By Amy Eddings
There are challenges to interviewing John and Tony Venturella inside the brothers’ restaurant, Casa Lu Al. First of all, you’ve got to get them to sit down.
“Here’s the problem with me sitting down at the table here,” said Tony, 57, moments after sinking into a chair after the lunch rush. “I feel compelled to go check on everyone to make sure they’ve been waited on.”
He was up and out of his seat in a wink to walk through the dining room.
Then you’ve got to be ready for interruptions.
Longtime patrons Joe and Joanna Varga were coming in for lunch and saw the brothers sitting at the table.
“I got something for you,” said Joanne, 65, holding a paper bag in her hands.
“You do? Is it ticking?” said John.
“It’s homemade banana bread,” Joanne said. “It’s really good warm with a glob of butter or whipped cream.”
Yes, Casa Lu Al is that kind of place, a restaurant whose owners, staff and patrons interact like one big family. It’s been part of Lima’s dining scene since John and Tony’s father, George, and their Uncle Dominic bought The Blinking Owl tavern and turned it into an Italian restaurant in 1960. John, 65, stepped in to help his dad and uncle in 1973. Tony joined the family business in 1982 when the elders retired.
The brothers are quick to say there’s nothing romantic about running a restaurant.
“It’s not a 40-hour-a-week job,” said Tony.
“I see people who retired from good jobs, nice pensions, thinking they’ll buy a little tavern, hire people to run it,” said John. “I’ve seen a lot of people throw their retirement away.”
The continued success of Casa Lu Al in an industry of fickle tastes, demanding customers, and paper-thin profit margins is a testament to the business savvy of John and Tony. Within 10 years of taking over from their father and uncle, the Venturella brothers expanded the dining room, added a bar and a walk-in refrigerator, and improved the kitchen.
One thing they didn’t tinker with was the food, especially the pasta sauces. The menu still proudly states they’re “made in our kitchen from Mrs. Venturella’s recipes.”
“It’s all about the quality of the tomatoes,” said John about Casa Lu Al’s marinara sauce. “We don’t change the brand of tomato we buy. We buy from Stanislaus, a California product. It’s fresh-packed. A lot of commercial brands, it’s reconstituted product. Stanislaus, those tomatoes are almost like eating a fresh tomato.”
Then there’s the matter of the spices. Dried basil. Salt and pepper. That’s it.
“We don’t use oregano,” said Tony.
“It’s too overpowering,” said John. “My mom didn’t use it. My complaint with the canned Italian products, the first thing I think of is, what did they do, order a trainload of oregano? Because it’s all I taste.”
The brothers are equally proud of Casa Lu Al’s fish dishes.
“Our salmon is terrific,” said John. There’s simple, grilled salmon, Mediterranean salmon that’s lightly blackened and served with asiago cheese, and San Francisco salmon with asparagus and Hollandaise sauce.
“I like the pork tenderloin sandwiches. They’re the best in the city,” piped up Joe. “We’ve been coming here since the 1970s. It’s a good neighborhood restaurant.”
John and Tony hear this often, but it never grows old.
“To stand here and hear customers say, you have such a great place, you do such a good job, thank you for being here … it takes the edge off, at least,” said Tony.
“Whatever aggravation you had that day,” said John, “it makes it all worthwhile.”
JOHN VENTURELLA’S MARINARA SAUCE
“My mother always said, ‘Don’t ask your aunts for a recipe. They’ll accidentally leave something out so it doesn’t taste as good as theirs.”
With this caveat, here are John’s instructions for making his version of marinara sauce. He couldn’t give specific weights and measures of ingredients because, at this point, he makes this sauce by instinct.
Start by preparing the tomatoes.
“I take a can of whole, peeled Alta Cucina tomatoes (a Stanislaus brand), and I break them up with my hand so that what’s left is just the pulpy part. I let the juice run out,” John said. He does this over a bowl, to save that juice. You’ll need it later for the sauce.
What size of can? Most canned tomatoes come in 28-ounce cans, but the Stanislaus Alta Cucina brand that John mentioned is 6 pounds, and available through Amazon.
Yes, you’re making a lot of sauce.
Set aside the tomatoes. Sauté in a pan over low to medium heat three bunches of green onions, “chopped, with some of the green part but not all of it,” in good olive oil.
“I use Filippo Berio. Pompeiian, too,” John said.
Sauté until opaque. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic. Stir frequently, being careful not to let the garlic burn and get bitter.
Add the tomatoes.
“Stir that around for 15, 20 minutes,” John said. “Add the (reserved) juice.”
Let the tomato pulp, juice, green onions and garlic sauce come to a low, slow boil.
“A smile, not a laugh,” said John.
Add a tablespoon of dried basil, “more if it’s fresh,” he said. He mimes dumping chopped basil leaves into the cupped palm of his hand.
Add salt and pepper to taste. John said no sugar is necessary to cut the acidity if you use Alta Cucina tomatoes.
“Maybe Midwestern tomatoes, you do,” John said. “California tomatoes, they’re sweet on their own.”
Simmer low for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until thickened to your liking.
“It doesn’t have to cook all day,” he said. “My mother didn’t do that! If you did, you’d have tomato paste, not tomato sauce.”
When thick, add one stick (1/4 cup) of butter. Stir until it melts and simmer a bit more until the butter is incorporated. Serve over pasta. Lots of it.
CASA LU AL
Address: 2323 N. West St., Lima, OH 45801