Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
You've probably whizzed past it southbound on Tustin Avenue heading to work/school/a nail appointment and barely given Ristorante Genovese so much as a glance. It seems a quaint aberration compared to the newer development nearby. It is noteworthy though and not just because of its legendary status.
I, generally, don't do restaurant reviews. Despite food dominating my professional life, I'm pleasantly out of touch with all the current coming and goings of the culinary world. Thank God for Facebook. But I do like digging into the quiet backstory of a restaurant's people/history. I think there is a karmic reason a shop is around and a tale to be told about how the doors opened. Orange's Ristorante Genovese is a more than worthy candidate for a nod. It's been in the family for decades. Al Genovese and his wife Margie currently own the joint and run it with the help of a few family members and an absolute host of fiercely loyal, longtime employees.
Their place sure stands out despite the drive-by factor, and for good reason. Outside, the place has just a touch of Sanford and Son, but in a good sense. Signs proclaim 'We season our garlic with food" and "Here you're only a stranger but once." (Both are true by the way). The building itself is either an old home or barn, depending on who you ask, was built in the late 1800's and had been converted to various commercial uses before Genovese landed there. The way-too-politically incorrect parking signs are a hoot, although, when the joint is jumping, parking is tight at best.
Inside is a sight to behold. Soaked to its core with a cool clutter factor, there is stuff stacked on top of stuff stacked on top of stuff and enough concealed "G's" (for Genovese) to challenge even the most perceptive of hidden Mickey Disney-philes. The bar is tiny at best but, man, is that a place to belly up for a quick (or not so quick) pop and jaw with the octogenarians. There are obligatory cushy booths and red and white tablecloths. Along one wall stretches an awe-inspiring hand painted mural that has been there longer than anyone can remember. Al Genovese works that room at dinnertime like a pro, hobnobbing with city of Orange bluebloods and handing out wacky toys and trinkets (including hand cream for some reason) to kids and adults alike.
Al's kinda' hard to describe. He's sort of the exact opposite of the wine-swilling owner of North Beach's Francino who will verbally abuse you at the drop of a hat. As for Al, he has a certain George Burns quality. When you bump into him and ask "How ya doin', Al?" he will quip back with a wry look "I wish I knew!" and I have a sneaking suspicion that, at 88 years young, he might not be totally kidding. But whether it's crooning to the guests or glad-handing the locals, he's an enthusiastic practitioner of his craft and the patrons eat it up in heaping spoonfuls like spumoni. There's also a strange reverence for him in the room, reserved for someone has been around so long and done so much for so many it's equally about looking after Al as it is about him looking after others.
Now Margie, she's a bit more sedate. If Al's the showman, then Margie is the heart and soul there. I spent some time with her in the kitchen just after dawn one morning while she made meatballs and their outstanding Sicilian style Minestrone. She's in plenty early five days a week, making all the sauces and soups from scratch on a nearly hundred year old Wolf range that looks every day of it. The recipes are based on ones from Al's mother Santa Canale who hailed from Sicily near Mount Etna. The harsh realities of restaurant life have changed the original recipes a bit but Margie does all she can to keep as close to the original as possible. She has a quiet grace that make that cramped, galley-like space seem as warm and inviting as any Midwestern Grandmother's kitchen and, whilst a lot of other places say "Mama so-and-so's family recipes," this joint means it.
The menu itself is reminiscent of one of my favorite restaurants in the world, the epic Bamonte's in Williamsburg. If you've never been, it's a treat. First time I dared enter that dimly lit cavern of a shop, it literally felt like Pesci and DeNiro were going to rush in, beat me senseless and take me somewhere to get whacked. That is until I sucked up to the bartender and he proclaimed "Hey! 'Dis guy's okay!" to the room full of porcine good fellas and their wives. At that point I felt at ease enough to order a leisurely dinner with wifey.
But I did sit facing the door.
Genovese isn't trying to be La Parolaccia either, although the latter is one of my last-meal-of-my-life picks. At Genovese they make mid-century Italian-American and nail it perfectly, sort of where a 1930's Arthur Avenue in The Bronx meets Dean Martin and they both collide into an EYE-tal-ian restaurant in Tahoe during the Louis Prima glory years.
I know it's clichéd, but I always judge the old school Ital joints by ordering the spaghetti and meatballs for my first meal there (maybe linguine in clam sauce); if they screw up either of those then the rest of the food is probably hopeless. Genovese nails both, they have a wide assortment of veal dishes and the mostaccioli is spot on. If you like pastafazule, it's worth a spin too. Considering how great the service is and how loyal the clients are, it's no surprise that the food adds a great dimension to what's going on here.
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The original location in Santa Ana, called Genovese Steakhouse (in order to catch some non-Italian business) opened in 1946 and was owned by Al's two older brothers, Joseph and Michael. It moved to the present location in the '60's and the building has been owned by the family ever since. After leasing it out for a brief stint to a Thai restaurant they decided to reclaim the property and reopen the shop under the family name once again. Al had given retirement a shot but, between a life-changing health crisis and needing something to keep him busy, opening the doors seemed like a good idea. However, the decision was a heavy one considering the level of commitment involved.When pressed on how long they can continue the daily grind of The Biz, Margie says "this IS our retirement."
The tiny beverage station inside, often the most generic and overlooked part of a restaurant, holds a telling glimpse of Genovese's past, present and future. A battered hand formed copper countertop stands silent vigil under the coffee machines and looks like it could have been forged in the 1700's. Like Genovese itself, that aging countertop isn't going anywhere soon but it still tells a story with its own rich patina, much like Al and Margie will do until they can't anymore. Long may Genovese preach its garlic gospel!
Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!