Romeo Salta was a renowned restauranteur back in the 1950s through the 1980s. His swank namesake Manhattan restaurant attracted luminaries from the worlds of business, politics and entertainment.
My father, who was quite the buongustaio back in the day, used to take our family there from time to time when I was a kid. It was a thrill to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. But Romeo Salta was also my first introduction to Italian food other than Angelina’s Neapolitan cookery. Salta served what was at the time called “Northern Italian” food. That was the rather ludicrous catch-all phrase used at the time for any regional Italian cuisine besides the ones from Naples and points south brought to America by the mass immigration of the early 20th century. These cuisines from central and northern Italy were new and different and became very fashionable. So-called northern Italian food was considered “lighter”, and certainly more “sophisticated”, than the southern Italian cookery Americans were familiar with, although that wasn’t really the case.
In 1962, Romeo Salta wrote a cookbook for anyone who wanted to try recreating the dishes he served up at his restaurant. The book, called The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, didn’t have much of an impact on the way Americans actually cooked. For that, we would have to wait another 11 years, for Marcella Hazan’s landmark Classic Italian Cookbook, published in 1973. Still, Salta’s cookbook is a piece of culinary history, the first cookbook published in America to present “real” Italian cookery. (The first such book in the English language had probably been Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, published in the UK about eight years before Salta’s book.)
I recently inherited my mother’s copy of The Pleasures of Italian Cooking. What surprised me the most, given Romeo Salta’s glamorous reputation, was just how homey most of the recipes are. Antipasti like mozzarella in carrozza and fagioli e tonno. First courses like zuppa di scarola e fagioli, gnocchi, spaghetti aglio e olio, carbonara, polenta pasticciata, and risotto alla milanese. Second courses like saltimbocca, bollito misto, pollo e peperoni, frittata… In other words, everyday home cooking—and from all corners of Italy, not just the center and north.
I did find one recipe that appears to be Romeo’s own creation. Dubbed Insalata di Pasqua or Easter Salad, it’s lightly blanched green peas, garnished with ham, anchovies and olives, and dressed with a citronette enriched with hard-boiled egg yolk. It sounded intriguing and certainly seasonal, so I gave it a go, playing with the recipe a bit to suit my own tastes.
I was well pleased with the results. Other than a Russian Salad, I’d never tried using green peas in a salad, and never with a simple oil based dressing. It worked beautifully. The fresh taste of the peas was complemented by the savory ham and other garnishes. The salad was filling yet light. And it was rather pretty to look at, too. All in all, a fitting antipasto to begin Easter dinner.
So if you feel like a little bit of nostalgia this Easter, why not give Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad a try?
- 1 lb (500 grams) frozen peas, blanched, drained and cooled
- 1/4 lb (150 grams) cooked ham, cut into cubes
- A head of Boston lettuce
For the garnish:
- A few anchovy fillets
- Olives, green and black
- 2 hard boiled eggs, cut into wedges (optional)
For the dressing:
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
- The juice of one lemon
- Salt and pepper
Blanch the peas in boiling water. Just let the water come back to the boil and let it simmer for perhaps a minute, then drain in a large colander. Rinse the peas in cold water to stop the cooking, then let them drain until they are perfectly dry.
Line a salad bowl with the Boston lettuce leaves, using as many as you need to line your bowl.
In a separate mixing bowl, mix the drained peas and cubed ham together, then pile the mixture on top of the salad leaves.
Arrange the anchovy fillets, olives and, if using, wedges of hard boiled egg on top of the peas and ham.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients until they are perfectly emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning, then pour over the salad.
Notes on Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad
Truth be told, as fascinating as it is as a piece of culinary history, The Pleasures of Italian Cooking is not always a pleasure to cook from. Salta’s instructions are fairly telegraphic, typical of many Italian cookbooks. But more to the point, a good number of his recipes, such as the one for peperoni alla piemontese, simply do not work. (Yes, I tried.) In others, the measurements seem off, such as his recipe for sedani alla parmigiana, which calls for braising three bunches of celery in a half-cup of stock. I wonder if he tested—or even proofread—his recipes?
Salta’s Original Recipe
This Easter Salad recipe also needed some interpretation. Here are his verbatim instructions:
Put peas on the bottom of a salad bowl. Arrange the anchovies and ham over them, then lettuce wedges around the edge of the bowl. Beat together the oil, [hard boiled] egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour over ingredients in the bowl. Garnish with olives.
Good luck with that! If you followed these cryptic instructions to the letter you would wind up with something rather odd. So as you can see, I played around. For one thing, I used the lettuce as a bed rather than an edging. Salta doesn’t specify the type of lettuce, but given the period and his instruction to cut it into wedges, I’m guessing iceberg. I used whole leaves of Boston lettuce instead.
And then I mixed the ham, cut into cubes with the peas rather than laying slices of it on top. Rather than using a whole can of anchovies as Salta calls for, I used enough to make a cross on top, symbolic of Easter. And rather than adding hard-boiled egg yolks to the dressing, which struck me as probably unsightly, I used whole hard boiled eggs—also an Easter tradition—cut into wedges, as part of the garnish.
On Romeo Salta and his restaurant
Romeo Salta himself was born a southerner, in Puglia in 1904. After his father died when he was six, Salta was raised in a state-run orphanage in Florence. He had no formal culinary training, learning his trade working as a kitchen boy on several Italian cruise lines. Arriving penniless in New York in 1924, he made his living for a few years doing menial work at various hotels around town. After a stint in the midwest, he moved to Los Angeles in 1933, founding a restaurant called Chianti in 1938. After a slow start, Ed Sullivan stopped for dinner one night and wrote about it in his newspaper column. Chianti soon began to attract celebrities like Lucille Ball and Errol Flynn. Salta’s career finally took off.
Returning to New York in 1951, Salta opened a place called Mercurio with a partner, then branched out on his own in 1953 with his storied namesake restaurant on West 56th Street. At a time when Italian restaurants were synonymous with red checkered tablecloths with candles stuck in straw-covered Chianti bottles, his elegant ambience and offerings of Italian food as it was and is cooked in its native land were a revelation.
You can read more about Romeo Salta in his 1998 New York Times obituary.
A funny story…
A great part of the fun going to Romeo Salta was the chance to catch a glimpse of its rich and famous patrons. I remember, for instance, we once sat next to an elderly James Farley, who had been FDR’s campaign director, Postmaster General and later head of Coca-Cola International. Since the tables were close together, he and Dad struck up a conversation, and we got to hear a few of his fascinating reminiscences.
But the most memorable moment from our visits to Romeo Salta was seeing Raymond Burr. He was an actor best known for playing Perry Mason in the eponymous 1960s TV series and later “Ironside”, a wheelchair-bound detective for the San Francisco police force, in the 1970s. We happened to be seated near the entrance to the restaurant. From our table we could see the patrons coming in and out. Well, in saunters Mr. Burr. One of my sisters, who was a big fan of Ironside at the time, blurts out—well within earshot mind you—”Look, it’s Ironsides! It’s Ironsides!” We all squirmed in embarrassment, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. As soon as he was out of sight, I turned and replied: “Yeah, and it must be a miracle, ’cause he’s walking!”
Romeo Salta’s Easter Salad
- 1 lb 500g frozen peas blanched, drained and cooled
- 1/4 lb 150 g cooked ham cut into cubes
- 1 head Boston lettuce
For the garnish:
- A few anchovy fillets
- Olives green and/or black
- 2 hard boiled eggs cut into wedges (optional)
For the dressing:
- 1/2 cup 125 ml olive oil
- 1 lemon juiced
- Salt and pepper
- Blanch the peas in boiling water. Just let the water come back to the boil and let it simmer for perhaps a minute, then drain in a large colander. Rinse the peas in cold water to stop the cooking, then let them drain until they are perfectly dry.
- Line a salad bowl with the Boston lettuce leaves, using as much as you need to line your bowl.
- In a separate mixing bowl, mix the drained peas and cubed ham together, then pile the mixture on top of the salad leaves.
- Arrange the anchovy fillets, olives and, if using, wedges of hard boiled egg on top of the peas and ham.
- Whisk together the dressing ingredients until they are perfectly emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning, then pour over the salad.
- Serve immediately.
My father was in NYC a few times a year buying for Hart/Schaffner/Marx starting sometime in the 1950s. He always came back to Ohio with stories of how great the food and atmosphere was, he loved it. On one occasion he came back with a series of post cards showing different vegetables in human like form. He passed them down to us, we had them framed and hanging in our home. Loving son of Glen Waltrip.
Great story, James. Those postcards sound like a lot of fun, and they must bring back some great memories.
Such wonderful memories Frank! Love the “Ironsides” story! It really is fun to revisit some old cookbooks and see what we thought, back then, was considered “fancy”…
How times have changed, Phyllis… !
What an interesting story, i love reading about culinary history. We lived in NYC in 1964/65 but I was just a toddler so it’s unlikely my parents would have taken me there. I wonder if his obscure recipe writing was intentional? My Mom had an aunt who would omit an ingredient so you could never really recreate her recipes!
The salad looks like spring, the colours and flavours are so fresh! I wonder if he meant a soft boiled egg yolk? But i like your take on it better.
You know, that also occurred to me. After all, Salta must have wanted his customers to keep coming back to his restaurant… 😉
Romeo Salta’s cookbook: The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, was my first cookbook many, many years ago. My grandchildren’s favorite dish, Pasta e Piselli, comes from there. They have all learned how to prepare it.
That’s fantastic, Gianfranco. I’m sure Romeo would have been pleased that his cookbook is still getting used after all these years!
what a great post here, Matthew. Off to check on Google the restaurants you mention. Were u born in the US or in Bari? do you still speak Italian? always fascinating, I find, to hear these stories from first or second generation Italians (well, American – Italian), ciao, stefano
ps bari: I was there a couple of years ago- they really have done a great job in restoring and cleaning it up. it is a fine looking city now.
Caio Stefano ! Bouna Pasqua !
I am proud to be the oldest son of my Grandfather’s youngest of seven children , so I was privileged to “bridge the gap’ between my Paternal and Maternal Grandparents who all immigrated from Bari ! The Paternal side came from Torritto, Provincia d’Bari and my Maternal side from Grummo Apulia , also Provincia d’Bari .
Born here in NYC in 1943 , we lived in the garden apartment of one of the two Brownstones in the East ‘50’s which my Grandfather purchased in 1917 and where the Casamassima Clan and related relatives were welcomed and housed and supported as they got jobs and assimilated into the fabric of new York . Grandpa Matteo arrived in 1898 and was introduced to the Ice/Coal business by his Sponsor and by heroic hard work, turned his twenty three dollars into enough funds to bring his Bride to America, Father and raise seven children and multiple relatives PLUS purchasing those Brownstones for the unheard of sum (at that time) of ten thousand dollars apiece !
BTW, one building still remains in the Family after over 100 years !!
Dialectical Italian was frowned upon by that Generation as they dearly wished to assimilate into their newfound home, here in America , so we eschewed Italian (Barese) and were fluent enough to capture and use it to our advantage but sadly never became proficient !
As related in my previous post, I was imbued with the work ethic of my Forefathers – joined my Father in Business , have one Son as my Partner (3rd generation) and married to my Irish Coleen and fathered and fostered three amazing daughters and two great sons who compiled 25 years of university, fourteen grandchildren and somehow, in the blink of an eye, ALL my children have been to Italy and all of Europe and a good portion of the World, speak many languages including Italian and one G/C speaks Mandarin Chinese and my Bride and I are hoping to visit Bari this year if the Pandemic allows !!
My tutelage at Grandpa’s side introduced me to the best latticinia stores, butchers, green grocers ,wine making, imported Virgin Olive oil from Puglia , ALL the Barese delicacies and a burgeoning appreciation for the cuisine of all the Peninsula ! The restaurants alluded to were the best of their generation and some still “carry the torch” ; Dedication to Business kept the Family “grounded” but also allowed us to explore the treasures, right in our “wheelhouse” which was the East Side of NYC and the contiguous Boros where we discovered amazing Culinary Gems as our reward for depriving ourselves the luxury of travel!
Thank you for your kind words ; hopefully, sooner than later I will be able to share my thoughts about my expectations vs. reality when we visit la Bella Italia and Bari , in particular !
Like Stefano, I want to thank you for sharing your incredible story, Matthew. What time to be working in the restaurant business! And by the way, my paternal grandfather was also from Grumo Appula! One day I hope to visit, sadly in all my years in Italy I didn’t make it there.
Thank you, Frank.
…My folks liked white-tablecloth Italian places, but I’m guessing that Romeo Salta’s was daunting with five young, noisy kids. I have fond memories of other “nice” restaurants, Zucca’s Italian Garden (midtown), Brione’s (Brooklyn) and Basilio’s (Staten Island), still running.
Question: Around the time of Romeo Salta’s cookbook, hadn’t Ada Boni’s “Italian Regional” arrived in the States? I’m thinking too that in the 1950s and 60’s, Italian-born Nika Hazleton (eventually cookbook editor, NYTimes) was writing about Italian food, among many other cuisines. She has a great account of her Roman childhood (“My Mother’s Kitchen”) in her memoir-with-recipes, “I Cook As I Please.” (Grosset & Dunlap, 1974).
It’s a good question, Michael! DBoni’s Italian Regional Cookbook was first published in English some years after Salta’s book (1968). Her masterwork, The Talisman Cookbook, which I’ve written about in this post, was indeed published before Salta’s book, way back in the 1950s in fact. But unfortunately the English “translation” was something of a travesty: The publishers thought that the original book wouldn’t sell in America, so they abbreviated the Italian version severely to only include recipe they thought would appeal to Americans and, worse than that, insisted on adding Americanized versions of other recipes. So unfortunately it turned out nothing like the original and doesn’t actually give a very accurate view of Italian cookery, unless you already know enough to tell which recipes are authentic and which not.
As for Nika Hazelton, I must confess although I’ve heard of her, I don’t really know her work. But if I’m not mistaken she came along rather well after Salta, late 70s and into the 1980s.
That was a really fun post to read, Frank. I appreciated all the background info on this dish and its creator. After reading your quote, I can imagine that the original disnh must’ve looked quite different from yours, but I think yours would win out in comparison. I love the symmetry, the colors, and the symbology. I also love the simplicity of the dish.
Thanks so much, Jeff! I appreciate it-I do like the way my interpretation came out. But I am still curious to know exactly what Romeo had in mind here…
Aren’t those old culinary books great? I mean, in the world where you can find all needed inspiration online, in no time, modern books might not be so convenient. However, those old books give you nostalgic vibes! Yup those recipes could be naive or, as in your case, need some extra improvements, cut that’s still cool. Indeed, this salad looks and sounds delicious. It’s a very interesting idea to combine anchovy with ham and eggs.
I do love culinary history, Ben. And browsing through those old cookbooks. Sometime very old, sometimes relatively recently like this one. But they’re always fascinating. And yes, I had my doubts about the anchovies here, too. But the combination actually worked very well, I thought.
The Name Romeo Salta rekindles the memories of the Golden Age of Restaurants in New York City and other Cities like Boston and new Orleans and San Francisco, where Chefs, Maitre’d’s and Classically trained Waiters and Kitchen help from the Italian , French and German British and Norwegian Ocean Liners were highly sought after and often “stolen” from the Fabulous Vessels, when they docked in those various Ports !
My Family, being Barese followed the cliche of being engaged in the Ice and Coal Business in New York City where our Patriarch toiled and established a major Service Company whose territory stretched from the “30’s to the 80’s and from Fifth Avenue to the East River.Blessed with six sons, the business prided itself in serving every major Hotel and very fine restaurant in that area, including the Waldorf, LaGrenuille, all the major Steak Houses, the Palm, Christ Cella, Bruno’s Pen & Pencil, Copain Lutece ,Le Perigord, Manny Wolf’s and too many to mention ! It was truly a “golden age ” which encouraged many fledgling chefs to demonstrate their skills and prosper- many staying ‘ala casalinga and many more stretching their Art to Culinary heights. We graduated from serving the “back of the house” to being welcomed as enthusiastic family diners and lifelong customers at many of these establishments .
Before the Palm Steakhouse closed, we were proud to have six generations dine there as patrons and friends of their fifth generation of owners and waiters !
Back to Romeo Salta ; the Maitre’d , under Romeo Salta was Guilio Donatich and he and his partner Caesar Dundara, opened Guilio Caesere Restaurant in Westbury,Long Island and Guilio , an octogenarian is STILL mesmerizing patrons with his culinary expertise !
Sorry to say the “wave” of exemplary immigrant chefs who came to our shores and enriched our lives are fading BUT their legacy will be forever ingrained in those who benefit from their legacy !
Thanks for your wonderful “bridge” across the generations and introduction to masters of their craft !
Matthew Casamassima – soon to be an Octogenarian , myself !
As always, this was a really fun post to read, Frank – thank you! What a fun opportunity to rub shoulders with the rich and famous – and seeing Raymond Burr? My Dad would’ve acted just like your sister, I believe. He is a huge Perry Mason fan! But back to the recipe, this does indeed seem like a fun spring recipe. Those original instructions are pretty terrible, but I think you did a nice job translating them into this version. Also, three bunches of celery…uhhh…
Right? I thought, three stalks maybe… And I’m with your Dad. To me, Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason, although I hasten to add I watched the show when it was already in re-runs. 😉
I love so much about this post, Frank – such great history, and Now I have to see if I can find Saltoa’s book. Oh, how I wish I had been in NYC at that time – it sounds amazing. And I love your sister’s outburst and, of course, your snarky retort. I somehow thought it was going to end with Burr looking at you and giving you a nod as the sane one at the table. 🙂
Ha! If I remember correctly, he basically ignored us. My guess is that sort of thing happens all the time to well-known actors.
That looks delicious and great back story with it! It’s amazing looking at old cookery books, most have a list of ingredients, a tiny paragraph of instructions and no pictures. One needs to be an experienced chef in order to translate the text!
You know, I usually have no problem with those old cookbooks, at least if they’re French or Italian. Since I know the methods fairly well I don’t need detailed instructions. In this case, however, brevity wasn’t the only problem… And bear in mind that this cookbook was intended for general audience, and more specifically for the average American housewife!
Oh what wonderful memories of New York you have brought forth for me ! At the time you were taken to Romeo Salta as a child I was there regularly as a young woman on business from Australia. With a very foodie husband !! Unfortunately it seems French and modern American restaurants like Lutece, La Grenouille and the wonderful Four Seasons saw us enjoying both food and atmosphere – don’t think I remember a single Italian lunch or dinner . . . hmm ! But Marcella Hazan’s book almost lived on my bedside table and, indeed, we were twice booked into her cookery school when she ran it in Italy – was not to be. Of the US food writers I also loved Paula Wolfert’s Italian efforts in her Mediterranean Cookery — a wonderful woman later to become a firm virtual friend ere fate played her foul . . . Must look up Romeo Salta . . . and salads are always welcome in this house . . .
All those other restaurants were wonderful, too. Sorry you missed taking lessons from Marcella, that would have been one of those life-changing experiences, I suspect. Even so, enjoying her books is a very solid alternative. She (with a big assist from her husband Victor) was a marvelous way of explaining technique. And yes, isn’t it sad about Paula…
How funny about your sister’s outburst! Sounds like a restaurant with great memories for you.
My family might like this salad, but althought I was born in the UK, I dislike peas. Actually, I dislike cooked peas! I’m actually growing some right now, but plan to eat them raw! Strange, I know, but what can I do?
My sister was quite the character! This restaurant really was a big part of my childhood’s food memories and really changed my gastronomic life. Too bad about the peas.. although in this recipe, the peas are *very* lightly cooked, practically raw. Might work for you?
Thanks for the memories! Papà was quite a character too.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Romeo! It’s a privilege to hear from you. I can imagine your dad must have been quite the character. He certainly had a fascinating life. And I have to say, by introducing me (along with so many others) to another side of Italian food, he had a huge impact on my gastronomic life.
What a wonderful post! You packed so much info it it, and in such an entertaining way. Thanks for the intro to the word, ” buongustaio” — new to me. Romeo Salta and his restaurant is new to me, also. Although I do remember the rage for Northern Italian restaurants in NYC. But what I remember is probably the late 60s, not as early as 1962. A lot of chef written cookbooks are cryptic. As I understand it, they assume their readers are also chefs, and will know how the dish is supposed to come together and how it should look on the plate. Doesn’t work for me, though — the original instructions for this dish really are off-putting. And speaking of this dish, wow! Neat salad. Thanks.
Thanks so much, John! You’re certainly right about cookbook intended for chefs. And a lot of Italian cookbooks in general. I usually don’t have a problem with those. The thing about this cookbook is that it was intended for home cooks and for an American audience at that time unfamiliar with Italian cooking techniques. I’m sure at least some of these recipes would have been unintelligible for your average housewife. May be why the book didn’t have the impact that Marcella Hazan’s did a few years later?
I enjoyed reading this post and I will make the salad tonight. Some old cookbooks are priceless.
Indeed they are, Gerlinde! Hope you enjoy the salad. 🙂
Oh my goodness, this was so entertaining! I have read some old cookbooks with oddly worded recipe directions. I guess it was a long while before there became a developed way to write recipes, a more or less “correct” way. This salad is so lovely, and it would have been funny to see a pic of the salad prepared from the recipe!!!
Can you imagine, lol!
I had never heard of this book but, after checking it out (folks: u can browse it for free on http://www.archive.org) and I am genuinely impressed. Apart from few aberrations (beans with caviar, stuffed bresaola), most of the food does look authentic. Good tip, as usual. grazie F
Thanks for your comment. And for that link to archive.org, Stefano. I didn’t know you could find whole books for free there!
I love this! It’s so old-school Italian and yes, exactly the kind of thing that was considered sophisticated by Americans and Brits back in the day.
The egg yolks are actually great in dressing but the instruction to hard-boil them sounds like another proofing error. If you make this with 7-8 minute yolks I bet it will be delicious.
I’m sure you’re right, a partially cooked (or even raw) egg yolk would be delicious as part of the dressing. I suspect, though, that Salta was thinking about sauces like salsa verde, which does sometimes call for completely cooked egg yolks. While the taste might be fine, I thought it would ruin the look of the final dish. Plus, I really like the idea of the hard boiled egg garnish, which for me is so quintessentially Easter.
Frank, I love love loved this post – not that I don’t love all of them 😇. Nice shout out to dad. It brought back so many nice memories. I remember going to Romeo Salta! Sadly I was too young to remember the food, but I remember Ironside! You are the only kid I know who would not just recognize, but be impressed by James Farley.
And I got a good chuckle out of your mention of having moms copy of the cookbook. It brought to memory a time you were home for a visit and announced after a good meal. “I think I’ll get something to read and go to bed”. Do you head for the “Library” -which at that time was full of books – oh no not you. You go straight for a cabinet in the kitchen that was filled with a plethora of cookbooks, browse through thoughtfully, grab one, tuck it under your arm and March off to bed. I remember vividly that I said through my tears of laughter “who does that”
Well as it turns out, the “food genius” thats who!!!
Thanks for the post and great memories!
Actually, it was Dad who explained to us afterwards who we had been talking to. Even I wouldn’t have recognized him at that age! Anyway, fun memories!