OSWEGO, NY – Buon’ appettito dalla famiglia di Canale
Since 1954, 156 W. Utica St., Oswego, has been the spot for great Italian cuisine in the Port City area.
“They came over in the teens. My grandparents came over through Ellis Island, I don’t know the exact year, it was in the teens somewhere,” Nick Canale said of the founders of Canale’s Restaurant. “Things were tough in Italy back then. Families had too many kids, there weren’t enough jobs – so they were coming over here looking for the American Dream.”
His great-grandfather worked on the railroad, and worked his way upstate, following the railroad up and ended up in Watertown.
“My father’s parents were both from Watertown and they moved down here after the war in the ‘40s,” Nick said.
They had a couple different ventures. Some were successful and some not as successful.
Canale’s Restaurant was started in 1954 by brothers Mike and Dominic Canale.
The idea to open a restaurant came from their mother, Anna’s great cooking.
She and her husband, Nick (Sarge), came to the United States in 1919 from Morolo, Italy. Morolo is a small mountain town about 60 miles southeast of Rome, near Frosonone.
Anna had the skill to cook anything – and make it taste like a gourmet meal.
“(Mike and Dom) bought this place from Joe Conzone in the early ‘50s and decide to open a restaurant,” Nick said.
It had been a small bar and restaurant, catering to the neighborhood residents, most of whom were from Italy, many from Morolo.
“They’d looked at a couple different places around town and they liked this one. It was on the main street at the time and there were a lot of Italians living in the neighborhood back then,” Nick said. “My great-grandmother was in the kitchen in the beginning.”
Armed with Anna’s recipes – “A touch of this and a dash of that” – the business continued to grow.
At first, it was Anna herself in the kitchen. They hired all the little old ladies in the neighborhood to come in and help her, Nick said.
Homecooking Draws A Crowd
It was a high school hangout in the ‘50s and ‘60s
“They had murals on these walls in the ‘60s. They’re still there, behind a few layers of wallpaper and paint. It was pretty neat,” Nick said. “They had juke boxes and everything. A lot of ‘atmosphere’ in the evenings back then.”
Things continued to progress and many expansions later Canale’s is still growing.
The original dinning room was smaller. It was expanded in the ‘60s. The bar area also expanded.
“We started in 1986; my father put an expansion on the back of the restaurant for the kitchen and expanded the kitchen capabilities. At that time it was a back hallway and there were stairs coming up. That was where we did take-out and delivery out of that hallway for 10 years, 15 years,” Nick told Oswego County Today.
“In 2000, we did the addition for the take-out area, to expand it and make it more efficient to work out of. And at the same time we added a prep kitchen in the back. We started bottling our own sauce at that point,” he continued. “We had started that around 1999 and then we built a kitchen in the basement to jar the sauce first and then when we built the expansion in 2000 we dedicated the lower floor of that to sauce.”
Before that, they sold “buckets” of the sauce at the restaurant. As demand grew, they started bottling the sauce and (salad) dressing and distributing it locally.
They have also added a patio in back and renovated the front patio.
They started Liverpool in 2004. It opened in 2005 on Route 57 in the Glenn Crossing Plaza.
“That’s going well. It’s still there. It’s challenging. It’s a real competitive market down there. There are a lot of other restaurants and pizza places. It’s a difficult business to make a profit in,” Nick acquiesced. “We’ve been there (Liverpool) for 12 years now. There are challenges to whatever you’re doing. We’re plugging away. Managing two places at once can be tough.”
“We’ve been here now (Utica Street) for 63 years, so there is a history and tradition of people who have been coming for generations, which is a wonderful thing for us. My grandmother and grandfather worked hard to try and make people feel happy and enjoy themselves when they came here and my father did too,” Nick said. “We’re trying to continue that family atmosphere, and put out a quality product at the most fair prices that we can.”
They have got an old building that needs a lot of maintenance.
“It’s a daily challenge. We work hard to keep it up. There’s a lot that goes into being our reputation,” Nick said.
There are peaks and valleys in the prices (that the restaurant must pay for products). They level off, “but they don’t go down very often.”
“The challenge for us is we can’t take our prices, like if you go to the gas station, the prices fluctuates daily based on what their costs are, we can’t do that,” Nick explained. “We set our prices on the menu and we live with them for six, eight or ten months or so at a time before we update them again. It is challenging.”
The number one selling item would have to be spaghetti and meatballs. And, number two would probably be chicken parmesan.
Canale’s is pretty much familiar with nearly everyone in the Port City. They have grown up with the iconic landmark.
“It’s nice to be able to see people and get to know them and get to know their families as they come in over the years as customers and friends,” Nick said. “We shop locally as much as we can, too. So we see a lot of people around town. We don’t know everybody in town, but it’s a lot.”
They have had many rehearsal dinners over the years, some weddings, a lot of christenings, baby showers and that kind of thing.
“For me, something that stands out, is some families that have lost a loved one have come here to celebrate that person’s life. When my grandfather passed away, we had a gathering that lasted all day. It is good to have a lot of friends and family around to get you through times like that,” Nick said.
Across the street, in his grandfather’s backyard, they’ve catered a couple weddings for cousins in the last 5 – 10 years.
“That’s been a lot of fun,” Nick said, adding, “We are doing a lot of catering now, too.”
“Every year on Dec. 23, we have an open house. We give out a free lunch. A lot of our regular customers come down and enjoy it. We just sing Christmas carols, have fun and just hang out, spend the afternoon together,” he said.
They are getting into making homemade wine now. It’s something they might sell in the future.
“We’re using grapes. We have five vines over the over-hang in the courtyard. We got 12 gallons of wine out of that this year. This spring we planted 44 more vines behind this house and eight more over there. The type of grape has been bred to do well in the Upstate New York climate,” Nick said.
They have about 75 on staff. Nick’s brother is the kitchen manager; his sister works at both restaurants and his wife works and manages the Liverpool restaurant.
“We have a lot of longtime employees that help out a lot. We have some cousins that work with us and play a big part in what we do. My father is retired, but he’s still here pretty much every day. It’s great having them around,” Nick said.
They’ve added quite a few new menu items over the years. Some have caught on better than others.
“We have a half dozen or so specials and run them for a month or two so people can have the opportunity if they like it they can come back and have it again,” Nick said. “It’s worked out for us. We’ve been doing that the last few years. We change them every few months and try different things that way. Also, we got into Wegman’s with our sauce this year (September 2016) for the first time. So we’ve been doing a little more volume with that.”
On a side note, they purchased a nearby house and have some family living in there now.
They bought another house in the neighborhood in mid-December.
“We’re going to fix that up and put somebody else in there. There are a couple of houses down the street that landlords have let get run down, we’re going to buy those, too. Our plan is to refurbish them and to get staff or family members living in them and try to clean up the neighborhood a little bit,” Nick said. “That’s a project we’re working on. We’ve spent some time working on getting ready for that. I just want to fix them up and make them nice houses for people to live in.”
Canale’s is proud to continue the traditions begun by Mike and Dom more than six decades ago. Anna and Sarge’s portrait graces the entranceway of the restaurant.
And, Anna’s recipes are still a mainstay on the menu!
For more information, call 343-3540 or visit www.canalesrestaurant.com