“New York has never had an Italian restaurant as good as Romeo Salta was in its heyday.”– Mimi Sheraton, former New York Times restaurant critic, from NYT obituary for Romeo Salta, September 6, 1998
Romeo Salta, Pioneer Italian-American Chef
In 1929 a young cook working on an Italian passenger liner jumped ship in New York in search of the American dream. He made it.
Romeo Salta is an important figure in the evolution of Italian cooking in the USA. A celebrity chef and restaurateur in the 1940’s and 1950’s in Los Angeles and New York City, he was instrumental in teaching Americans that Italian cooking is more than pizza and spaghetti.
For a decade he worked in restaurants around the country, finishing with five years in Hollywood night clubs. According to the Introduction in his great cookbook, “On his days off, Romeo wandered about the film capital and its environs looking for a good Italian meal….[but] An authentic Italian meal could not be had in all of Southern California at any price….”
Hollywood Fame – Chianti Restaurant
So in 1939 he opened his own place, called The Chianti, in an old drugstore and soda shop. The decor was mediocre, but the rather pricey menu made “no compromise with authenticity and quality.”
The Chianti introduced Hollywood to an expanded palette of Italian cooking. In addition to offering less-Americanized southern Italian “red sauce” dishes, The Chianti featured lesser known dishes from Salta’s roots in northern Italy, like risotto, gnocci, and scampi.
The restaurant wasn’t an instant success in Hollywood, but at a critical point Ed Sullivan, then a print reporter, publicized it with a glowing column. Soon it was a hit, with celebrity patrons like Lucille Ball and Errol Flynn.
New York New York – Romeo Salta’s Restaurant
After a decade of Hollywood success, Salta relocated to New York City in 1951 at the urging of some of his show business customers, who were beginning to move to New York “with the advent of large-scale television.”
According to the New York Times, Salta’s namesake restaurant on West 56th Street was one of “only two establishments favored by serious Italian food lovers” during the 1950’s and 1960’s. He retired in 1974, and the restaurant continued under the operation of his son until it closed in 1994.
Thankfully, Salta left behind a cookbook.
The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, Macmillan Press
I’ve never encountered a better ethnic cookbook than Romeo Salta’s.
Despite (or because of) the most everyday ingredients and the most basic techniques, the recipes in Salta’s cookbook approach culinary perfection. My own heritage is Italian, and this cookbook reminds me of the genius of simplicity in the cooking of my immigrant relatives.
Veal in Lemon Sauce
- 1 pound veal scallops
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1.5 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- Have the veal pounded very thin. Dip the slices in a mixture of the flour, salt, and pepper.
- Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet until it sizzles.
- Brown the veal in it on both sides. Have the veal flat, in a single layer.
- When browned and tender, remove the veal.
- Pour off the fat, and add the lemon juice and parsley.
- Return the veal and heat, stirring well to coat veal with lemon juice and parsley.
So lemony and meaty and brown, plus the parsley adds an exotic touch reminiscent of the Italian love for cooked greens.
The recipe above is one of my staples, but I usually substitute pork shoulder chops. It also works with beef or chicken.
Pork shoulder chops are the least expensive pork chops and contain bones, so I cut out the bones and trim the remainder into smaller slices. To my mind this cheaper cut is more interesting than a center cut pork chop. Fat is flavor, and the shoulder chops have more fat.
However, when you use the cheaper cuts of meat you need to alter the recipe slightly to make sure the meat is tender:
- After browning all the slices, return the meat to the pan, heat, and have a close-fitting lid handy.
- When the meat is heated, add the parsely and lemon juice and IMMEDIATELY clap on the lid.
- Cook very low for about five minutes to tenderize.
Simple Italian Dinner
Dinner the other day was my modified Pork Shoulder with Lemon Sauce along with fennel roasted with olive oil and Parmesan, another simple and sophisticated dish inspired by a Giada De Larentiis recipe from Food Network.
- Oil a Pyrex baking dish
- Cut a fennel bulb into four slices
- Sprinkle with a robust tablespoon of Parmesan. Too much is bad.
- Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil
- Bake at 375 degrees about 45 minutes
- Sprinkle with those fennel fronds that look like dill
I rounded out the meal with garlic bread, so simple and so delicious. Sometimes garlic bread is a very easy substitute for a starch like pasta or potatoes, easy to prepare and delicious even at room temperature.
Garlic Bread in Toaster Oven
- Day old baguette slices are best, but any bread works
- Minced garlic, try a huge amount
- Mix garlic with olive oil, 2 – 3 teaspoons per bread slice. Add a little salt. Spread on bread.
- Toast in toaster oven at highest temperature until bread has lost all softness, about 15 minutes
Joy of Cooking
He’s gone and his restaurants are gone, but Romeo Salta’s cookbook remains. The Pleasures of Italian Cooking is a heartwarming reminder of America’s immigrant culinary heritage in a first-rate basic Italian cookbook.
I think behind the origin of all the cuisines stand rural peasants infatuated with cooking, working in simple kitchens with ingredients on hand from land and sea.
My style is their style, and deeply satisfying.