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THE TASTE OF HOME
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF NIAGARA FALLS' LITTLE ITALY

After 20 years behind the counter at Viola's Submarine House, Vincent Ciraolo can spot the pilgrims as soon as they open their mouths.

"The way they order," he says, "it's like they've been thinking about it a long time."

After months or years of deprivation, the pilgrims make their way back, waving off the stewardess' peanuts, all the way back to Niagara Falls, where their taste buds first discovered ribeye sliced just so and sizzled on a griddle. Topped with American cheese, laced with oregano, seasoned salt and what have you, nestled in a long roll selected for its melding potential.

"They say, "The first thing I do when I get to town is come here,' " says owner Thomas Tardibuono. "Before I go to my family's house."

Viola's specialty is the steak and cheese, $6.75 if you order it with double steak, the way nature intended. If you live near Niagara Falls, you can walk into the original Viola's at 1717 Elmwood Ave., or their other place on Military Road, and order one

at will.

The sandwich is good, but there are plenty of steak sandwiches in the world. In the end, memory might be the most important ingredient.

That's the way it works in Niagara Falls' Little Italy, centered along once-bustling Pine Avenue, which was officially honored as the center of Italian culture by the erection of gateway pillars in 2003. It's home to brew-your-own wine shops, the Cristoforo Colombo Society hall and red-sauce emporiums like the Como Restaurant.

In the 46 years Viola's has been open, tens of thousands of people have left Niagara Falls. A city that was over 100,000 in 1950 is about half the size today. Lots of days, Viola's and other places in the city's Little Italy go begging for customers.

Then, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the diaspora returns, with hunger rooted in their own histories, and honed by absence. Then it's crowded again at the old favorites.

Di Camillo's Bakery has long used its history to anchor its nationally known lines of gourmet biscotti and newer offerings like Niagara County peaches. But most are only available here.

Viola's, for sandwiches; Latina Importing, for cold cuts, cheeses and Italian specialties; and a block down, Rocket's, a restaurant run by the Pasquantino family.

Rocket's, at 1915 Pine Ave., actually owes its existence to memories, in a way.

The restaurant offers pastas and soups and sausages, but the main event is pizza. Mainly, something Niagara Falls residents call "Trusello's pizza." Trusello's was a bakery on 19th Street, a few blocks away, that closed in the early 1990s. It was a tiny place, "flour everywhere," says Gina Pasquantino of Rocket's. Other regular customers agreed that the proprietor of Trusello's occasionally was a little gruff.

But the pizza kept them coming back. It was Sicilian home style: no gloppy layer of mozzarella, just fresh tomatoes, olive oil, pecorino romano cheese, basil and oregano.

Kids on the way to school would stop for a slice and on their way home, too, if they could. "We were all raised on that pizza," says Pasquantino.

After Trusello's closed, the Pasquantino family bought the bakery and the recipe, she says. "Now we've got the real Trusello's pizza."

Trusello's outsells the regular stuff nearly 10 to one, and she's shipped it all over the country to hungry expatriates. "I wouldn't be in business today without it," says Pasquantino.

At Rocket's, there's more local flavor on the walls, besides the hundreds of family photos. There are a pair of men's hats, and a pair of men's shoes, mounted with plaques. The hats were worn by "Don Stefano" Maggadino, the reputed head of Niagara Falls' Mafia family, and his brother, "Don Gaspare," the placard says.

The shoes belonged to Capo Bastone, an underboss, another placard says. He used the shoes to stroll the sidewalks of Little Italy, it says, and to "encourage respect."

People do miss the days when the Mafia controlled the streets in Niagara Falls, Pasquantino says. "If they were still here, there wouldn't be the drugs and the crime in the streets," she says.

It's part of Pine Avenue's fabric, its history, according to Pasquantino. "We all grew up here, on the streets," she says.

Despite the pedigree of Rocket's offering, some Niagara Falls eaters say their Trusello's pizza doesn't match the original. Is some level of disaffection unavoidable once the benchmark experience passes into the rose-colored past? Or is it that nothing can compare to the taste of pizza that's been day-dreamed over through English, History, and Social Studies?

Maybe, in the end, nothing can compete with the taste of home. Step through the doors of Latina Importing, into an atmosphere of freshly grated cheese, and it might seem like you're the only stranger in the store.

A cashier accepts a hug from an elderly man. A counterwoman behind the long deli case filled with cured meats holds up a round of mortadella so that a couple can argue in broken English over whether it's too fatty. Another counterwoman stops trading barbs with a co-worker to sing hello to a customer still 20 feet away.

A big wicker basket of chestnuts sits next to coolers filled with cured imported sausages and racks of fresh bread, shipped in daily from the Portage Bakery across the river. Ricotta salata, and several varieties of Parmesan and types of mozzarella are steps away, by bags of pignoli, pine nuts, for making pesto.

Latina Importing has grown to include four locations, including Amherst, Williamsville and Wheatfield, but its heart remains at 1712 Pine Ave. As many in Western New York's Polish community make a journey to the Broadway Market part of the holidays, Italians line up for their baccala and hams. Before Christmas and Easter, customers crowd its aisles like anchovies packed in olive oil.

Shoppers from deprived locales stuff shipping boxes with essentials like sopressata, provolone, Margherita pepperoni and roasted peppers, says manager Mike Cimino. "The regulars are here twice a day," he says. "You always know the ones from out of town.

"I had a guy getting four different sizes of Mancini roasted peppers, the 12-ounce can, the 32-ounce jar," Cimino says. "I asked him where he was from, and he said Florida. I showed him the label on the peppers: They were packed 30 miles from where he lives. But he couldn't get them there."

But even if the retiree could have brought them to Florida, what would it have availed him? Say he left his pink stucco bungalow, climbed into his air-conditioned car in the 87-degree November day and drove past the palm trees and stands of live oak to the store.

Whatever the size of the container, would the roasted peppers have the same savor as ones selected in a Latina's aisle, and pur-chased with a dollop of saucy cashier repartee? How could they?

Andrew Z. Galarneau writes the Satisfactions food column for First Sunday. He is The News' enterprise reporter for Niagara County.

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