Sal Scognamillo is one chef who’s not afraid to reveal the secret to one of his signature dishes. For the past 35 years he’s made the trek from his home in North Woodmere to Patsy’s Italian Restaurant on 56th Street in Manhattan, serving up classic Neapolitan fare including the eatery’s famous marinara sauce.
“You have the tomatoes, a little garlic, oil, let it come to a boil then simmer it for 15 to 20 minutes,” says Scognamillo, 57, who is also a co-owner with his dad, Joe, also of North Woodmere. “If you cook it longer than that, you lose the freshness of the tomatoes. That’s the secret. Add salt and pepper and don’t put the tomato paste in until the end, just to thicken it.”
The recipe for the success of the restaurant, founded by his grandfather Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo in 1944, is just as simple. “I make a joke that we’re still here because of the three F’s — food, family and Frank Sinatra,” Sal says of the restaurant that was a popular hangout for the famed crooner, not to mention dozens of other celebrities, from Lucille Ball to George Clooney, whose photos adorn its walls.
But first and foremost, Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, has been a family affair for four generations. On a recent afternoon, while Sal was slaving over such dishes as eggplant Parmigiana, his wife, Lisa, was going over the books while his dad, Joe, 86, greeted everyone who walked in. Also on hand was mom Rose, who turns 88 on Tuesday and for years worked as the cashier.
In all that time, the restaurant has had only three chefs. Pasquale, who was dubbed Patsy upon arrival at Ellis Island from Naples, taught the recipes to Joe, 86, who eventually took over as chef-owner. Joe, in turn, taught Sal, who started as executive chef in 1988 and is now grooming his older son, Joe, 23. (Though Sal taught him recipes, Joe, who has a master’s in business from Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut, handles reservations, scheduling parties and other office duties.)
Ask Sal or his dad who’s the better chef, and in unison they’ll reply, “He is.”
“What’s really amazing about him is that he remembers everything. I don’t,” Sal says. “When I made the St. Joseph Bread, he took a bite and he said ‘you put too many egg whites in there.’ ”
That combination of memory and seasoning to taste epitomized Joe’s cooking style. “We would make pots of sauce, like marinara, fresh every day,” Joe Sr. says. “I’d say ‘Sal, this is the amount of salt you add. You put in your hand. He said, ‘Dad look at your hand and look at mine.’ So we put the salt in a cup. Mine was 3/4 and his was 1/2. He taught me how to measure.”
Both, however, have maintained the cardinal rule imparted by Pasquale. “He believed in top quality, freshness and everything should be done by hand. Even the garlic was peeled by hand,” Joe says. “He taught that to me and I passed it on to Sal.”
Since then, the family has shared many of its restaurants' stories in “Patsy’s Cookbook” (2002) and “Patsy’s Italian Family Cookbook” in 2015 and sells jars of several types of sauce.
FAMILY THAT COOKS TOGETHER …
While family is served up in big helpings at Patsy’s Italian Restaurant (as it’s legally known to avoid confusion with other Patsy’s establishments, including Patsy’s Pizzeria in Harlem), the long hours and demands of running the business have been a hardship at times.
When Sal was growing up, the restaurant was open every day but Monday. “I’d be sleeping while the kids were at school, and when they’d be home, I’d be working,” Joe says.
Joe still remembers the steamy summer night he worked a double shift and a customer came in minutes before closing and asked for gnocchi. “My father said ‘Hey Joey, do you know there’s no more gnocchi in the house?' So I went inside and made gnocchi by hand because my father could not say no to that man,” Joe recalls. “He said the ridiculous, you do now. The impossible will take you 10 minutes more.”
By the time Sal was 13, he stated spending his summer vacations at the restaurant. “It was really to spend time with my dad,” Sal says. “I had no idea I would become the chef.”
For his father, there was no doubt of his own future. “I was practically born in the kitchen. I had no choice,” he says. “Pop invested everything he had in the business. After school I’d come here and clean shrimp.”
Sal, however, planned to embark on a career in film and television production. He even worked for a few months as a cameraman at Telecare, the television station of the Diocese of Rockville Centre that’s now know as Catholic Faith Network. When that stint ended, finding work in television proved daunting.
“I couldn’t get a job, so my father said you want to learn how to cook? I guess it worked out OK,” Sal says, admitting he didn’t know parsley from basil when he started.
“The first day I was here, he said ‘I’m the chef and you’re the apprentice. When this is over, you’ll be the chef and I’ll be the apprentice,” Sal says.
Within a short time, Sal suggested changes to the menu, but Joe was less than enthusiastic about adding meatballs to the menu. “I said “Sal, nobody eats meatballs today. Everything is this fancy stuff,” Joe says. But Sal was persistent, and Joe agreed to trying them for one week.
“I said if they don’t sell, don’t ask me again, and then we shook hands,” Joe says. “That week we sold 1,100 meatballs. Since then, I never said anything else to Sal.”
Equally amicable have been both men’s working relationships with their wives. “All of our friends told me don’t do it, it’s not a good idea to work together,” Sal says. “Sometimes it’s a little bit too much because you’re constantly talking about work even when you’re home. But overall it’s been good.”
Adds Lisa, 55, a former attorney who joined the restaurant on the business end in 2015, “We’re both so busy that working together has never been a problem.”
CELEBS’ PASTA PILGRIMAGE
With its location near Broadway and Lincoln Center, it’s no surprise that the restaurant has been a celebrity magnet since the days when Pasquale ran it.
“Rosemary Clooney used to say ‘I have to make a Patsy’s pasta pilgrimage,' ” Sal says jokingly.
Without a doubt, the restaurant’s most popular patron was Sinatra, who would have minestrone delivered to him backstage when he played Broadway’s Paramount theater.
Sinatra felt so at home that one night he walked into the kitchen and insisted that Joe teach him how to make his favorite, tomato-basil sauce.
“I got two pots off the rack. Everything was exactly the same, the tomatoes, the oil. We were standing side to side. He did everything I did,” Joe says. “An hour and a half went by and the sauce was done. I got two spoons. He tasted his, and said, ‘I don’t understand it. Why doesn’t my sauce taste like yours?’ And I said, ‘Why can’t I sing like you?’ ”
The first time Sinatra learned that Sal had become the chef, he again came in the kitchen and told Sal “I hope you cook as well as your father.”
“I knew why he did it,” Sal says. “He wanted to make me feel at ease because he knew I was nervous.”
Celebrity or not, all customers were treated equally. Pasquale would go around to each table and ask everyone if they enjoyed their meal. “People thought he was the busboy,” Joe says. “He wore a gray jacket so people wouldn’t realize he was the chef.”
It’s a tradition that continues with Sal. “The greatest compliment I’ve gotten is from people who’ve come here since before I was born,” he says. “I’ll say ‘I hope you enjoyed everything tonight.’ And they say, ‘I know what the food tastes like before I sit down. That’s why I come here.”