The Italian-American fare was solid enough -- garlic-broiled steaks, fried chicken, coconut-cream pies in graham-cracker crusts -- and the people watching was even better. In the mid-'80s, the place attracted a rogue's gallery of guests, from Mission Hills socialites to Main Street working girls. One late night, an octogenarian in a checkered sports coat and jaunty fedora turned to me and announced that he was "the ambassador to the United States from merry old Scotland." I looked down to see that his shoes were held together with duct tape. "But that was many years ago, dear boy," he said. "I've had a few reverses."
"It was a diverse clientele, that's for sure," recalls Frank Macaluso, who for fourteen years managed the place for his grandmother, the legendary Mary Tidona of the namesake restaurant. (Her original partner, Jimmy Goodwin, stayed in the business only a few months.) "We had doctors, judges, street people. A vast variety of people."
The boisterous and good-natured Macaluso closed Jimmy and Mary's Steakhouse in 1994 and started a catering company. It's taken him nearly a decade to open a new restaurant, this one named for Mary's great-granddaughter, his daughter Gia. It's a more upscale venue than Jimmy and Mary's, but the large portrait of Mary Tidona -- in a black-velvet dress, white opera gloves, and pearls -- that dominated the 34th Street location is now hanging in a prominent spot in the new dining room.
The dining room of Gia's Italian Cucina is barely four months old, but the brick building dates back to the early twentieth century, when it was a neighborhood grocery store (including a long stint as one of the early Milgram's) in a West Side community bustling with industry. By the 1920s, this stretch of the boulevard was already pretty industrial, with chemical companies, repair shops, warehouses, feed stores, and auto-repair shops. With so many businesses, it wasn't surprising that the area was loaded with little cafés and diners to feed the workers. All the joints were listed in the city directories by the names of the cook-owners: Mrs. Amelia Becker, Mrs. Jennie Householder, Mrs. Anna Hudgins. Within a decade, most of those little restaurants were gone. Nearly half a century would pass before Southwest Boulevard had a revival as "restaurant row."
Macaluso's place is the first exclusively Southern Italian restaurant in the neighborhood in years, and it's a welcome addition. The 49-seat space has been given a neoclassic bistro design -- concrete floors; whirling fans hanging from 14-foot ceilings; shiny, uncloaked tables; a granite-topped bar -- and a menu that combines the best of the Mary Tidona recipes (lasagna, ravioli, steaks) with newer culinary innovations created by chef Ryan Solien. It's a successful mix of traditional and stylish, with only a handful of Tidona's extensive Italian-American dishes surviving into the millennium. One old favorite that didn't make the cut: Southern-fried chicken (a staple, interestingly enough, of most Sicilian restaurants for decades), which Macaluso says he may add to the menu. "You can't imagine the calls we get asking about it," he says.