Illustration by Britt Spencer
On The Hill, recipes represent the most treasured of family heirlooms. Everyone has a great-grandmother from Sicily whose sauce is a secret. No other neighborhood in the country has so many restaurants whose menus feature “history” sections. So it’s no surprise that the invention of toasted ravioli is a point of polite debate. In the absence of hard evidence, history (and this sage) tends to side with the best storyteller. In this case, that was Mickey Garagiola, older brother of famous baseball player Joe, neighbor of even more famous baseball player Yogi, and in his era, the city’s most well-known waiter.
Mickey, who died in 2010, always said he was at Oldani’s on the night in the 1940s when toasted ravioli was born, and he often punctuated the claim with “I’ll bet my house on it.” A cook named Fritz (or Terry Lane, depending on the telling) was making scaloppini with red wine, which is to say he was drinking red wine while cooking scaloppini. In his tipsy state, Fritz accidentally dropped some ravioli into the fryer. When he pulled them out, Mrs. Oldani tried to salvage them with a sprinkling of Parmesan. She sent them to the bar, where Mickey and his buddies loved the golden pillows of meat and dough. Evelyn’s husband, Lou Oldani, who died in April at age 103, dubbed them “toasted” because, in his words, “You didn’t want to use ‘fat fried’ and you didn’t want to use ‘greasy fried.’”
Angelo’s, owned by the unrelated Angelo Oldani, also claimed to have created T-ravs, telling a similar story. A waiter instructed a German cook whose English was a bit fuzzy to “drop some raviolis,” so the guy put them into hot oil. The staff liked them so much, toasted ravioli was added to the menu. Oldani’s is now Mama’s and Angelo’s is now Charlie Gitto’s; both restaurants promote themselves as the birthplace of toasted ravioli. When pressed, Mama’s co-owner Andrea Ervin stands firm, calling Fritz “cranky and half-lit.” Charlie Gitto Jr. defends his claim a bit less aggressively.
Lombardo’s, which now has four locations, first opened in 1934, serving recipes that current owner Tony Lombardo’s great-aunts Sue and Miguela Lombardo brought from Sicily. Tony is fairly sure that he has menus from the ’30s listing T-ravs, before any German cook working for one Oldani or another had a famous accident, but Lombardo remains neutral in the debate. His large toasted ravioli—stuffed with beef, spinach, cheese, and eggs—are the best. And when it comes to food, being tastiest is better than being oldest.