Our Family Heritage
Massimo Lattanzi, one of the youngest members of the Lattanzi family, traces his roots and those of Lattanzi Ristorante back to the woman who started it all: his grandmother, Erminia. Here is his story:
My grandmother’s life is the culmination of the American Dream. She raised her large family in post WWII Rome, although she herself had grown up in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. Her life experience led her to mix both classically southern Italian recipes with exceptional ones from the Italian Capital to create her own special delights. Gathering recipes from other mothers and wives who, just like her, went to the central market in Campo De’ Fiori every day to shop for their families, she became, through trial and error, a master chef. Day after day she honed her skills, with her family serving as culinary critics to guide her as to what was overcooked, perfectly salted, a little too sweet or beautifully prepared. By the time she crossed the Atlantic to start a new life in Brooklyn, New York in 1964 with her sons Paolo and Maurizio, she had created a traditional-yet-dynamic cuisine all her own, which combined all of her culinary knowhow, the ideas and recipes she had gleaned from her time in Rome and all she had learned growing up in Palermo.
For a long time after their arrival in Brooklyn, New York, they struggled to make ends meet in any way possible, from cooking, cleaning and sewing, to air conditioning, gas and plumbing repair, with Erminia, Maurizio and Paolo working odd jobs according to their capacities. Maurizio started working in the Restaurant industry, taking what he had learned in Italy at a specialized academy and applying it to the New York scene. Times were hard, but they managed to scrape through whilst coming to grips with just how different this new existence was from the one they had in Rome. Throughout this time, the only thing they would not, well, as good Italians really could not skimp on, was food. And what food.
Needless to say, my grandmother never ordered out, and not just because they didn’t have the money to. She cooked up a storm every night of the week, keeping her creativity and adaptability alive. She took American ingredients and turned them into Italian-American masterpieces, reveling in the only luxury her and her young son could barely afford. As Maurizio was always out working crazy hours, my uncle Paolo knew that my grandmother couldn’t do everything by herself; so, he too began cooking when his mother was too tired to after a long day of work, asking her in what order he should add certain ingredients to minestrone, inquiring as to what color Amatriciana sauce should be before lowering the flame, or even just how to clean and pair specific vegetables. He did all of this with increasing deftness and ingenuity, putting his own creative spin on my grandmother’s dishes and methodology. Before long, it became obvious that my uncle knew how to handle himself in a kitchen as well.
After working professionally in various New York restaurants throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Paolo, Maurizio and Erminia, in 1979, made the momentous decision to open their own restaurant in New York – and without a penny for the first plate in their pockets. Since they did not have any real credit history to speak of, making it impossible to get a loan from a bank, they decided to do things the Italian way instead and rely on the people they loved. My grandmother and uncles went around asking their family, friends, friends of the family, and families of friends to borrow money, in sums of 100 dollars here, 300 dollars there… and slowly but surely, with a little bit of luck and a lot of generosity from people who really couldn’t afford to be all that generous, they built up the capital needed to open the first Lattanzi family restaurant, Trastevere, a tiny place on the Upper East Side able to seat just 26 people. Word of mouth about the wonderful Italian restaurant food Erminia herself prepared soon started to spread – and lines formed. As more of our family came over from Rome, and as demand kept on soaring, my family had to start opening other East Side restaurants under the Lattanzi family banner – all of which received glowing reviews and loyal clientele.
With three restaurants located in the Upper East Side, the family determined to find a different, yet viable location for dining in New York. The New York Theater District was chosen for Lattanzi Ristorante, to be located on Restaurant Row, at 361 West 46th Street. It opened on the day of my uncle Paolo’s birthday, July 31, 1984, and has remained a landmark of that historic block to this day.
My grandmother passed away in 2007 at the age of eighty-eight. Her legacy, love for amazing, unique cuisine as well as her ideals, live on in our family’s hearts and restaurants. When my whole family gets together, no meal is complete without the fantastic stories of a time when everything seemed possible a time when, as my grandmother put it, an Italian family could cross the Atlantic and conquer America.