaccioli with your steak. And every now and again, I wonder what kind of restaurant I would run if I had the money to invest.

Now I know my answer: I'd open a Caniglia's.

People who grew up or lived for any appreciable length of time in Omaha, Nebraska know about the Caniglia restaurants: Caniglia's, Mister C's, The Top of the World (on the 36th floor of what used to be Omaha's only skyscraper, the Woodmen Tower), Eli Caniglia's Venice Inn and a small handful of others. There were other Italian-owned steakhouses as well, some of which are still open, and their names still evoke plenty of memories: Piccolo Pete's, Cascio's, Angie's, Batiatto's and so on.

The Caniglias actually had more Italian selections, of course. While Caniglia's was originally a bakery, for the longest time it was a pizzeria — in fact, if I remember correctly, they still served pizza even after they transformed into a steakhouse. But for your appetizer, you could (and almost always did) order fried ravioli, served with plenty of marinara, and you had spaghetti, lasagna and veal parmigiana as entrée options (there may have been more, but those were my go-to choices).


Someone once said, "When you mention steak to a man from Omaha, you expect him to pull out his wallet and show you pictures of his favorite steaks." Restaurants like the Caniglias' is part of what made that reputation: great steak dinners at reasonable prices, usually better than chain steak restaurants like Outback or Lone Star. The first time I ate at a Hooter's (2006), I paid something like $15 for a sandwich, fries and soda; I reflected that at a Caniglia's I could have gotten a decent steak with all the trimmings and a cup of coffee for about the same price, and I wouldn't have cared whether the waitress was sexy or not.

My favorite was Mister C's. What set that restaurant apart from the others was its unusual decor: a combination of Italian kitsch and Christmas lights, it was a unique, almost magical blend that, in later years, made up for when their food quality fell off a bit. Even after that section of North Omaha began to decay and become poverty-stricken, white people still came from the suburbs to which they'd fled just to have a meal there; it was almost as if there were a tacit agreement amongst the gangstas to leave the area around Mister C's alone.

On May 3, 2014, Eli Caniglia's Venice Inn, the last restaurant operating under the Caniglia name, will close its doors. At least the owners, brothers Jerry and Chuck Caniglia, are "99.9 percent sure" it will; according to Omaha.com's Sarah Baker Hansen, the restaurant was sold to an unnamed local developer, and sometimes stuff happens to foil a deal before the closing paperwork is completed and the check handed over. Most likely, though, is that after that date, all that will be left of the Caniglia legacy will be Mister C's spaghetti sauce and Italian salad dressing, which you can buy online.

It's not the same. It wasn't the sauce, or the dressing, or the steaks. The Caniglia restaurants were neighborhood restaurants, embodying the neighborhood mentality, a closer psychological and social connection than the vaguer "local" or near-generic "community". The Caniglias were people you knew; they went to Mass at your parish church, and you went to school with their kids (hey, Tony Caniglia! You remember me? We went to Pratt together in '74-'75!). And it showed in how they ran their restaurants: they didn't just "care about" their customers — they liked their customers. Pleasing customers wasn't just good business, it was in the grand old tradition of Italian Catholic hospitality.

When I was last in the QSR business, I read that some chains were trying to individualize their stores by region and community, in matters like decor and restaurant construction. Managers wander amid their customers to make inquiries about their customers' experience. Corporate training packages try to teach and inculcate a more professionalized form of customer care.

It's not the same; it's like trying to mass-produce grandmothers, or carbon-copy a Santa Lucia festival. Perhaps it's because the corporate mindset simply can't process the neighborhood mentality. Or perhaps it's because the neighborhood is a relic of the past, the last remnants in America of the Gemeinschaft community being torn apart by the constant relocations and transfers of modern Gesellschaft life.

Nevertheless, I'd still like to try to re-create the Caniglia restaurant experience. Besides, I make a mean lasagna.