By Carol Masshardt
Filomena Lograsso, 75, of Sal’s Italian Ristorante and Pizzeria on L. St., looks back to her childhood in Abruzzi, Italy, and draws a quick connection to her lifelong skill and passion for cooking. She also looks ahead to a time when the third generation of her family with husband, Salvatore, continue the fine tradition. But, for now, she is in the kitchen most every day as she has been since 1986 when she and Sal turned a convenience store into the restaurant.
“I came from Italy in 1965 at age 17,” she said. “I never studied cooking in the sense of going to school, but I watched my mother. She was a good cook, and I remember her making sauce, homemade pasta, and rabbit. She would make cheeseballs on a Saturday, and I still do that here.”
She also remembers her father making wine at 2AM. Hard work as a way of life was not lost on the youngest of four, who went on to not only start the business with “Sal” but raised three children, including son, Carlo, who is key in the business now, and two daughters, a teacher and physical therapist. Through it all she developed a philosophy and natural way of perfecting an age-old art.
“I put my love into food and cooking, and you have to do that to make it right,” she said. “I have common sense and also can put things together quickly.” Seeing her in action confirms this as she uses just the right fresh products, and a process learned those decades ago in Italy. “I don’t change the menu much,” she said. “The basic menu is good. I get here early and start the sauce, and we use 90 percent fresh products,” she said. “We don’t have much room to grow produce but we do use our own basil and parsley.”
Filomena recounts how they go about making their own chicken salad, and the joy of working with fresh broccoli and spinach with the full confidence of a chef who knows quality over fads and can accommodate one or crowds.
The past year, she took a break and went to Florida for several well -deserved months, but make no mistake, she knows what it takes to sustain the operation. “You are married to the business. You cannot leave it because it needs attention and love. You also have to be polite to all customers and it takes patience,” she said. A natural born leader and chef, she is confident in her experience and derives satisfaction from what she produces
COVID-19 was a challenge to Sal’s as every other business and the configuration of tables changed, and the popular takeout and delivery increased, but there were unusual periods when they had to close. There is also the continued challenge of getting and keeping the kind of employees they want. Fortunately, Louisa LoStimolo, joined the team when a neighboring business closed, and Filomena is clearly pleased to work with her. Through it all, she seems quite at home with the inevitable ebb and flow of a business and is focused more on fortune than misfortune in life and work.
Asked about Florida, she isn’t primarily propelled by golf or lounging about, but first said, “We have large parties there, I cooked for one hundred people!” She has a natural joy in bringing people together wherever she may be, and most often it involves family, friends, and cooking.
Why keep doing it when her son, Carlo, is already committed, and now possibly one or more of her eight grandchildren may be ready to take the helm? “It is good therapy,” she says, looking around the familiar space, and recalling mothers long ago dropping off children at school and coming in for coffee, or twins who were toddlers and now adult men still coming in for favorites. “The honest truth is that I enjoy it,” she said.
Filomena Lograsso hesitated momentarily when getting up from a familiar bench in the place she has worked and loved since 1986, and I thought that perhaps standing and making that sauce and other time-consuming recipes without shortcuts have been straining her back, but I was wrong.
“I was dancing too much, and my leg is sore. I love Latin music and don’t sit down. My husband says, do you remember how old you are,” she laughs at the question knowing full well that she will do what she loves without imposing an age limit. She returns to the morning ritual with Sal, Carlo, her grandsons, Louisa, and the team at Sal’s who have rebounded from the current challenges and are cooking with the same attention that began in Italy generations ago.