In the downstairs kitchen at Patsy’s (236 West 56th Street), Joe Scognamillo is tasting red sauce. His son, Salvatore, made it that morning, just as he has done ever since he took charge of the family kitchen in 1984, but Joe still comes in most days to keep an eye on things.
“I’ve been cooking in this kitchen for over seventy years!” Joe explains. “With my father…and now with my son. This sauce is made the exact way my father made it, the way he taught me to make it, the way I taught my son to make it, and that’s the way it’s gonna be. It’s good enough for Sinatra.”
It’s hours before the lunchtime rush and the kitchen is already hard at work. Salvatore Scognamillo (“Call me Sal, everyone does”) portions out veal as bubbling pans of sauce reduce over gas burners. “We make three different kinds of red sauce — minimum,” Sal notes. “People think, ‘Oh, red sauce is all the same,’ and it’s not. One is really fresh, light, not cooked very long. One has pancetta there in the base. It’s important to do it right.”
With just three chefs — son, father, and grandfather — in the restaurant’s entire history, doing it right at Patsy’s means doing it the family way.
“It’s a legacy,” says Sal. “When I first took over, my grandfather came after church to inspect the kitchen. All the family was there to greet him, and he just walked past us, down to the kitchen, looked in the fridge and came back out again. I said, ‘Pop, where did you go?’ He said, ‘I was checking you still get the veal from the place I like. Now I see you do, I can hug you.’ ”
Patsy’s was founded by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo in 1944. “He had a reputation in the business before he opened his own place,” Sal explains. “He opened a restaurant on 48th and 8th with a friend, and one of his customers there was Tommy Dorsey, the big-band leader. He told my grandfather, ‘I got this skinny kid from Hoboken. Can you fatten him up for me?’ That was Frank Sinatra.”
After a falling out with that friend, Patsy’s opened on 56th Street. A few years later they expanded, opening a second dining room upstairs that offered more discretion to publicity-shy guests. Where Pasquale Scognamillo went, Sinatra went, too. The intoxicating hint of celebrity along with the elegance of Patsy’s dining, and the comfort of the cuisine, proved an irresistible combination.
“Anyone who was anyone was here,” says Joe.
“I started working here when I was eleven, and I’ll tell you, it was a different age. A more respectful age,” he explains. “People dressed up for dinner. It was an occasion. Food was about dining, not just eating. And it’s a pity that things have changed because it was all so beautiful. Men in suits and ties, women in their best dresses and jewels. That generation is fading away, but we preserve the spirit here.”
Even now, Patsy’s still attracts a clientele of luminaries. “Any night we might have Jennifer Lopez or George Clooney as guests…. You know, he came in here even before he was born!” Joe exclaims. “His mother used to have lunch here with Rosemary Clooney, so that spans a generation — all the way back to the whole Rat Pack all sitting upstairs eating veal Milanese.”
Sinatra liked his veal Milanese paper-thin with a small arugula salad on top. “We still serve it like that to this day,” Joe notes. Next to him in the kitchen, Sal portions out the day’s meat. “Sinatra loved to joke around. Sometimes he’d borrow a waiter’s jacket and he’d go over to the table and take an order and see if they recognized him!”
“One time,” says Sal, “Frank threw a big party upstairs for Jimmy Cagney. When it was time for ‘Happy Birthday,’ there was Dean Martin singing, and Sammy Davis Jr. was doing a soft-shoe shuffle. Can you imagine? That was Frank. If you were his friend then you wanted for nothing.”
“That’s Frank,” says Joe. “That’s just the way he was.”
“Personally, I think we run a good restaurant,” Sal explains. “We really care about what we do, and we make good food, but I think the reason we’re still doing business in a city of 20,000 restaurants is because Sinatra loved eating here and said so a lot, and his friends all came here, too. That’s a blessing.”
Even after his passing, Sinatra still has some influence over who stops by Patsy’s. “A few weeks after Sinatra died, we were closed for the night,” says Sal. “But when there was a knock on the door, my cousin answered it. It was Bono. He said that Frank had told him he had to come here for a good meal. Well, my cousin didn’t know who he was, but we made him some food anyway. I think he thought maybe Bono was something to do with Sonny Bono? Still, he left here full and happy.”
Opening when officially closed is something of a signature move for Patsy’s. One Thanksgiving, when Sinatra was having a career slump and feeling lonely, he called to book dinner for one. Not having the heart to tell Sinatra that the restaurant was closed for the holiday, staff came in, filled out the tables with family and friends, and served dinner anyway.
That kind of celebrity glitter can color any night with its own kind of magic. “We had a young couple from London once, who loved Tony Bennett, and they’d read that he liked to eat here,” says Sal. “They asked my dad if that was true, and, right on cue, Tony Bennett walks through the door. My dad says, ‘Why don’t you ask him yourself?’ ”
To eat at Patsy’s is to reach through history and spend an evening in a bygone New York, where the menu reads like a lyric to a song you only half remember. Scallopini. Rollatini. Clams Posillipo. Veal piccata. But this is no monument to nostalgia with more theater than food. This is familiar, warming cooking of the most generous sort. And you’d expect nothing less, really, from a restaurant with a staff list that reads: “Mum, dad, cousins, me, my wife…”
“Both my boys say they’d like to work here one day,” says Sal. “We’ll have to see. I tell them, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ That’s a rule I live by.”
“I think that sauce needs more salt,” says Joe. Father and son lean over the pot as the rich garlic-tomato steam scents the kitchen in the heart of old Manhattan. All is at it should be at Patsy’s, untouched by time.