07 July 2009

Remembering Steak Row


Some time ago I posted an item about how one measure of the paling character of New York is that its streets used to have more interesting nicknames (Swing Street, Newspaper Row, The Bloody Angle, etc.)

One I forgot is Steak Row. East 45th Street between Lexington and First used to have so many red-meat joints that it won this moniker. By most accounts, the "Mayor of Steak Row" was John C. Bruno, the owner of the Pen and Pencil at 205 E. 45th Street. Also on this strip were Joe & Rose's and The Pressbox, The Editorial and Danny's Hideaway. These last three were founded by former Pen & Pencil employees.

Bruno died in 1965, and Steak Row started to fade soon after. A few joints still merited a mention in the 1976 New York Times Guide to Dining Out in New York. The Press Box Steakhouse at 139 E. 45th Street was termed to have the "atmosphere, neither elegant nor simple, [of] that of a slightly rundown businessman's pub." Joe & Rose (which was actually on Third) was said to have "the air of an old-timer," and a place where "you don't feel really welcome unless you're one of the gang."

Nowadays, there's hardly a trace. Remnants include Pietro's, which used to be on 45th but is now on 43rd, and The Palm. The Palm was never on 45th, but, being just around the corner on Second Avenue, is was somewhat considered part of Steak Row. As for the Pen & Pencil, John C. Bruno's son took it over when his father died and ran it for 33 years until 1998, when the landlord sold the building to a developer.

Read this article from 1959 for more:

NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, YOU'LL FIND THE "NEW YORK CUT" IS BEST

LIKE steak?

There are more good steak houses in one small area of New York, specifically between Lexington and Second Aves. in the East 40's, than you'll find in the average city of a half million population. There are so many steak houses in that neighborhood, in fact, that East 45th St., within those boundary lines, has become known as Steak Row.

It all started back in 1923, when CHRIST CELLA, a former plasterer, opened a tiny basement kitchen in an apartment house and gave it his name. A fellow immigrant from Parma, Italy, Colombo Pecci, followed suit by converting a Chinese laundry and shoe store into the present COLOMBO'S steak house. Next in line was John Ganzi, who opened THE PALM on the site of a former funeral parlor. Pietro Donnini then established himself in an upstairs room on the northeast corner of 45th St. and Third Ave. as PIETRO'S. SCRIBE'S was opened by Louis Agazzi, another immigrant from Italy, further up the street.

These men, along with Joseph Resteghini, John C. (PEN & PENCIL) Bruno, Dalmo Pozzi, Lino Conti, and Pio Bossi are the pioneers of Steak Row. Resteghini opened JOE & ROSE's in 1915 as a delicatessen with a tiny back room which became a restaurant. Resteghini's son, Fred, present owner of JOE & ROSE's, recalls that when Prohibition came in, JOE & ROSE's became a speakeasy, serving regular customers and all the other restaurateurs who patronized the place in their off hours. After repeal it reverted back to a legitimate Italian restaurant.

Charles Stradella owned a liquor store on Ninth Ave. which he sold in order to buy a small restaurant, in 1938, for his son, Danny. He took over a beer joint at 203 E. 45th St. and with the aid of his son-in-law, Dalmo Pozzi, created the original PEN & PENCIL, then known as Charley's Rail.

In 1939 John C. Bruno left the Hotel Lincoln's Blue Room to become headwaiter at the PEN & PENCIL (his wife was Frances Stradella, Danny's sister). With him, Bruno brought along Henry Castello. In the years that followed, Bruno's PEN & PENCIL was to become the spawning spot for three rival steak houses on Steak Row: The PRESSBOX, the EDITORIAL, and DANNY'S HIDEAWAY. They were founded by PEN & PENCIL employees who had been trained by John Bruno.

Danny's Hideaway (& His Inferno), at 151 E. 45th St., started as a one-room bistro seating six, with Mamma Rosa doing the cooking and Danny acting as his own waiter and barkeep. Within the next dozen years the operation was to expand to take in three four-story buildings, with 11 dining rooms seating 300, two separate kitchens and two completely stocked bars on different levels.

Outside, a 60-ft. awning proclaims it the home of DANNY'S HIDEAWAY and His Inferno; His Music Room; His Menu Room; His Key Room; His Nook. Celebrity parties have become his specialty and everything has been celebrated there from the signing of a new TV contract to the taking of a bride.

One of the youngest restaurateurs on Steak Row, and certainly the smallest—he weighs 130 pounds, stands 5 ft. 2 inches on tiptoe—Dante Charles Stradella, as he was christened (Stradella means "little street"), is also probably the most photographed. The walls of his restaurant are adorned with some 2,000 photographs of celebrities of stage, screen, TV, radio, sports, advertising, magazines and newspapers, and in at least 90 per cent of these pictures Danny appears as a host.

DANNY'S HIDEAWAY still is largely a family affair. Mamma Stradella died several years ago but sister Dora's husband, Pete Berutti, is Danny's maitre d'hotel; sister Josephine's husband, Dalmo Pozzi, is treasurer and general manager; and Frank Longo, the office manager, is a cousin.

The secret of Danny's success, aside from good food, is his gentleness of manner and his quiet charm. He is a hard-working host who doesn't find it beneath his dignity to clear a table or pinch hit in the kitchen during rush hours. His own explanation is simpler. He merely says, "I like people."

Danny's success spurred Henry Castello and Harry Storm, both PEN & PENCIL bartenders, to team up with former VOISIN waitercaptain Fred O. Manfredi and open the PRESSBOX. ChaLles Fallini and Lino Conti, onetime chefs at PEN & PENCIL got the same notion and they, too, teamed to open the EDITORIAL, next door to Danny's.

Bruno's Pen & Pencil expanded from 203 E. 45th St. to a larger location at 205, on the premises of a former soda fountain. John redecorated the new place to include watercolor paintings by Milton Marx of famous writers, from Lord Byron down, and at least two great newspaper publishers—Joseph Medill Patterson and William Randolph Hearst.

(It was, incidentally, the pre-World War II patronage of newspapermen and magazine employees in the neighborhood which inspired the local restaurants to take such names as PEN & PENCIL, EDITORIAL, PRESSBOX, FOURTH ESTATE, LATE EDITION and FRONT PAGE. In those days a steak dinner could be had for $1.75. Today, the same platter costs nearer $7.00.)

John C. Bruno, tall, still slim and handsome, is an opera fan (owns a box at the Metropolitan every sea-son) and indulges in an expensive sideline—horse racing; but can still take time out to tell you how to cook a steak. Several seasons ago, to introduce his restaurant to a newer set of patrons, he employed publicist Michael Sean O'Shea to stage semi-annual champagne-and-steak supper parties for celebrities of the stage and screen. At one memorable affair that went from mid-night to dawn the guests included Ethel Merman, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Shirley Booth and Ginger Rogers.

Around the corner from Steak Row is THE PALM on Second Ave., originally a newspaperman's hangout (its walls are decorated with cartoons) but now too expensive for most newspapermen unless they have expense accounts.

Across the street from THE PALM at 834 Second Ave. is MIKE MANUCHE'S and that was formerly CAMILLO'S. (CAMILLO's is now at 160 E. 48th St.) Mike is a former Air Force pilot who took up the restaurant business more or less by accident after the war and made a success of it. He is, incidentally, the husband of Martha Wright, the TV star who succeeded Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific on Broadway and played the role for three successive seasons.

The Assembly, at 207 E. 43rd St., is another steak house, and a good one, under the management of a young man with the picturesque name of Ronnie Drinkhouse, who learned the business from his father. The ASSEMBLY is a favorite lunching place for United Nations personnel.

3 comments:

Carol Gardens said...

Not as old, but Spark's Steakhouse nearby on East 46th Street is a classic steak joint. Famous for the mob shooting of Castellano on the sidewalk out front. Haven't has a steak there in decades, but I recall it being mighty fine in the 80s.

http://www.sparkssteakhouse.com/

RRMAN50 said...

A Lovely article about a time now past. Where was this article from, The NY Times?

Stanley said...

My grandmother rolled into the Pressbox with Grandfather for dinner in the early '60's. They loved the place and counted Henry, Harry and Freddy as friends. Grandmother spied Henry Morgan at the bar and, although not much of a stargazer nor he much of a star, was moved to hail him: "Oh, Henry, I know who you are but you don't know who I am!" in her Dewar's-inspired slightly English accent. Henry turned, eyed her and replied: "Let's keep it that way Toots." I don't believe Grandmother ever again watched What's My Line.