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Thursday, April 8, 2010 06:19 am

A restaurant to remember

The rich history of food and fun at Stevie's Latin Village

Behind the scenes in Stevie’s kitchen.
Thin wisps of smoke from the guests’ cigarettes lazily spiral upward and hang as if suspended from the ceiling. The ceiling itself, as well as the walls, are inscribed with caricatures of regulars as well as celebrities that have dined there, drawn by the owner himself. A trickle of jazz from the baby grand piano in the background adds to the ambience, along with bursts of laughter and the buzz of conversation. The women sport elaborate hairdos, many with hats, as well as girdles and corseting bras to streamline their shapes; the men are dressed in suits, Brylcreem flattening and adding sheen to their hair. And the smells: from the steaks sizzling on platters, from the hot scents of candles and sterno, from the women’s perfume and the men’s cologne. Overlaying them all are whiffs of garlic and cheese and tomato sauce.

Truly great restaurants have an indefinable, almost ephemeral something that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Delicious food, an attractive setting and courteous service can come together for a good time. But when that certain something is present, a good time is transformed into an extraordinary experience. For many years in Springfield, Stevie’s Latin Village was such a place.

For JoAnn’e Glatfelter, Stevie’s Latin Village can be summed up in one word: special, an adjective she used repeatedly when talking about the restaurant: “Stevie’s was something that might have been in big cities, but it was here,” she says. “There were other good restaurants in Springfield like the Mill and the Old Lux, and the Red Lion Room [in the Leland Hotel]. But Stevie’s was different than anything else around. It was kind of dark – that was very special. To have a steak come out on a sizzling platter – that was special. The sauce that came with the steak was special, too. Mama’s soup – it was a delicious minestrone; we’d never had anything like it before – that was such a special thing. It was just a very special treat to go there.”

Part of what made Stevie’s seem special might well have been due to the times. Post WWII America was in a celebratory, self-congratulatory mood, and deservedly so. Victors in a conflict without having suffered invasion and devastation. Knights in shining armor who’d come to the rescue and saved the day for the rest of the world. Business was good, jobs were plentiful and well paid, and the future seemed as if it would be a never-ending crescendo of better things to come. But the primary reason for Stevie’s Latin Village’s success was owner Steve Crifasi himself.

Behind the scenes in Stevie’s kitchen.

“Steve knew how to serve good food, and he knew how to take care of people,” says R-Lou Barker who, with her late husband, Mort, were Latin Village regulars.

“We’d go there just about every Saturday night. Saturdays – that was the time to go. We’d get a sitter for the boys and be there for at least three or four hours, enjoying the music – especially the piano – after we ate.”

Crifasi was a true Italian-American – born in 1912 to parents who came from Sicily to the U.S. in 1910. Arriving at Ellis Island, they first lived in New York City, and then moved to Kansas City, Mo. Like so many others, they came to Springfield to find work in the area’s coal mines. Steve was the oldest in a large family that included five brothers, and so when America entered WWII, he stayed behind to provide for his parents – who spoke little English – while his brothers went off to war. Living with his parents – even after he married his wife, Alma, and they had their first child – he worked at Sangamo Electric from 7 a.m. to 3p.m. “There was always roulette and a craps game going on then,” says Stevie’s son, Joe. “Dad got extra work as a craps dealer at a place called ‘The Pad,’ just off Ninth and Sangamon during the wartime – that’s how he got into the restaurant business.”

Crifasi’s first solo venture was called “Character’s Corner,” located at Eighth and Monroe Streets. He served drinks and sandwiches, and drew caricatures of everyone who came in – something that would become Stevie’s trademark. “It was just after the war, and everyone was having a good time,” says Joe Crifasi.

Steve Crifasi stayed in that location from 1947-1949; then sold it to the Saputos, in whose hands it has remained ever since. These days Saputo’s is the only place locally where you can find a genuine old-school Italian-American restaurant experience.

Angled parking was permitted on city Rt. 66 when Stevie’s first opened.

In 1949, Crifasi bought the Anchor Inn at 620 N. Ninth St., and renamed it Stevie’s. He was still doing casual food and drinks – there was even a shuffleboard on the premises. His sister, Rose, and father, Francis, made the food, and Stevie tended bar. It did “real well,” at least in part because it was on Route 66, according to his son, Joe. By 1952 the place had evolved into a full-fledged restaurant: Stevie’s Latin Village. During the decade that followed, it was at its pinnacle. In an undated reprint of an article in the now defunct The 66 News!, found in the Crifasi family memorabilia, longtime server Mae McMillan recalls the scene:

“I was a waitress at Stevie’s Latin Village on City Route 66 for 11 years. I started there in the summer of 1956 and that fall they had a fire that burned the inside of the place. Steve Crifasi, the owner, had interruption insurance, so he kept six waitresses a cook, and a bartender on the payroll. We went to Eighth and South Grand where Steve owned a place called Pagliacci’s and we sold steaks and Italian food along with the pizza they were already selling there. When the original building was repaired, we moved back there.

Stevie’s was a popular tourist stop and they had signs for it from Chicago to St. Louis. It was a place for lots of state senators and representatives. Secretary of State Paul Powel. . . Alan Dixon, and even Governors Bill Stratton and Otto Kerner were frequent diners there. And when the State Fair was being held, we had lots of performers come by to eat.

We always had live entertainment in the lounge and the staff all had to be ready to do a song when our names were called. It was like amateur night there every night. The bartender, Joe Ganci, sang. The salad girl sang, the busboys sang, and so did Steve. His favorite was, ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’

We had the prettiest waitresses anywhere in the country and I was one of them. We had a contest one time during State Fair Week to see who could sell the most extras – Chianti wine, garlic bread and onion rings – and the prize was a black onyx ring with a cross of diamonds on it. I won the ring, but some girl stole it from me.
A lot of local businessmen ate lunch at Stevie’s every day. Steve had a long table set up by the landing and they all sat there. Steve sat at the end of the table, where he always had a phone plugged in for calls.

We had the best steaks and Italian food along Route 66! All the steaks were U.S. Prime and aged for tenderness. We had Senor and Senorita filets, fillet Parmesan, fillet scaloppini, chicken cacciatore, ravioli, spaghetti, and toasted ravioli. And on every table there was a piece of Roquefort cheese. We used to come into work all clean and smelling of cologne and our first task was to get this 30-pound cake of cheese and cut it into table-sized pieces and wrap it in tin foil. The cheese would get under your fingernails and if you didn’t wash your hands with lemon juice it was like you hadn’t taken a bath at all.

All the dishes, menus, ashtrays, etc. had [Stevie’s] caricature on them. He also had his own recipe for salad dressing and sold it by the bottle. It was the best oil and vinegar dressing anywhere.”

Rose Crifasi, left, cooked all of Stevie’s Italian dishes.
I was fortunate to go to Stevie’s Latin Village fairly frequently as a young child. The sensory memory in the first paragraph above is my own. As an only child of an only child – and, moreover, one who lived next door to my grandparents, I got taken along whenever they went out together for special celebrations. In my early years, those celebrations almost always took place at Stevie’s.

But my Stevie’s Latin Village experiences pale besides those of Derek Crifasi, Joe’s son and Steve’s grandson, who says he grew up at the restaurant. “I had my own personal booth,” says Derek. “Aunt Rose (Stevie’s sister) did all the cooking – of the Italian dishes, anyway, and she would bring me my own filet and my own side of pasta. Aunt Rose was just the greatest. Grandpa Stevie would shout ‘Hey, can you bring Derek over?’ and then he’d sit me on the piano and show me off to all the customers.”

Steve Crifasi was a genial host, but he was also a shrewd businessman – in some ways far ahead of his time. In the stack of Crifasi family memorabilia is a “Manual of Standard Procedures” for the restaurant, written in 1955. It’s dated – there’s a job description for “Scullery Maid” – but much of it would be suitable for use in a current MBA program: “This manual is not static, it is alive, active, and vital. Economic conditions are constantly changing; business trends are fluctuating; our policies, our sources of revenue and our competition are undergoing continual revision. We must keep in step with progress…. The various specialized members of the business organization, from administration to worker, like the specialized cells of organisms, are completely interdependent; none can succeed and progress without the co-operation of the others.”

Customers often requested tables in the Fountain Room.
Whew! The operations manual also included detailed duties for each member of the staff, from Dining Room Manager, Bus Boys, Beverage Waiter, Chef, Butcher, down to that Scullery Maid and the Night Dishwasher.

Stevie’s had become a top dining destination for locals, as well as Springfield visitors ranging from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith (in town to work on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign) to the Three Stooges (who appeared at the State Fair). Stevie and his Latin Village had become important in other Springfield venues as well: it was the first site of what was then the Cathedral Boy’s School Mostaccioli Dinners, which then became Griffin’s and finally, these days, Sacred Heart-Griffin’s hugely popular fundraising events.

Flush with success, Steve Crifasi decided to expand. Eventually there were six Stevie’s Latin Villages spread around central Illinois: Decatur, Bloomington, Kankakee and two in Peoria. For several years things went well, but eventually the difficulties of managing multiple restaurants and ensuring top quality in those pre-computer days became overwhelming. The satellite restaurants shut down. Steve Crifasi retired and moved to Florida, where he passed away in 1988. The Springfield flagship establishment closed, then reopened as simply “The Latin Village” with new owners (including Steve’s brother, Tony). But times had changed, and it eventually was bought by Charles Lin to become the China Inn. The building was demolished last year.

Stevie’s expanded to six locations statewide, including Decatur.

The spirit of Stevie’s Latin Village lives on, though – as does the self-caricature that Steve Crifasi created so long ago. Derek Crifasi, the young boy who had his own booth at Stevie’s, has been bottling and marketing his grandfather’s salad dressing since 1987, distributing it right here in Springfield, as well as throughout the south, where both his father and grandfather relocated.

“We’ll always make the dressing,” says Derek, who now is a wholesale marketer of Italian olive oils, cheeses and other Italian foodstuffs. Making and selling the salad dressing is not just a tribute to his grandfather; he’s also doing it to honor his brother, Drew, who died of cancer at the age of 18. All profits from sales of the dressing, at many local groceries and food shops, go to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Derek just finished designing a new label for the dressing. But the one thing that won’t change on the label is the self-caricature of his grandfather, Stevie, who made it all happen.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


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