Winning once is nothing to sneeze about, but twice? Well that’s just the Northside’s Aunt Josie’s, which is now the two-time defending champion in the Meatball Madness Competition held every March to benefit Elmcrest Children’s Center. According to today’s Post-Standard, Aunt Josie’s embodies the quintessential Syracuse restaurant, but don’t take our word for it, click here to read the full article on Syracuse.com or click the read more link below.
The Caruso family at Aunt Josie’s continues tradition of award-winning meatballs
By Don Cazentre / The Post-Standard
If you were to create the quintessential Syracuse restaurant, it would probably be a family-owned place serving deep bowls or large plates of hearty Italian fare, more than likely on the city’s North Side.
“It’s blue collar food,” said Mike Caruso, a member of the family that has run Aunt Josie’s Restaurant on North Salina Street for nearly 50 years. “It’s food like you make at home, but that you may not take the time to make any more. We do. That’s why it’s popular.”
Aunt Josie’s isn’t the only such place – there’s Angotti’s, Dominick’s, Joey’s, Rico’s, Santangelo’s and many more in the city and suburbs.
But Aunt Josie’s can say this: It is now the two-time defending champion in the Meatball Madness competition held every March to benefit Elmcrest Children’s Center. This year, the Aunt Josie’s crew won its second trophy not long after the death of Michael “Pop” Caruso Sr., who helped guide the restaurant through much of its existence.
The legacy is carried on by members of the immediate family: Pop’s son, Mike Caruso; daughter-in-law Barbara; grandson Mikey; and granddaughter Nicole.
And always someplace nearby is Pop’s wife of 58 years, Philomena, the daughter of Josephine Marnell, who gave the place its name. Philomena, who worked for years in the kitchen alongside her husband, is now retired, sort of.
Befitting a family place, the Carusos say the secret behind their prize-winning meatballs will remain a secret, closely held within the family.
But they’ll offer some hints: Aunt Josie’s meatballs, for example, are all beef, Mike Caruso said. And they use garlic oil, instead of chopped up garlic.
This last point, which Caruso made while sitting in the restaurant dining room with his mother and other family members, raises the kind of debate that is surely common in family-run establishments:
“Some people like the garlic chunks,” Philomena Caruso interjected.
“Sure they do, Ma, but look at the (Meatball Madness) trophy,” Mike Caruso answered. “That tells you something.”
Aunt Josie’s opened under that name on Halloween night in 1961, though it had been open under some different names, including Marnell’s, before that.
Philomena Caruso remembers that it initially shared space in the building at 1110 N. Salina St. with a fruit and vegetable shop called Shorty’s.
Pop Caruso was originally a mason, and Josie, his mother-in-law, taught him to cook so he could help out when needed. It turned into a career for him and the whole family.
Aunt Josie’s was part of a thriving North Side restaurant scene that was more than just Italian: The classy Tubbert’s was nearby, and there were a good number of German places, like Gruen’s and Weber’s, too.
“We outlasted them all,” Philomena Caruso said.
Any place that has been a city landmark for five decades is sure to have some stories attached to it. Here’s one of the Caruso family’s favorites:
It happened during the administration of former Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander, an Aunt Josie’s regular.
One day there was huge snow storm and the whole city was buried, Philomena Caruso remembered. As the day wore on, no snowplows appeared.
“Mom (Josie) said she was going to call the mayor, because he was such a good customer, to see what he could do about it,” Philomena Caruso said.
Sure enough, Josie got the mayor on the line and “she explained that she couldn’t do business with all that snow in front.”
The reaction was quick, said Mike Caruso, picking up the story.
“A little while later, we start hearing these trucks rumbling up the street,” he said. “All these trucks. It looked like the Marines coming in. They cleared everything, but only up to the corner. There were snow banks everywhere on Salina except right here in front of the restaurant.”
Over the years, Aunt Josie’s recipes and menu have been resistant to change. That’s still the case, to a point.
“You can now get potatoes with some things,” Mike Caruso said. “You used not be able to get a potato.”
The signature dish, and the best-seller, is still the Aunt Josie’s Special, also known as the “AJ.” It’s cavatelli with broccoli and mushrooms in a garlic and butter sauce.
When change does come, it’s more of a slow evolution.
Take the ravioli: Aunt Josie’s chefs still make the ravioli by hand – rolling, cutting, shaping, filling and boiling. It takes eight hours each week to make.
For years, all the ravioli was filled with ricotta cheese. Now they make spinach and meat varieties, and occasionally seafood.
The Ravioli Trio — cheese, spinach and meat — will soon make its Aunt Josie’s menu debut. A recent special of eggplant parmesan, sausage and meatball lasagna and two ravioli was such a hit it’s likely to make the menu, too.
Mike Caruso believes in sticking to the methods, ingredients and service that have kept Aunt Josie’s going since 1961.
“It’s hard to compete with the chains, the Olive Gardens, and all their advertising and pre-prepared food,” he said. “But we’re still just as busy now as we ever were.”
Aunt Josie’s Special
From Aunt Josie’s Restaurant
1 stick of salted butter (cut into small cubes)
6 steamed broccoli spears
2 cups of cooked white mushrooms
1 pound of precooked cavatelli pasta
1 large clove of garlic (minced)
Fresh parsley for garnish
On low heat, melt butter in large saute pan. Add garlic and heat for 2 minutes, add broccoli and mushrooms and heat for an additional 2 minutes while combining the ingredients together. Add precooked pasta and fold into the ingredients already in the pan. Heat and combine thoroughly the pasta, vegetables, garlic and butter, garnish with fresh parsley and serve in a large pasta bowl. Makes 2 servings.