Sal Scognamillo Interview
In May of 1998, one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century, Frank
Sinatra, passed away.
In tribute to Frank Sinatra we thought it would be fitting to offer up remembrances of the singer by some of the people who either knew or worked with him.
Sal Scognamillo is one such person.
He is the co-owner and third generation executive chef at Patsy’s, a New York restaurant which was a favorite of Frank Sinatra’s.
Sal Scognamillo is the author of Patsy’s Cookbook, which includes many of Frank Sinatra’s favorite recipes, stories about the time he dined at Patsy’s and-----a foreward by Nancy Sinatra.
Q – Sal, for the people who aren’t familiar with
Patsy’s Restaurant-----what kind of a restaurant is it? What’s
on the menu?
A – Well, it’s upscale, Southern Italian, basically Neapolitan cuisine, with the emphasis on the red sauce. A lot of places make like a brown sauce which is like with a gravy. We make with a tomato base. We have a whole range-----everything from veals scallapino to veal chops to steaks, lobsters, chicken, fresh fish. And of course pasta, which we’re known a lot for. A lot of times you know what you get? A party of five, four of ‘em want Italian food and one just wants a plain steak-----and they can get that, because we cook everything to order basically. We carry a Black Angus steak which of course is the best. So, it’s really good in that respect. If you have a group like that you still get ‘em anyway.
Q – And how long has Patsy’s been open?
A – 61 years. It was started in 1944 by my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather was named Pasquale. They called him Patsy. Him and my grandmother Concetta opened the restaurant in 1944. We’ve been ever since, same family, same thing. Interesting thing is there’s only been three head chefs since we started, my grandfather Patsy, my father who is now in the dining room and myself. I’ve taken over the chef job full-time since January of 1985. So, I’ve been right out of college. I came here. My father trained me.
Q – Did you go to a cooking school?
A – Believe it or not, no formal education with cooking. I went to St. John’s University in Queen’s, Long Island New York. I took Communication Arts-----television and film production, believe it or not. (Laughs). So, maybe one day we’ll make a reality show about the restaurant. (Laughs).
Q – Or a movie about the history of Patsy’s!
A – Well, that we’ve always thought about. We had a very nice show about us on The Food Network. A half-hour show. It gave a little background, but mostly showed how we worked around here. It was called “Into The Fire”.
Q – When did Frank Sinatra start coming into Patsy’s?
A – When he was brought in by Tommy Dorsey.
Q – That’s before he was really famous. He didn’t
perform at the Paramount in New York ‘til 1944 I believe.
A – Well, yes. Before he hit the pinnacle, that’s for sure. It was just amazing the sense of loyalty he had to us, and in some ways, us to him. There’s a real nice story in the book…..”Thanksgiving for Frank”.
Q – That’s my favorite in the book.
A – It’s everyone’s favorite. It was before I was born, but, my father and grandfather have related it to me so many times. It’s just indicative of the way my family is and then in turn the way he was and his family is to us. If Nancy (Sinatra) is in town she comes to Patsy’s, just like her father. Just like Rosemary Clooney. Burt Lancaster. All the old-timers. When I did the cookbook I had to get quotes from people, I called Red Buttons up at home and he’d give me these quotes. It’s amazing. Different world, and he was part of that. He (Frank Sinatra) was the leader of that world, really. Where he wanted to go, his friends came. We always say it’s the six degrees of Frank Sinatra here. We have photos of celebrities from all walks of life on the wall. You could almost always trace any star back to him.
Q – I’ve been told by more than one person that
Frank Sinatra was the man.
A – He was it. Everyone wanted to be him. Everyone still wants to be him. People don’t always get it. It’s not just the music. It’s the life that he led, the respect that he had, the generosity that he gave to people. He would do things without people ever knowing. He didn’t want people to know. A woman was here about 3 years ago. Turned out to be Forest Tucker’s daughter. She lives in Seattle, now. We just struck up a conversation. Usually, I come over to people and say “I hope you’re enjoying your meal”. She didn’t want to say, but, her friends said she’ll never admit to you, her father was Forest Tucker. We started talking back and forth, and inevitably about Frank Sinatra, and how her mother, and this was back in the 50’s, needed money for some kind of charity. I forgot the details of exactly what it was. Sinatra wrote a check and this was in the 50’s, for $10,000. He said, “There’s one condition. You don’t tell anyone that I gave you this money”. This guy was so generous, and so good to so many people. There are stories you know about, and stories you’ll never know about, that he just didn’t want people to know about. If you were his friend you wanted for nothing. End of story. My father knew him much better than me. I knew him very well too. My father had spent many days in his apartment cooking for him. He would always say to my father: he would do this routine to leave, he’d get to the door, just about to leave, and he’d turn around and say to my father, “Joey, you need something? Can I do something for you?” He (my father) said, “All I want is your friendship”. He (Frank Sinatra) said, “You’ll always have that”. That was what it was. We respected him. We respected his privacy. I know it was a little bit of pins and needles when he was here, because you always worried that people would try to come to him and ask for a photo and autograph. He could be in one mood one day where he could be walking around the dining room introducing himself to people, and talking and sitting down and chatting with people, (laughs), and the next day, I just want to have my dinner.
Q – How many people would he come into the restaurant
A – The least I ever saw was 4 people. And then, he would have up to 50 people. He loved to entertain. He loved to be happy. He lived his life to the fullest you could do. I mean, the guy lived 10 lifetimes. What a life, I’ll tell you.
Q – He probably spent hours in your restaurant, didn’t
A – It would be rare that he was in and out. We have a private entrance that he would come in. It’s on the side. We have two dining rooms, main level and the one upstairs. It would access him a side door right into the back of the upstairs dining room and we could close the curtain. Mostly all of the time no one would even know he was here. That’s the way we wanted it, and that’s the way he wanted it. It was just respect. That’s what it was all about. There’s certain restaurants in New York City. I’m not gonna name ‘em, that you know when you go there, as soon as you walk in the door, someone goes in the back to call a newspaper to have a photographer come over to take your picture while you’re having lunch. And that’s not our style. People come here to enjoy their meal and have a good time. But, that’s really where it’s at for us. We keep the food to our roots. The heart of the menu is the same as it was in 1944. Do I put specials on? Of course I do. I have a little fun here and there. But, the heart of the menu, we’re known for is still here, good old-fashioned, home-cooked stuff.
Q – When the restaurant opened in 1944, how much competition
did you have?
A – Not much. (Laughs). Years ago, it was extremely, extremely difficult to get liquor licenses. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of restaurants in the whole city. You had Little Italy. You had a little bit in mid-town. But, that was it. Nowadays, if you include the 5 boroughs there are over 20,000 restaurants. This business, no matter what you do with publicity, no matter what you have, whether it’s Frank Sinatra, which is great to have-----really what you depend on is your word of mouth. That’s it.
Q – Let’s fantasize for just a minute here. As
big of a deal as it was when Frank Sinatra entered Patsy’s, what would’ve
happened if Elvis had walked through your doors-----or maybe he did.
A – Actually, he did not. I asked my father that. He never was here. In terms of that, I’ve never seen a bigger reaction besides Sinatra than when Oprah was here, about 6 or 7 years ago. It was on Valentine’s Day, which of course is a very busy day. I want to tell you, it took her 45 minutes to get out the door. She was so sweet. She had to walk through the two dining rooms, the upstairs and downstairs. I offered to take her through the side door and she said no. She stopped and signed autographs and took pictures with just about everyone that was in the room. It was just a great, great thing. For me personally as a child, as a young boy working here, I got most excited when I saw Brooke Shield. (Laughs). That was exciting, I’m saying of course besides Sinatra.
Q – What would’ve happened if The Beatles had
walked through the doors? Or did they?
A – I’d have to ask my father. That’s interesting. I never asked him that. That probably would be a scream fest. You know what’s unusual? A lot of times, I don’t know if it’s deliberate, people don’t seem to recognize a celebrity right away. It’s odd. I had this one woman-----she was nuts to Al Pacino. And to make a long story short, she came in three, four nights in a row-----is he here? Is he coming in? Finally, he came in and was sitting next to her. She came in and said to my father is he coming in tonight? And he said, “Don’t you see he’s sitting next to you”? (Laughs). She almost attacked him. So, it’s interesting in that respect. I guess you don’t necessarily expect to see a celebrity unless you’re looking for one. Who comes here all the time and is a big, big supporter of us and talks about us all the time is Tony Danza. But, that’s a recognizable face. (Laughs). You’re not gonna miss it. And, Tony Bennett could be sitting down and a lot of times people walk right by, they don’t realize it sometimes. It’s very interesting.
Q – Did Frank Sinatra have to have reservations for
Patsy’s, or could he just walk-in, un-announced?
A – The thing is, almost always, he would call up so we would have a table. Most of the time it would be ten to thirty people. So, with that, anyone’s got to call. I remember distinctly there was one time he called up last minute. I don’t know what had happened. Something must’ve happened. We had, to ask, to put together a table of 12, some people to move. We bought ‘em a bottle of wine and tried to make ‘em very happy, and they were very accommodating about it. I remember he sat in the front section of the dining room. It was right there, so it was a little bit different. (Laughs). It was really when he got to be super-famous that he would do that. Our restaurant has always been on 56th street, from 1944 to 1954. It was one door away from where we are now. There’s a Japanese restaurant there now. That was one level. When he used to come then, my grandparents had a pay phone and there were times when he’d answer the phone for them. My grandmother would be tending bar. My grandfather would be in the kitchen. They couldn’t get to the phone. He (Sinatra) would answer the phone. They’d say, “Who is this?” He’d say, “This is Frank Sinatra”. They’d say, “Stop kidding around. Get me Patsy on the phone!” I remember this one time Bob Hope stole his shoes, so he couldn’t leave. There’d be times when Frank would put on a waiter’s jacket or a captain’s jacket and come over to people and say, “May I take your order?” This was when he was younger. He definitely had a joker’s side to him as well. Everytime I think about it, it’s like a fantasy that we got to know this man, and he was so close to us and so loyal to us. It’s just amazing. I always say this to anyone who will listen; I think we have very good food here, but, I don’t think we’d be in the same position if it wasn’t for that man coming to see us.
Q – The bottled sauce that Patsy’s sells in the
grocery stores, is that the same sauce that Frank Sinatra would get at your
A – Well, he liked the Tomato Basil . He like garlic, but garlic did not like him. Any dish that I would make for him, and my father, and grandfather as well; well, when he was younger he could do it, when he got older he couldn’t take it as much, the garlic. I’d make it whole garlic. Brown it in the oil and take it out and add your tomatoes. The closest one in the jar is the Tomato Basil.
Q – You can’t possibly make all the sauce where
you’re located. Do you have your own kitchen factory that does the
cooking for the bottled sauce that reaches the store shelves?
A – We do. It’s called a co-packer for us. We had a very, very hard time finding someone to do our recipe. Sadly enough, this open dirty secret is that you go to these places and basically what 49 out of 50 told us is, “Well, look we’re making a tomato sauce already. Just give us your label and we’ll put your name on it.” We’re trying to tell ‘em, you’re missing the point here. (Laughs). We want our sauce, the way we do it with the fresh ingredients. We brown the oil. We brown the garlic. They’re throwing everything together just boiling it. They said it’s gonna cost too much. I said it’s gonna be more expensive but, there’s a market of people who are willing to pay for something that’s a quality product. We’ve been fortunately proved right.
Q – Where were you when you heard the news that Frank
Sinatra passed away?
A – My father called me at home, the morning after. He was all upset. I could hear him crying. I thought God forbid, something happened to my family. And, it was a member of our family, practically. He said, “I can’t believe it Sinatra died.” It was a Friday morning when he called me, ‘cause it was a Thursday night (that Sinatra died). My father usually takes off on Fridays. I said Dad, I just have a feeling that you should be at the restaurant today. Sure enough, we had a crush of news crews here, everyone from CNN on down. It was just amazing. I remember my father doing some interviews and he was just breaking down in the middle of ‘em. I saw him cry when his mother and father died. That was the third time when Sinatra died. It was very sad. He had spoken to him about 6 months before he passed. He seemed in very good spirits. He said a little tired, but, that was to be expected. That was the last time. We still talk to his wife. The first wife, I mean. Nancy Senior.
Q – It must’ve been strange to have Frank Sinatra
in the kitchen of Patsy’s cooking along side you.
A – With my father, yeah. (Laughs). I never cooked with him, but, my father did. He wanted to make sauce. So, my father and him sat next to each other. Both had two pots, cans of tomatoes, onion, prosciutto. They both did the same thing, and to make a long story short Frank said to my father, “Yours tastes better than mine. What’s the difference? What happened?” And my father said, “Look, you can’t cook as good as me. I can’t sing as good as you.” (Laughs). I think he was just joking around. But, he was a good cook in his own right, believe it or not.
Q – What was Frank Sinatra’s favorite food to
eat at Patsy’s?
A – The Clams Posillipa was always a definite and the Veal Milanese almost always. Unless he wanted something special, he just said I’m coming in and we knew what to make, and that was it. The clams were a mainstay as the veal was. We knew the standard stuff to make for him, and we needed to know how many people there were. That was basically it. It was always such a buzz. Always such an excitement. I felt such an energy when he was here. I felt his presence. I don’t know how to explain it.
Official website: patsys.com