On a February evening 38 years ago this week, the possessions of a deceased 94-year-old restaurant owner lay strewn about a sidewalk on 11th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in front of a group of row houses that now serve as a student center for The New School.
Though she left behind friends and surviving family, Josephine Paglieri’s furniture, clothing, books, photographs and letters waited for a city sanitation truck to haul them away. The New York Times described the scene in a Feb. 7, 1976, article.
Presently, a young hippie came by, grabbed one of her battered suitcases and began to stuff her old books into it. He hastily selected the few leather-bound ones…
Somebody else rummaged through Mrs. Paglieri’s worn dresses. “These are great for old clothes,” she said. Other people peered inside the drawers of Mrs. Paglieri’s plain wooden bureau.
That night a large sanitation truck rumbled up the street to pick up the goods. An old olive-green velvet couch crumbled under the tongs of the truck’s crusher.
The desk fell apart when the sanitationmen tried to pick it up. A lifetime of personal papers, letters, souvenirs and stationery swirled all over the sidewalk outside the restaurant that Mrs. Paglieri used to own.
The sanitationmen shoveled and swept, and threw them inside the truck. But one photograph remained on the street behind the vehicle. It was a picture of Mrs. Paglieri as a young girl, with her family.
The driver of the sanitation truck picked it up. He glanced at it while the desk was splintering under the weight of the garbage machine, and then tossed it inside with the other garbage. He hopped into the cab and roared off, leaving behind a few papers fluttering in the wind.
An old black-and-white postcard that I picked up at the Antiques Garage West 25th Street Market led me to this heartbreaking story.
I have been collecting postcards of Old New York at an accelerated pace lately. Each postcard tells a story, usually a handwritten one on the back about a meal, a journey or a vacation. But each postcard of a long-shuttered New York City restaurant also leads me on a journey through newspaper archives and old books, seeking to recount the story of each of these restaurants, the meals they served and happy memories they provided.
My most recent purchase, the one that led me to the story about the possessions and memories of Mrs. Paglieri, included a postcard of Enrico & Paglieri, established in 1908 at 64 West 11th Street in Manhattan. The black-and-white undated postcard depicts the main dining room, with exposed brick walls, bright skylights, white tablecloths and napkins, and a giant palm tree in the middle of the dining room.
The Times described the main dining room, built at the back of three brownstone houses, as having an “out-of-doors atmosphere.” It looks and sounds as if it were a unique, gorgeous space.
The back of the postcard contains no handwriting, just information about the restaurant, including its branding as “The most popular Italian restaurant in New York City.” The restaurant was owned by Enrico Fasani and his brother in law, Paulo Paglieri.
The 1939 Dining in New York with Rector begins its entry on Enrico & Paglieri with a story about Fasani sitting in the orchestra section of a theater, watching an actor on stage struggling to eat spaghetti.
Enrico, in his orchestra seat, found it difficult to restrain the impulse to climb up on the stage and give him a lesson then and there. The event had its fruit, however, for Enrico spoke of it to his friends in theatrical circles and offered to teach the trick of it to any who might be faced with the same problem. The word soon got around, and now, when you see an Irishman consuming spaghetti with all the suavity and gusto of a born and bred Neapolitan, set it down to Enrico’s teaching and you won’t be far from right.
Rector goes on to describe a dish that he enjoys more than spaghetti, a dish “that is found like a weed in every restaurant with pretensions to an Italian accent. That is risotto. In other words, rice.”
It is cooked in butter and served with large quantities of all ingredients, and you will be amazed at the way you consume it, even without lessons. A good companion dish with contrasting flavor is a salad of mixed greens; the two dishes make a satisfying meal. A bottle of chianti is another good idea.
Enrico and Paglieri’s is off lower Fifth Avenue, on a street that retains the flavor of old New York. On the left, as you enter the restaurant is the Clover Leaf Bar, an attractive room, but the place to go is the main dining room in the rear, one of the most spacious dining rooms in New York and splendid for your purposes if you happen to be an international spy or in love. Some of the tables are so remote from all others that no one could possibly overhear your conversation except the waiter.
I love that, even in 1939, New Yorkers like Rector showed a nostalgia for the “flavor of Old New York.”
A June 24, 1946 “News of Food” article gives a good six-paragraph description of Enrico & Paglieri, which it calls “one of the best restaurants in the city specializing in Italian food.”
Back in the days when Enrico and his partner, Paul Paglieri, who died many years ago, started their venture, the menu seldom varied from minestrone, lobster diavolo and chicken. That was a concession to the customers of the time, who clamored for those dishes, Enrico explains, and who, incidentally, paid only 55 cents for a complete meal, including a bottle of wine. Though today’s patrons have more cosmopolitan tastes and the restaurant’s menu is accordingly broader, chicken is still a predominant dish, especially chicken risotto, which, of course, is stewed and served with rice cooked with parmesan cheese.
Roast chicken plays a large part, too. In fact, Enrico will point out his electric rotisserie, encased in stained glass and situated in the bar, which turns out twenty-four birds every twenty minutes. Ossi buchi, which, if you’re up on Italian dishes, you’ll recognize as veal knuckle, is another commendable specialty of the house, as is veal cutlet parmigiana.
The restaurant was purchased by the Longchamps chain of upscale restaurants sometime before the late 1960s. Longchamps then proceeded to open other restaurants with the name Enrico & Paglieri, including one at 7th Avenue and 51st Street.
Longchamps closed the original Enrico & Paglieri in the early 1970s, before the entire chain filed for bankruptcy. Christy’s Skylight Gardens moved into the space around 1975.
The closing of any restaurant is sad, as most restaurants tend to be the sources of happy memories of good meals and family celebrations. But this story took an especially sad turn when Mrs. Paglieri passed away in November 1975 at the age of 94, in her apartment above the restaurant that she and her family had run for decades. Though she was survived by three grandchildren and three great grandchildren, her friends cleared out her apartment the following February and discarded her possessions, as the Times reporter noted.
I was recently chatting with a Staten Island-based antique dealer who runs estate sales. He said he often finds that family members feel bad selling collections that their loved ones treasured. He said he reminds them that those collections will soon have a new life, with someone else who will enjoy and appreciate them. It makes me wonder why Mrs. Paglieri’s friends and family weren’t able to find a home for her treasures.
We’ll never know. But her house still stands, and I’ll think of Mrs. Paglieri any time I pass it, and every time I look at the Enrico & Paglieri postcard on my desk.