I’m going to guess it was 10 or 15 years ago, but my timeline could be off by a little.
What I know for sure is that Caruso’s was still open, because I ended up there with my daughter Erin and my friend Dan Ciolek.
We met for dinner on a wintry night, but had no idea it would be the last time we ate at one of my favorite places. As we made our way to a table, I directed my companions to a restaurant review some young kid had written years ago for The Star Beacon. It was still framed and on the wall in the 21st century.
So I must have given Caruso’s a positive review.
How could I have done anything else?
Caruso’s was a go-to place in Ashtabula in the 1980s and 1990s. I discovered it in high school one day after meeting some friends to play racquetball at the nearby Nappi’s Racquet West. Caruso’s was in the Nappi Plaza, facing West Avenue.
That’s where I went to eat while I waited for my parents to pick me up, since I wasn’t driving yet.
I don’t remember what I ordered — probably pizza — but my waitress was cute (curly brown, big 80s hair and dark eyes) and the juke box had some Dean Martin songs.
I was hooked.
Later, when I started living and working in Ashtabula, I went back to Caruso’s often and never had a bad meal. Whatever we ordered — pizza, pasta or the zucchini chips (with ranch, of course) — was always terrific.
Colleague and friend Scot Fagerstrom always got the hottest chicken wings available and made certain to ask for a healthy pool of sauce to drag the wings through as he ate them. They were too hot for me, but it didn’t matter. If you sat next to Scot while he inhaled them, you were sweating.
But when life and work took me to other towns, my visits to Caruso’s became less frequent.
Finally, that visit some years ago became my last. I’ll chalk it up to fate bringing me back to a comfortable, familiar place one final time.
Later, someone passed along the bad news that Caruso’s had closed. It felt like hearing about the death of someone to whom you were once very close.
The restaurant business can be a tough way to make a buck. Most independent places like Caruso’s don’t survive the first few years. Looking back, I remember Caruso’s and other Ashtabula restaurants fondly. Bali Hai was a favorite. El Grande, Hulbert’s and the different incarnations of Lou’s, be it the Stagecoach or Billow Beach, too. And The Captain’s Table, on Lake Avenue, provided Homecoming dinners for a few of us in the fall of 1984.
For struggling Kent State Ashtabula kids in the 1980s, a few bucks could go far at Parasson’s in the Lake Avenue Plaza.
There are so many other wonderful places that have been lost to the ages. I know I’ll regret leaving out several more when I come to this column tomorrow.
Yes, this is one of those “old guy pines for a long-ago time” columns. I offer no apologies.
How did I get started down this restaurant row wormhole? It was the recent news that the COVID-19 pandemic — which has many eateries on the ropes — claimed another historic place: Sokolowski’s University Inn, in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, had been closed for months. This week, the Sokolowski family announced the closing will be permanent. The family is putting the building on the market.
Sokolowski’s is a Cleveland institution. It was right around the corner from another wonderful haunt, the West Side Market. And personally, since I was born a few blocks away at Grace Hospital and spent some formative years living a block from the West Side Market, the area always felt like home to me.
Think ethnic — Polish and Hungarian — comfort food. As someone who grew up eating authentic Hungarian food my parents and grandmother made, going to Sokolowski’s was like going back home for meals.
No one ever left there hungry. At least, I know I never did, with heaping helpings of chicken paprikash my go-to method of slipping into a food coma. But everything dished out at the cafeteria-style restaurant was terrific, even the desserts.
But if you did it right, you shouldn’t have even had room for dessert.
Sokolowski’s — which had been in business since 1923 — joins other legendary Cleveland restaurants as simply memories of a better time. I remember my dad taking me to Captain Frank’s, at the end of the East 9th Street Pier, in the 1970s. Given how close we lived to Sokolowski’s, I’m sure we went there, too. I was just too young to remember.
It had been some time since I ate at Sokolowski’s, thanks to the pandemic. Now — unless the family can’t sell the place and opts to reopen later — I’ll never get another chance to go there.
The hungry Hungarian in me needs an occasional plateful of chicken paprikash, among other ethnic delights. All may not be lost, however, as Erin now resides in Hubbard, not far from Lena’s Pierogi House.
I could smell the pierogies through an open window when we finished moving her in the other day.
So maybe it’s true what they say about God closing one door and opening another.
ED PUSKAS is Editor of The Star Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @Ed_Puskas.