Stu Pospisil: Knives out for a look back at Omaha’s steak house history | History

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Omaha, the Nation’s Steak House.

“Nowhere in the entire world will you find better steaks! These leading steak houses are ready to serve you … when you come to Omaha.”

So proclaimed a two-page advertising spread in the June 9, 1957, World-Herald that seems a good launch point for a look back at more than a century of locally-owned steak restaurants.

Three of them from 1957 are still with us 65 years later — Johnny’s Café (its roots dating to 1922), Gorat’s (1944) and Cascio’s (1946).

Stu Pospisil

Stu Pospisil

A look back at them will be this column’s dessert.

Omaha’s first restaurant to advertise itself as a steak house, in 1917, was Louie Ahko’s. He had been a restauranteur since 1909 whose establishment on Douglas Street was destroyed by fire in 1916. He reopened in 1917 at 1417 Harney St. as a “new and thoroughly up-to-date chop and steak house.”

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Henry H. Smith’s Steak House opened in 1929 at 514 S. 16th St. Smith had been serving steaks at Smith’s Sea Food House at 25th and Farnam Streets, and he opened a second steak house at 2407 N St. in 1930. After Smith died in 1940, Omaha Knights hockey star Phil Besler bought the restaurant when it was at 1512 Howard and renamed it for himself.

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Comento’s Café, at 801 S. Seventh St., opened about the same time as Smith’s, Cascio’s co-founder Al Cascio recalled in a 1979 World-Herald article. Owned by Salvatore Commendatore, known in Omaha as Sam Comento, it lasted until 1947.

For years, the “Omaha Corn Fed Steaks” neon sign was a beacon for Trentino’s and later Angie’s at 1112 S. 10th St. Opened as a burger joint by the Firmature and Salerno families in 1933, it upgraded to steaks by 1938. Trentino’s was sold in 1976 and renamed Angie’s (through 2007). It reopened as Lucky’s ten-O-one for about a year. The building is now the Bluebarn Theater.

Before filet mignon became a high-priced meal, railroad contractor Louis Marchio used the cut to make his “Marchio Polo” dish of sautéed slices of filet with spaghetti, mushrooms and tomato sauce.” His Italian Cafe, 4443 S. 13th St., was open by 1932. The family sold it to Arlan and Rose Broome, who owned it from 1976-1985, rebuilding after a fire in 1980.

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The Piccolo’s Pete’s sign.

Piccolo Pete’s, 2202 S. 20th St., (1934-2015) began as a tavern whose name came from a popular song. “Omaha’s most beautiful beer garden” first advertised steak dinners in 1937. Owner Anthony Piccolo Sr. married into the Caniglia family, when he married Grace. The restaurant’s piccolo player neon sign was installed in the 1960s.

Italian Gardens at 1228 S. Sixth St. recovered from being firebombed two days before Benna Marcuzzo was to open the family tavern in 1934. It closed in 1968 and the building enjoyed later life as the Continental cuisine Café de Paris.

Sam Nisi’s “internationally known” Sparetime Café, where diners could select their steaks (as highlighted in the Saturday Evening Post), opened in 1939 at Fifth and Pierce Streets. The family moved the Sparetime to 703 S. 72nd St. (the former Angelo’s Studio Inn, 1956-1962), sold it in 1971 and repurchased the original site in 1978. It closed in 1982.

Other multi-decade steak houses that opened in the 1930s included Cantoni’s Grill, 19th and Leavenworth Streets (1936-1982) and Little Frank’s (1938-1974), which started at 2918 N. 16th St. and moved to Seventh and Pacific Streets.

After World War II and meat rationing, the next wave included Caniglia’s Pizzeria and Café (later the Original Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse, 1946-2005) at 1114 S. Seventh St. Cirino and Giovanna Caniglia introduced Omaha to pizza.

Jack Holmes Steak House, 5002 Center St., was a favorite of the Omaha Knights hockey crowd. Frank and Marguerite Vairo opened it in 1946, then sold after a year to Holmes. He continued its charcoal-broiled steaks (it claimed to be the first in town) and barbecued meats over “hickory embers” from 1947 to 1963. Nuncio Pomidoro then operated it for three years as Nuncio’s.

Johnny’s and Jerry’s Drive-Inn (1949-1955) at 30th Street and Bedford Avenue has been one of the few Black-owned steakhouses and perhaps the first. It had a full-time orchestra and was one of North Omaha’s jazz hotspots.

Another strip for steaks was developing along Dodge Street, and later branched off on 72nd Street as Ak-Sar-Ben Thoroughbred horse racing began drawing out-of-state bettors. Oh, that parade of buses every weekend from Kansas City in the 1970s into the 1980s.

The first was Green Gable Inn (1933-1950), which became Kenny’s, 7205 Dodge St. (1950-1988), the latter operated by Kenny and Edie Jensen and Kenny’s sister Bette Edwards. The Jensen’s father, O.C., ran the Elmwood Dairy on the Crossroads land and got the Kenny’s corner (the site of the future city library) in an exchange with a Realtor whose family couldn’t pay its milk bill during the Depression.

Already on Dodge at 76th Street were the Wishbone (1936-1957), which was remodeled for Todd’s Drive-In; at 78th Street, Frank Vocelka’s Club House Inn (1933-1959); and at 110th, Cliff’s (1946-1971). The New Tower Inn’s Eiffel Tower Room with its “sizzling corn-fed steaks;” opened later in the 1950s. A short-timer was the Florentine Café (later Gardens) at 200 S. 72nd St. (1946-1948), which billed itself as “Omaha’s Most Beautiful Italian Restaurant.”

Down 72nd Street past Kenny’s, Eli Caniglia’s Venice Inn was next at 6920 Pacific St. (1957-2014). Among those who entertained in the Cascade Lounge — it had a sunken bar, stage and indoor waterfall — were comedians Rowan and Martin. Davey “Nose” Bold was the in-house comic eight months a year who brought in the headliners at the Ak-Sar-Ben member shows.

Ross Lorello left Ross’ Villa at 111 N. 13th St. to open Ross’ Steak House “on the strip” at 909 S. 72nd St. (1956-1996). Its features included a stained glass mural and imported Italian marble fountain. Remember the two huge Hereford heads on the Ross’ sign? Those went up in 1964. Made of fiberglass, each was 10½ feet between the horn tips and 9½ feet high. The letters spelling “Ross’” were 8 feet high and the sign required 1,000 light bulbs.

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Mike Gurciullo repaints the giant steer atop Anthony’s Steakhouse in 2017. The steer was moved to Columbus after it sold at auction earlier this year.

At F Street was Anthony’s (1967-2022). Tony Fucinaro’s signatures included Johnny Ray Gomez in the lounge and the plastic steer that was installed on the restaurant roof in the early 1970s. The steer sold for $45,000 at auction to a truck stop in Columbus, Nebraska, earlier this year.

The last survivor on 72nd Street is the Drover at 2121 S. 73rd St. It opened as the Cork ‘N Cleaver in 1970 and was renamed in 1977. To the delight of whiskey steak lovers, the Drover was rebuilt after a fire in 2018.

But steak houses in the golden era were at all compass points around town.

One of the most beloved was Mister C’s, 5319 N. 30th St. (1953-2007). Starting in 1964, Sebastiano (Yano) Caniglia and his wife, Mary, transformed Caniglia’s Royal Boy drive-in (originally Marshall’s) into a 1,400-seat steakhouse with its uncountable Christmas lights and Italian dioramas, strolling musicians, minestrone soup (but not on Thursdays and Saturdays) and Mister C himself.

Holiday magazine selected the Gas Lamp, 30th and Leavenworth Streets (1961-1980), as one of America’s outstanding restaurants in 1966 and 1967. It never reopened after a fire. Down the street at 38th, the Fireside (1954-1975) had its Cameo Room and Pirate’s Dan after it took over the 11-Worth Grill space.

Al Caniglia had the Drawing Room, 4845 S. 132nd St. (1971-1991) and Caniglia’s World on the 28th floor of the Woodmen Tower (1974-1984). Wayne Sealy was the artist-in-residence at both as a caricaturist. Don Battiato’s and A.C. Incontro’s Tomahawk Inn, 8823 Maple St. (1964-1980) had a two-story dining room.

A year apart in opening and a mile apart, are Brother Sebastian’s and Jerico’s. Loren Koch opened Brother Sebastian’s Steak House and Winery in 1977. Destroyed by fire in February 1996, it reopened eight months later. Jerry Foster started Jerico’s Prime and Wine Lounge in 1978. Chuck DiDonato operated Jerico’s from 1989 until his death in 2014.

In Waterloo, Farmer Brown’s Supper Club was the original name for the steakhouse going strong since 1965. Before Farmer Brown’s the building was home to Seltz’s (1963-1965) and Zimmerly’s. Across the village was Harr’s (1971-2007), which Sol Haar moved from Fremont.

With Buffett favorite Piccolo’s now closed, other area restaurants hope to fill the gap (copy)

Longtime Warren Buffett favorite Piccolo’s has closed since last year’s Berkshire Hathaway meeting. That meant that reservations for another Buffett choice — Gorat’s at 49th and Center Streets — filled up even faster than usual this year. New this year at Gorat’s will be a root beer float — a tip of the cap to Piccolo’s, where Buffett often enjoyed the treat.

Former bootlegger Louis Gorat and his wife Nettie opened Gorat’s at 4917 Center St. on Columbus Day 1944. Louis Jr. — “Pal” — and his family ran it for years until they sold to Gene Dunn in 2012. Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett has been a frequent diner, as he was at Piccolo Pete’s.

Cascio’s Steakhouse (copy)

In April 1946, Cascio brothers Joe and Al, seen here in 1993, opened the steakhouse at its current location.

Al and Joe Cascio opened Cascio’s Grille at 1620-22 S. 10th St. on May 1, 1946, in a building that housed a drug store and upper-floor apartments. Al had been successful running the Rinky Dink Bar and Grill at 1916 S. Sixth. Joe had a tavern at 1703 S. 10th. The present restaurant is much larger than the 200-seater that was destroyed in a four-alarm arson fire in March 1978.

Johnny’s Café dates to the Prohibition-era soft-drink parlors (wink, wink). From our archives, which do differ with family legend, Frank Kava (Kawa) opened his first one in 1922 at 4516 S. 24th St. across from South High School. By 1927 he had moved closer to the thirsty packinghouse workers at 4636 S. 27th St. and “the reputed South Omaha ‘beer baron’” was still there as of 1932.

Johnny's Cafe (copy)

You should go to South Omaha’s Johnny’s for the steak. But you should also go to have an Old-Fashioned in the kitschy bar where bar stools are saddles and a bull’s head on the wall has glowing red eyes. For the history lesson on Omaha food in the restaurant’s lobby. For the incredible décor in the dining room. And don’t forget the onion rings, my personal favorite.

Between then and December 1934, Kawa moved his business (now able to sell liquor legally) across the street to atop the George Hoffman packing plant building. Johnny’s Café — the name is said to have been on a sign already on the building — started with a small bar, four tackles and a lunch counter. He expanded the restaurant three times before his death in 1955, with the packing plant still operating below it. Sons Jack and Tom upgraded Johnny’s to a formal restaurant in 1966.

In its tribute story to Kawa in 1961, the South Omaha Sun wrote that Kawa was “the man generally credited with pioneering Omaha’s reputation as a steakhouse town.” Want early proof?

Wrote New York syndicated columnist Dale Harrison (who had worked in Omaha) in May 1939: “Went for dinner to Johnny’s Cafe in South Omaha, for it neighbors the great stockyards and I would not travel so far without feasting on Omaha Porterhouse. New York has excellent steaks, for the choice cuts are shipped east, but none could be better than that I had at Johnny’s at half the New York price.

“Eating, I was disturbed by two cowboys who got great enjoyment from discharging .38 caliber pistols under my chair, the flames leaped foot from the barrel. A policeman wandered in, observed the gunman, smiled tolerantly, and wandered out. I coaxed the westerner to let me fire his gun, and when I had it in hand I blazed away merrily at his feet; whereupon he shouted in alarm: ‘Hey! You’ll burn my legs!’ To which my sneered reply: ‘It makes a difference whose legs get scorched, doesn’t it?’ I could hardly finish the meal, so choked was the room with gunpowder fumes.”

Here’s to Johnny’s, celebrating its centennial year. And to all the other Omaha-bred steak houses past and present. Leave the guns at home, and they’ll supply the knives.

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