When I moved into my first apartment in New York, my mother gave me her favorite cookbook, Romeo Salta’s The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, to take with me. Tucked inside, handwritten on lined paper, were a few of her own favorite recipes. All of this was meant to prepare me for adulthood, and, I suppose, eventual marriage. I could see why she loved the book: The recipes were uncomplicated yet delicious, simple enough for a beginner like me to actually execute, yet impressive enough for entertaining friends. Dishes like saltimbocca alla romana (how exciting it was to buy marsala wine!) and risi e bisi (Venetian-style rice and peas) became my go-to specialties.
What I didn’t know back then (I suppose I never read the book’s introduction) was who Romeo Salta was, or how he went from immigrant waiter to legendary chef and restaurateur, opening glamorous, game-changing Italian eateries in Los Angeles and New York. I learned all of this many years later…thanks to a smartphone. My mother and I had somehow gotten on the subject of Salta’s cookbook, and how she wished she still had her copy, so I used my new iPhone to find one for her. As she looked on in amazement, I not only ordered her a secondhand copy (it was no longer in print), but read to her the story of Salta’s life.
I found out that he was born in Apulia in southern Italy but raised as an orphan in Florence, and that he learned to cook as a kitchen boy on Italian cruise lines. When he jumped ship in the U.S. in 1929, he made his way into the restaurant world thanks to a passenger who owned the Central Park Casino. Salta began as a waiter there, then worked in several New York hotels before moving to Los Angeles, where he launched his first restaurant, Chianti; it became a celebrity hangout and set him on his own trajectory to fame. In the early 1950s, he returned to New York an established chef, and within a few years opened his eponymous restaurant on West 56th Street. It was the kind of place where you could easily imagine Don Draper entertaining clients: elegant, sophisticated, of-the-moment. But more than just a hot spot, it was renowned for the quality of the food and was widely credited with introducing New Yorkers to fine Italian dining. Pastas were prepared tableside, and formerly unknown dishes like risotto and gnocchi were on the menu. Critic Mimi Sheraton once said of it: “New York has never had an Italian restaurant as good as Romeo Salta was in its heyday.”
My mother had apparently been there many times (something else I wasn’t aware of), and raved wistfully about the experience. Suddenly, I could picture not only Don Draper there, but also my parents, dressed to the nines, making the drive from New Jersey to enjoy the very best that Manhattan had to offer. I wished I could have experienced Romeo Salta in its heyday myself, but I knew I would have to settle for dipping back into the cookbook, which I did. The recipes are as good as ever—like this simple spring pasta with peas, bacon, and cheese.