Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pete D'Agnese Interview – August 1976

Way back in October 2010 (here), I did a post about the well-remembered D'Agnese's Restaurant and Pizza businesses. (I still think about a great sub I had once from the Root Road store.)

Well, here's a nice article about Pete D'Agnese Sr. that tells the story of his businesses and also offers some of his thoughts and advice about Italian cooking. It was written by Bill Scrivo and ran in the Lorain Journal on August 15, 1976.

Bill Scrivo's People
Lorain's Pete D'Agnese Sr: He Speaks Universal Language of Good Food

IF THERE IS a universal language in this world, it has to be food. Everyone understands a juicy steak, a tasty dish of chicken paprikas, a good cheese blintzes or a succulent serving of spaghetti.

No one appreciates good food more than Peter D'Agnese Sr., who certainly has to rank as one of the premier Italian cooks of Lorain County, if not the state of Ohio.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a baker who came to America from Italy, Pete D'Agnese learned his profession at the side of his father and mother. He cooks in the Neapolitan tradition which some say is the finest example of the Italian cuisine.

Being a good cook is no mean accomplishment in any ethnic culture. To be an acknowledged capo cucina in the Italian tradition is perhaps one of the most coveted of culinary accomplishments, since most everyone loves Italian food.

If you don't believe that, look at the vast pizza industry in the United States. Four decades ago, pizza was unheard of here, except in families of Italian immigrants who came here in the great migration some 30 years before. Pizza began as a sort of treat for the kids mothers made with dough left over from making bread.

"THEY ADDED TOMATOES and spices and that was the first pizza," says Pete D'Agnese.

It was not only the first pizza. It marked the beginning of the love affair of the American people with Italian food in general. And like any love affair, it has its secrets, some of which Pete D'Agnese is willing to share in the interests of good eating, or "Buon appetito," as they say in Italian.

"The best ingredient in good Italian cooking is honesty," says Pete D’Agnese. "You must use fresh vegetables when possible and good cheeses.

"Don't ever buy something because you can get it for a few pennies cheaper."

Most important of all, Pete D'Agnese says:

"The seasoning should whisper, not scream."

BORN JUNE 2, 1920 in Brooklyn, Pete D'Agnese was the youngest of four children of Fortunato D'Agnese and his wife, both immigrants from the south of Italy.

Pete's schooling was gained mainly at the side of his father in the bakery.

"Mother was an excellent cook," Pete recalls, "But Dad was even better."

At any rate, Pete came to Lorain in 1947, not as a cook, but to enter the lumber and construction business. It was a case of success without happiness and in 1963 he opened a restaurant on Broadway in Lorain.

"Cooking was always my first love," says Pete. "I was aware of the life giving qualities of good food."

HIS BROADWAY restaurant was acknowledged as one of the best and it was in operation until 1969 when rising costs caught up with Pete D'Agnese and he sold out to go back into the construction business.

After four years away from his chosen profession, the urge became too strong and Pete D'Agnese got back in the food business with a sandwich and pizza shop at 41st and Broadway. The business soon outgrew the small building there and Pete moved to a new location at 916 Root Road, Lorain, which he operates today with his wife, Barbara, and son, Peter Jr.

There he had space to carry a full line of imported and domestic foods, plus operate a pizza and sandwich shop and handle his growing catering business.

"IN ITALIAN COOKING, good is not enough, it must be superb," says Pete D'Agnese. And he means it.

Continuing with his secrets of good cooking, Italian style, he insists that fresh lean meat should be used and most important a good grade of vine-ripened tomatoes.

"The plum tomatoes, commonly called Italian tomatoes, are best," Pete says. If they are out of season, use a superior grade of canned tomatoes, imported from Italy or California plum tomatoes if the imported variety is not available.

"A good sauce can be made on the strength of the tomatoes," Pete points out. "No meat is needed." He used the following recipe for marinara sauce, which can be used "as is" over pasta or combined with chopped clams, lobster, shrimp or calamari squid to make a more exotic dish.

Brown garlic in pure olive oil
Add fresh plum tomatoes, crushed
Add salt and coarse ground black pepper to taste
Add fresh Italian parsley and basil
Simmer gently for one half hour.

Use sauce over linguine, rigatoni, spaghetti or other pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (literally "to the bite," or not soft and mushy).

Pete D'Agnese has some definite ideas on how pizza should be made too.

First of all, he says, the cheese should be natural and well fortified with protein. Properly spiced tomatoes should be used on a freshly prepared pizza crust that contains no chemical additives, he goes on.

"After all, the Neapolitans originated pizza," he says proudly.

PETE MAKES all his own sauces, sausages, and dough in his shop on Root Road.

"In this way we can be assured of freshness and quality," he says.

Sausage is made from lean cuts of pork butt, not trimmings, and must be freshly seasoned, Pete says.

"I was happy to see the recent series in The Journal by Lelord Kordel," says Pete. "I makes people aware that they are basically what they eat."

"Women have been seeking the fountain of youth at their drugstores," he goes on. "It really lies in their food stores. The inner glow that they seek comes from within, not from a powder puff."

Pete adds that people in Europe – Italy, France and Greece especially – have known this for a long, long time.

"THIS IS THE reason they are far more food conscious and more attuned to gourmet cooking that we are," he says.

"To prove this, they have fought wars over spices. Our word 'salary' comes from the Latin 'salarium' which the Romans paid their mercenaries with."

Pete finds it odd that a nation such as the United States exists mainly on what he calls "junk" foods.

"Shakespeare summed it up when he denounced the eaters of 'broken meat'," says Pete. "That's what we know as hamburger today."

Pete D'Agnese caters to parties and dinners from his Root Road outlet but only when he is sure the facilities are adequate at the party site to insure that the food can be served with "a sparkling taste of freshness without no meal is complete."

"WE ACCEPT catering only if we feel we can do complete justice to the occasion," Says Pete. "Primarily we put accomplishment before profit."

The former D'Agnese outlet on Root Road today
(Courtesy Lorain County Auditor)


Anonymous said...

I seem to remember buying donuts from a place on root road in the early 80's. Could this be the same place?

Dan Brady said...

By the time of the 1980 City Directory, the 916 Root Road address had been taken over by New York Deli. Perhaps that’s where you bought your donut.

Wireless.Phil said...

Pizza, what most people don't know, not evdn pizza shop workers or owners.

Some time ago I read that the Italian workers would wrap up pizza and keep it war on the work ovens. I remember that but I had to look for this next bit, here it is.

Pizza was considered a peasant's meal in Italy for centuries.

The History of Pizza: Who Invented Pizza? - Inventors

Considered a peasant's meal in Italy for centuries, we cannot say who invented the very first pizza pie. Food historians agree that pizza-like dishes, including flatbreads topped with oils, spices, and other toppings, were eaten by many peoples in the Mediterranean, including the Greeks and Egyptians.

Wireless.Phil said...

No matter what you put on top of your pizza, it's still junk food!