14 July 2008

Cafiero's: An Eye-Witness Account

In my continuing excavation of Cafiero's—the once legendary, now forgotten Italian eatery on President Street near Columbia—one thing I have not been able to discover was how the place looked and operated inside. From the looks of the storefront, it couldn't have been that big.

Clearing up this matter and many more is one Ralph Scarfogliero, who lived across from said restaurant as a kid, and recently left a comment on Cafiero's item I posted way back in May 2007. First among his many tidbits of information was the name of the proprietor: he was called Sharkey, if you can believe it. He wife Katie and sister Mamie were waitresses. Brother Frank was the cook. There were also waiters named John and Red.

From the sound of Ralph's account—which I will unroll verbatim soon—the place operated a bit like a private club and could easily have provided a scene in many a Scorcese film. There were a few tables up front as you walked in, and twice as many in the back, and I have heard from other past visitors that if Sharkey knew you, you were taken to the back.

If you ever have heard all that talk about New York life being more flavorful in the past and have questioned it, consider Ralph's testimony:

Sharkey would always greet the neighborwomen by saying hello Sophie dear, or hello Connie dear. He lived above the restaurant and his sister and her husband lived on the top floor. They only served lunch and one 6PM sitting for dinner. There were 6 tables in the front, and you could walk back through the kitchen to the back room to find another 8 tables. When I was a kid Sharkey would send me around the corner to the bakery to get another 3 or 4 loaves of fresh Italian bread when he ran short. His wife would type up the menu for the day, there were no printed menus. He retired in the seventies and although was approached to sell the restaurant many times, he always refused. I can remember one time some 15 years after he retired, someone would come back from being out of town to dine there only to discover Sharkey sitting outside telling them sorry, he's retired.

They would make the biggest heroes ever, only cutting off about 4 inches from a loaf of Italian bread. Frank had a knack of pitching a ball of dough from the kitchen all the way to the front of the restaurant where I would be waiting for my take out, and beam me in the head. He never missed and I never caught him in the act.
Boy I sure do miss those days.

My heart just throbs with yearning when I hear stories like that.

Other things I've learned: they had valet parking, to handle the many cars that were often idling out front; the kitchen was open and could be inspected as you passed through to the back room; the cooks handed the dishes through an open window onto a buffet table, where the waiters picked them up; decor was nil; most ingredients were imported; the house wine was home made.

Everyone describes the food as not just good, but great. This could just be nostalgia talking, but the raves sound convincing. Dishes mentioned include the Charcoal Broiled Veal Spedini, Vinegar Peppers over grilled pork chop, potato croquettes, the sides of rigatoni.

Apparently, after he retired, Sharkey just kept the restaurant as it was: tables, chairs, kitchen, etc. He just didn't open it for business. Pretty sadistic, dontcha think?

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