Monday, February 25, 2019

The Lost Guffanti's Restaurant - 274 7th Avenue

The restaurant as it appeared in 1920.  Christmas wreaths adorn the windows and a roof of clay tiles has been added to the storefronts.  photo by William J. Roege from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
In the 1860's the block of Seventh Avenue between 25th and 26th Street was lined with second hand stores.  At No. 275 was H. Hart who advertised on May 3, 1864, "if you want to see after your advantage by selling your Cast Off Clothing, Furniture and Carpets, then give me a trial."   Nearly identical ads were placed by shop owners up and down the block, including Morris Abrahams who ran the store at No. 274 by 1870.

One advertisement promised "M. Abrahams will pay the best prices for ladies' and gents' Cast-off Clothing, by calling or addressing by post."  Another, in 1870, assured nervous women, "ladies attended to by Mrs. Abrahams."

Abrahams, his wife Minnie, and their two sons Mark and Samuel (their surname was confusingly listed as Abrams, Abraham, and Abrahams) lived above the store.  No. 274 was the center in a row of three identical four-story brick-faced buildings.  Each had a store in the ground floor and residential space above.  A simple bracketed cornice united the structures.

It is unclear when Abrahams purchased No. 274; but he owned it in 1892 when Joseph Guffanti leased the store for his saloon.  What made his tavern slightly different, and what would change his future forever, was the little room in the back where patrons could purchase lunch or dinner.

On July 1, 1900 The New York Times described Guffanti's saloon, saying, "The room in which liquid refreshments are served opens on the street and is like most other saloons of the neighborhood, except that it is a little more dingy and dark.  But the restaurant, entered by the saloon's back door, is unique, for nobody else knows how to concoct the strange dishes that are prepared there, and Joe never loans out his receipts for cookery."

It was not Joe's wife, Mary, who did the cooking, but Joe himself.  He opened the kitchen during specified lunch and dinner hours.  In the eight years he had operated by the time of the Times article, word had gotten out.  "The stroke of the clock seems to fill the six or eight small tables like magic."

But in 1900 Guffanti's was by any description still more saloon than restaurant, and its patrons mostly working class.  "In the centre of the dining room are a couple of pool tables, designed not for the acquirement of revenue but for the amusement of guests who happen to come in a few minutes ahead of eating time."  

But the article did hint of things to come.  Guffanti's authentic Italian cuisine was drawing more affluent patrons who bypassed the bar and headed straight for the back room.  "Italians naturally predominate, but they are of the more prosperous class and are almost all well dressed.  Then there are business men of the neighborhood, who like Joe's food better than what they can get at home; men-about-town, whose appetites have grown satiated with the elaborate viands of restaurants more 'swell': reporters, detectives, actors, and a variety of other wanderers for whom the odor of Signor Guffanti's soup has a pleasant charm."

Joe Guffanti had yet to realize the potential of his cooking.  The article noted that the walls of the restaurant room were unpainted and the furniture was "well nigh ready to fall to pieces."  But that would change before long.

Born in Lake Como, Italy, Guffanti had come to America alone while still a boy.  He and his wife Mary (who was Irish) had five children, Joe, Jr., Irene, Alexander, Madeline, and Frances.

A few months before The Times article, Joseph had decided to go back to his homeland.  It had been, after all, decades since he had seen his mother and brothers.  He booked a steerage ticket and turned the saloon over to a trusted employee.  He anticipated the trip would last two or three months.  It did not.

Three weeks later he was back in the saloon.  He explained "I thought I'd have a mighty fine time, but when I got home the guys around there knew I was an American by the cut of my trousers.  So they pulled my leg and tried to work bunko games on me and played hell with me generally.  I couldn't stay in the country--couldn't stand it--that was all there was to it."  As for his family, "I was glad to see the old woman, but my brothers wouldn't have anything to do with me.  When I got there it was early in the morning.  Before noon I was packing up my valise, and that night I pulled out.  No. Sir!  I'll never go back again.  An American can't stand it over there."

In 1902 Morris Abrahams purchased No. 272 (it had housed a barber shop for years).  He now owned all three of the 20-foot wide buildings and soon connected the upper floors internally as a hotel--albeit not an especially high class operation.  His son, Mark, hired architect Joseph Kelly to make "improvements on the 4-story hotel," now using the single address of 274 Seventh Avenue, in May 1907.

The following year, in June, Joseph Guffanti expanded.  By now he had realized that his fortune was not in running a saloon, but a restaurant.  When he renewed his lease on No. 274, he leased No. 272 as well.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "permission given under terms of lease to connect."  Within three years Guffanti's Restaurant would engulf all three storefronts.

Author Helen Bartlett Bridgman described the restaurant in 1920 as it was around that time of the expansion.  "Guffanti's was then a modest restaurant in an unfashionable quarter of Manhattan...For half a dollar in the early days of this century, one had quite enough, but not too much for twice as much.  Every dish then as now was delicious; but judgment in quantity as well as quality was in evidence.

"The pace was set by the crisp freshness of the onions and radishes, served with sardines and anchovies, as a snappy prelude to a heaping platter of the best spaghetti that ever was, enriched by a red sauce that cannot be surpassed in Italy itself."

She went on to describe the sauce as being prepared with "tomato paste, chicken livers, peppers green and red, onion, oil, lemon and spices" and called the minestrone "almost a full meal."

In 1910 the New York Hotel Record described Guffanti's as "Famous for table d'hote dinners, serving from 900 to 1,500 dinners daily in typical Italian style, with music."  Joseph Guffanti had made it.

An early postcard included modes of modern transportation--a blimp, a biplane and a motor car.

The music the Hotel Record had mentioned were singing mandolin players.  In her 1920 book Within My Horizon Helen Bartlett Bridgman remembered a visit years earlier. "By and by one of the mandolin players...rose and sang in a remarkably good baritone, walking back and forth as he did so, while his companion joined with zest in the chorus, giving 'O Santa Lucia' with a yearn in the prolonged 'O' and a tender pride in the 'Lucia' which I have never known before or since."

She commented "Guffanti must be a millionaire by now," recalling that years earlier, "Every seat was filled, with many waiting; for the public knows a good thing when it sees it."

When Joseph Guffanti had first opened his saloon and restaurant Manhattan's theater and entertainment district was located just three blocks south, on 23rd Street.  The New York Times decades later remembered the entertainers who haunted the restaurant.  "Enrico Caruso sang there many times to patrons including John Barrymore Alfred E. Smith, Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell and John Philip Sousa."

As the theaters moved north to Times Square, Guffanti responded by opening a second restaurant at 161 West 40th Street.   Additionally, he established the Guffanti Inn on Ocean parkway in Coney Island.

When this photo was taken in 1918 the brick facade was still painted and handsome canvas awnings protected the hotel rooms from the heat and sun.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On September 8, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported on an afternoon event that day.  "Meeting of Italian restaurant men to arrange a dinner and entertainment for the sailors of the Italian battleship Conte Di Cavour at Guffanti's."  The focus of the several restaurant owners present that day would change drastically in two months.

On November 18 Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages (it was originally intended to save grain for the war effort; however the war had ended a week earlier).  The Act went into effect on June 30, 1919 and permanent Prohibition began on January 17, 1920.

Prohibition posed a major threat to hotels and restaurants and, in fact, was directly the cause of hundreds to fail in New York City over the next few years.    On February 22, 1920 the New-York Tribune ran an article entitled "Death of the Table d'Hote" and predicted that Prohibition would be the end of such restaurants (table d'hote referred to their offering specific dishes at fixed prices, unlike ala carte restaurants).

"Unless the law is altered to permit wine, half the table d'hote restaurants will go out of business, and that will be a sad thing for New York."  The article listed Guffanti's among the long list of restaurants it deemed as being endangered.  "So it would seem that New Yorkers all these years when they were supposed to have been 'dining out' actually were 'drinking out.'"

Joseph Guffanti responded by circumventing the law.  On March 24, 1920 Federal agents barged into the Seventh Avenue restaurant and, according to the New-York Tribune, "seized 100 barrels of whisky, valued at $200,000."  

And two years, later, on January 9, 1922 The New York Herald ran the headline "Guffanti's Raided; 2 Held, Wine Seized."  The article noted "Guffanti's had claimed the attention of prohibition agents for several months.  Several of the agents, posing as customers, took seats at a table and received a quart of wine, for which they paid $5."

But Guffanti had learned his lesson from the first raid.  Wherever the wine came from, the agents could not find it.  After head waiter Gane Ganella and the offending waiter Benjamin Meshio were hauled off, "the agents made a search of the premises, but found no intoxicants other than the quart of wine they said they bought."

Joseph Guffanti had other problems that year.  His son, Alexander, had become a stock broker.  In order to induce him to join the family business, Joseph offered him 50 shares of Guffanti Inn stock to give up his Wall Street job.  The young man did so, but when his father became suspicious of his "handling of the cash," he fired him.  On September 1, 1922 Alexander took his father to court demanding his stock, which was reportedly worth $50,000 (more than three quarters of a million today).

This hand colored vintage postcard was a marketing tool in the 1920's.

In 1925 Joseph put his nephew, Domenick Casiero, in charge of the Seventh Avenue restaurant in order to devote his full energies to the Guffanti Inn.  Like his uncle, 
Caserio had come to New York as a boy.  He was 15 when he left Trambinello and immediately went to work at Guffanti's as a busboy.  He had worked his way up to waiter, captain, maitre d'hotel, and now proprietor.

Joseph Guffanti died four years later, on February 23, 1929.  His widow, Elizabeth, was his second wife.  His estate (reported by The New York Times at $1,039,598) was divided among Elizabeth and the children.  

Most likely Joseph Guffanti had insisted that his nephew preserve the restaurant's well known name.  And he did; although he sneaked "Casa Domenick" in small lettering on the menu and wine list.

Domenick managed to slip his own name onto the menu.

In 1935 Caserio Domenick purchased the business from the Guffanti family.  He seems to have operated it seamlessly.  In 1939 food critic Selmer Fougner in his Dining Out in New York and What to Order suggested the "Chicken alia Cacciatora (75 cents), Scallopine of Veal al Marsala (75 cents)," or the "Spaghetti (50 cents)."  (He got the proprietorship of the eatery slightly wrong, saying it was "famous since 1892 at the same address and under the same management.")

Caserio's two sons, Edmund and Robert, worked in the business with him.  When Domenick died on April 11, 1952, at the age of 66, The Times noted that the sons would "continue to operate the restaurant with their mother."  In reporting on his death, the newspaper mentioned that Guffanti's Restaurant was the "rendezvous for opera stars, politicians, actors and musicians" and said "Although the restaurant now is surrounded by the fur district, many of the older actors still dine there regularly."

The restaurant received some bad press when a patron, Rose Puleo, fell down the steps leading from the upstairs women's room on April 7, 1954.  She was a "pocketbook worker" employed by Garay & Co. nearby at No. 33 East 33rd Street, making $67 a week.  Rose claimed that her tumble was caused by worn carpeting and a loose stair tread.  Now, said her lawyer, she was no longer able to work, had incurred heavy medical costs and lost wages.

She sued for $75,000 to cover her lost income and medical bills.  Her husband, Joseph, claimed that because of his wife's injuries and inability to work, he was due damages totaling $25,000.  Their $100,000 lawsuit would equal more than nine times that much today.  Although the Domenick brothers' attorney cast serious doubt that the carpeting was worn or that the staircase was not maintained (essentially intimating that the fall was planned), the Puleo's were awarded $12,233.50.

The venerable Guffanti's Restaurant closed sometime in the 1960's.  The entire block of 19th century buildings was razed in 2000 to be replaced by the 17-story apartment building, Chelsea Centro.  Half a century after its doors were closed few New Yorkers remember that the once-famous restaurant ever existed.

1 comment:

  1. 1917 lunch and dinner menus: