Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Italian. Well, sort of.

New York City, 

I recently walked over to 139 West 10th Street in order to see where the Italian restaurant in John Sloan’s 1912 painting Renganeschi’s Saturday Night had once been located. Sloan, who lived  two blocks away and is known to have eaten there, was joined on at least one occasion by Robert Henri, a fellow artist of the Ashcan School. The artists and writers in Greenwich Village were fascinated by their neighbors, often using the social life of the city as the subject of their art.1 In this painting, Sloan depicts three young women on a girls’ night out, a scene so familiar that updating the clothing style would bring it into the present day. In fact, it was fascinating to see that there was still a restaurant in the old building, and that things had not changed all that much.

Renganeschi opened in 1898 when foreign restaurants were gaining in popularity. While the dishes on the menu below from 1916 appear to be authentic, there were already reports in New York that it was becoming difficult to find real Italian food. Historian Andrew Haley recounts in Turning the Tables that standard American fare began to appear on the menus of Italian restaurants, German beer halls, and Chinese chop suey houses in an attempt to attract more customers from the emerging middle-class.2 The price of Renganeschi’s five-course "table d’hote dinner" depended on what was ordered and when the meal was served. The price increased from fifty cents to sixty-five cents if lobster was selected for the third course, and seventy-five cents if the dinner with lobster was served between the hours of 5:00 and 9:00 PM. The advertisement for the Italian Swiss Colony winery in California shows the type of  wicker-clad bottle once used for the Chianti wines of Tuscany.

In 1927, Giovanni Renganeschi sold the restaurant to Sicilian-born Giovanni Ballato who renamed John’s Old Place, an anglicized reference to their shared first name. Surprisingly, the menu below from about 1936 employs a number of French culinary terms to describe the Americanized fare. The “dinner de luxe” costs one dollar, reflecting the deflationary impact of the Great Depression. When Ballato sold the restaurant in 1938, he was proud that it had been in continuous operation for forty years, not counting the four months it was closed by the authorities during Prohibition. Neither owner appears to have taken the Volstead Act very seriously.

The townhouse at 139 West 10th Street dates back to 1845. After its life as a residence, it housed many types of restaurants. In the 1950s, it was the College of Complexes, an unconventional supper club where the walls were painted black. During informal lectures and poetry contests, budding writers often jotted down their ideas on whatever space was available. 

When it was a beatnik bar and coffeehouse named the Ninth Circle, the graffiti in the restroom inspired playwright Edward Albee to title his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Janis Joplin lived in an apartment on the third floor and music legends like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix  jammed in the basement. The table tent menu below from about 1968 states that it was open from noon 'til closing.

The restaurant is now called De Santos. The cozy interior has a rustic feeling and the small garden patio at the back is still used as a dining area. While looking around, I asked the manager what type of food they served. “Italian,” he replied, adding after a moment’s thought, “Well, not really Italian, it’s sort of Italian.” His answer was close to what the owner of Renganeschi's might have said a hundred years earlier. Savvy restaurateurs still modify their menus to attract customers. The restaurant that preceded De Santos was the Caffè Torino, an “Itasia” that offered basic Italian cuisine and Asian dishes, such as spring rolls and beef tataki.

Owner Luis Miguel Amutio created the De Santos concept in Mexico, establishing restaurants in Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, before opening this branch in New York in 2008.
Shown in two scans due to the large size (11 x 17 in.), the menu below includes Italian-inspired starters like octopus carpaccio, grilled calamari, and smoked mozzarella with prosciutto, along with a selection of homemade pastas. However, the menu includes other types of food, such as the basil crusted swordfish with "cajun corn," and a bacon cheeseburger served with truffle fries. There are also American standards like fillet of beef, rack of lamb, and roast chicken, which are the same type of dishes found on Renganeschi’s menu. 

As it happens, De Santos is the first restaurant in New York City to equip its waitstaff with Apple iPads to take orders. Some believe that such devices will eventually replace paper menus. Perhaps the waiterless restaurant, once the quest of entrepreneurs who developed mechanical devices like the Automat in the early 1900s, is just around the corner in the Digital Age.

1. Gerald W. McFarland, Inside Greenwich Village: A New York Neighborhood, 1898-1918, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 2001.
2. Andrew P. Haley, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the Middle Class, 1880-1920, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2011.


Compactstory said...

This is just the type of blog I like. Very particular in content, very well researched and very readable. I particularly enjoyed the Renganeschi post. My wife and I saw the original in Chicago a few years ago and it evoked then, and still does today, the sense that women were beginning to develop a new kind of social (and political) independence.
Anyway, congratulations. Great post!

Yank said...

That venue has quite a history...

Cate Fitt said...

When I was a sophomore in college (1964-65) my boyfriend worked at the Ninth Circle as a waiter. When he had a weekend day shift I would sit at a back table doing my homework. There were big bowls of peanuts at the bar and on the tables. By the end of the evening the floor would be ankle deep in peanut shells. I was innocent in a way that would be impossible now and was completely oblivious to most of what went on there.

polly curtiss said...

Great post! I just came across a small printers block advertising John and Gene Restaurant at 139 W. 10th. They were using the same logo (the chef carrying a steaming bowl). The must have played around with the name during their period of ownership.

Anonymous said...

Renganeschi - My grandmother's brother.
Still have the menus

Anonymous said...

My husband is the great nephew of Giovanni Renganeschi; Frederick ( Rick). Do you have original menus from Renganeschi’s?