When the waiter handed me a check one day with a twenty five dollar tip on a forty dollar tab, I said, “Geez, nice tip, you must’ve given good service.” To which the waiter just beamed and said, “That’s my prestige!” To which I then beamed inside as I handed him the money.
Because despite the fact “prestige” sounded wrong or at best what you’d call a tad off (forte? calling card?) as far as I was concerned the word was perfect. And if you, dear reader, had linked the tease at the end of my recent post “Star light, star bright…”, you would agree “prestige” was the perfect word. Because it came from Tony! Or the guy I’ve been calling Tony since I started this blog. But now that things are out in the open and everyone knows where we worked, I figure it’s time to let Tony out of the bottle. To let breathe in the air of disclosure this rare vintage wine.
Tony’s name is Aldo Leone from the famous Mama Leone family, grand nephew of Mama herself who started her legendary restaurant in 1905. And because that name to this day carries weight especially here in New York… it gets Aldo out of traffic tickets because cops and nuns ate for free there, it gets him into sporting events because coaches ate there as kids, and of course it gets him into crowded restaurants (especially Italian restaurants)… Aldo just had to be “Tony” for me to stay anonymous. The man knows everyone! And knew everyone from Rocky Marciano to Eisenhower.
But rather than cover his life at this time which I definitely will in the future, whose stories are so Runyonesque you’d think they were fiction, I’d rather start off with how the whole thing got started. Meaning Mama Leone’s. For it’s there that Aldo starting as a busboy somewhere around age twelve (he once got a fifty cent tip from Al Capone) was forged through his formative years into who he is now. Which is classic and then some!
But now the restaurant…
Back in 1905, a thirty-something Louisa Leone along with her husband Geralamo, ran a boarding house of sorts for a few Italian immigrants. In which Louisa was the cook. And one day, while two of the boarders who ate at the place were discussing the previous night’s meal in the theater where they worked (they were stage hands), they were overheard by a tenor nearby who was rehearsing.
“Excuse-a me, signores,” said the tenor politely interrupting, “but where did you say you have-a this coniglio polenta? It’s my favorite-a deesh!” (stewed rabbit)
“At Mama Leone’s house,” one of the men replied.
“Well ask her please I can go there tonight-a for deener.”
And the men did. Because the tenor’s name was Enrico Caruso, the most famous Italian tenor in the whole wide world. Or tenor period!
But this is the part that blew me away when Aldo told it to me. He said Mama said when she heard the news that Caruso was coming for dinner, “Tell him I’m not doing anything special, I’ll make him the coniglio polenta and that’s it.” Can you imagine? Can you imagine being that cavalier about Caruso? That’s like bringing Sinatra home in 1955, and your mother saying, “He’s getting spaghetti, that’s it.” Fantastic!
So Caruso came and Mama conquered, her food was just what he’d hoped, so much so that he kept coming back through his run. Then soon, because the word had quickly gotten around that “Caruso is dining at Mama’s”, Mayor Jimmy Walker caught wind and joined in the gathering. And there they were… Enrico Caruso, Jimmy Walker, a couple of boarders and the family, all breaking bread at the long kitchen table at Mama’s. I mean talk about DaVinci’s Last Supper, what would you give for an oil painting of that?
Well eventually, after several dinners and at Walker’s prompting along with Caruso’s endorsement, Mama decided to open what you call a real restaurant. She just had to. So she took her talents to West 48th to a building the mayor had found, and the story that is Mama Leone’s took root and was born. And man did it take root!
For the place eventually grew in size to where it seated almost twelve hundred people, and that could mean serving three thousand dinners on a night. Which is amazing. Because even though they had about a hundred waiters and God knows how many cooks in the kitchen with Mama, I still can’t fathom how the food and the orders got out. But they did. All those dinners all in one night and for many, many years thereafter, all because a famous tenor happened to like rabbit. Can you say destiny???
In 1959 the business was sold to a group called Restaurant Associates, which was fifteen years after Mama’s death, and the name lived on from there in various incarnations. But none of course had the Mama Leone touch or the charm of the original location (which actually had a trout stream running through the place where you caught your own fish) and the franchise finally died for good in the 90’s. But the name Leone is far from dead as people in New York have long memories, and as long as Aldo’s around that memory will persist. I know I for one will keep it alive and just for the privilege of knowing him… the man’s a legend, his life is a book and the next time his birthday comes around he’ll turn eighty nine. Now that’s his “prestige”!
See you next time, dear reader, the bar may be closed but the voice of the joint still crows!