Everyone has a favorite North End restaurant and there have always been many to choose from. These days I see throngs of tourists, elderly leaf peepers, and high school groups waiting in long lines at our local restaurants. Sixty years ago visiting the North End was taking a walk on the wild side and only the adventurous came, but the food was worth it.
Probably the best, and most expensive, mid-twentieth century North End restaurant was Stella on Fleet Street. It was Jackie Kennedy’s favorite and whenever she came the word went out and a crowd would gather to catch a glimpse of her when she left. The waiters at Stella wore tuxedo jackets and were trained in “continental” service. That meant your server would finish and plate your dinner at the table. If you ordered steak Diane, for example, a waiter and his assistant would wheel a cart with a butane burner next to your table and finish cooking the steak while you watched. He would finish it with a grand flourish, a flambee of brandy, which would elicit applause from the diners. This presentation took time and considerable skill, both of which are unavailable today.
On Hanover Street near the Central Artery was the European restaurant which catered to a more middle-class, pizza and beer crowd. Waiters hated working the lunch shift because it was always packed with the City Hall crowd. They were terrible tippers.
Farther down Hanover Street was the Cantina Italiana, another red sauce place and at the corner of Hanover and Commercial Streets was Giro’s where the local mob guys hung out. You might see such local celebrities as Paulie Intiso, Tony Canadian, or Mike the Wise Guy siting at the bar.
My favorite restaurant was Felicia’s on Richmond Street, not so much because of the food, which was very good, but because eating there was like being in a Fellini movie. Felicia Solimine was the star of the show. She pranced around the dining room dressed in colorful Italian peasant clothes entertaining the customers. If a party of men came in she would ask the waiter, “Are they wearing suits?” If they were, she would spring into action.
Like a leopard stalking a herd of gazelles on the Serengeti, she would approach the table, give a little curtsy and deftly take the menus away. “You don’t need those,” she would say, “I’ll order for you.” Felicia would then proceed to order whatever was approaching its expiration date along with a a few bottles of very expensive wine. It never failed.
The waiters were almost as entertaining as Felicia. Louie Capizzi was the maitre’d whose main job was keeping Felicia happy and under control. She could be volatile. Another waiter was a smooth operator named Tony DiIeso. He was good looking in a Bobby Darin kind of way and knew how to romance customers. Felicia liked him because he projected the slick, sophisticated image she wanted. She always gave Tony the best tables and extra shifts. The other, less attractive waiters resented this favoritism and called him “Tony the S-O” behind his back.
Steve Milino was a school teacher who worked the floor a couple of week nights. He was also the local Scout leader, but that’s another story. And then there was Ralphie. There’s a rule in the restaurant business that you should never hire a fat waiter because they’ll eat all your profits, but Felicia made an exception for Ralphie. He started as a bus boy when he was in high school and, with much pleading and cajoling, was finally made a waiter. The problem was, he loved Felicia’s cooking. Every time he walked by the antipasto station he would grab a handful of salami slices or chunks of Provolone cheese. And the marinated artichoke hearts? Forget about it. Felicia had to buy them by the gallon, all because of Ralphie.
Once, Felicia decided to make stuffed mushrooms, which she didn’t do too often because it was a lot of work. She cooked them on a Saturday afternoon and by the time Ralphie arrived for work at 5 o’clock, three trays were cooling on the counter. Felicia was having a private meeting with Louie in one of the back rooms and Ralphie was left alone in the kitchen. The smell of the stuffed mushrooms made his head spin. All his scruples abandoned him and he tasted one, then two and three. Before long he had eaten half an tray. He hurriedly rearranged the mushrooms taking some from the other trays and spreading them out. That didn’t look right so he decided to eat ten more and fill two trays with the remaining mushrooms. He hid the empty tray in the pantry.
Felicia returned from her meeting in good spirits and asked where the other tray of mushrooms was. Ralphie tried conning Felicia telling her she only made two trays of mushrooms, but she saw the breadcrumbs at the corners of his mouth and smelled Parmesan cheese on his breath. She called him every demeaning name she could think of and ended her tirade with one of her signature Felicia statements, “Your parents sent you to college to learn how to be stupid, Ralphie.”
My cousin, Michael, was a waiter at Felicia’s for several years. One night a customer ordered “chicken Verdicchio ” one of her most popular dishes, but he wanted it without mushrooms. When Michael told Felicia she was irate. “That’s crazy,” she said. “You can’t make chicken Verdicchio without mushrooms.”
“But Phil” Michael replied, “He says he’s deathly allergic to mushrooms. If he eats one he’ll die.”
“What does he know?” Felicia said. “I’ll show him how to make chicken Verdicchio.”
And with that she turned back to the stove and in a few minutes was done. She handed Michael the plate and said, “Give this to Mr. Allergy and see how he likes it.”
Not only had Felicia put mushrooms on the plate, she put extra mushrooms. In fact, there were so many mushrooms you couldn’t see the chicken.
On his way out of the kitchen, Mike ate as many mushrooms as he could. The rest he stuffed into his pockets. He served the dish to the customer and hovered close to the table thinking the guy would go into convulsions any minute. But… nothing happened. The customer ate all the chicken, the artichoke hearts and the lemon slices. He even used a piece of bread to sop up the sauce. When Michael cleared the table, the customer said it was the best chicken he had ever eaten.
Back in the kitchen Felicia looked at Michael and asked, “Well, did he die?”
“No” Michael said, “In fact, he loved it.”
Felicia put her hands on her waist and gave Michael a smirk. “See,” she said. “What did I say?”
Felicia Solimine, a great lady and a North End original.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.