Around 1906 Mama Louisa Leone opened her restaurant on 44th street in the theater district, legend has it, at the urging of the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who she cooked for many times. The Italian community in the city was very close knit around the turn of the century, and I had some relatives on my mother's side who knew the operatic legend, attesting to his lavish generosity, even suspecting his gifting Mama some seed money to get started. Her calling card was a 5 course dinner ("make good food, and plenty of it, they will come," she would say)
What started out as a very good deal grew and grew and grew, which was a good, and a bad thing. Good for prosperity, bad for food service and quality. Some of my earliest memories in the 50's were standing in line outside, as if waiting for a blockbuster movie. Once in, I remember going from room to room to room until we reached our table, and never seeing that much food in my young life!
By the late 50's, we stopped going. It had become a tourist trap, and there were plenty of good restaurants in New Jersey, where we lived.
After I began courting my wife, I reminisced with my father in law to be, George.
"We never waited on line at Leone's," he recalled. "The FIRST time I pulled up to the front door to let the family get in line in my brand new Olds '98, I saw this parking attendant motion to me to drive into the lot a few doors away. I told everyone to stay in the car, and took him up on his offer. When I pulled into the lot, the man noticed I was not who he was expecting."
"I thought you were Gene Leone (Mama's son)," he said, " You have the exact same car and color. Now that your here, and if you don't mind walking through the kitchen, go ask for Gene, and tell him what happened."
So they all trudged through the kitchen, and met Gene Leone inside the front door greeting the line as it came in. George and Gene became fast friends, and George and family continued to come through the kitchen until 1959 when Gene sold the business.
After that, it wasn't worth going anymore, anyway.