The Italian Inn (Part 1): When Heresy Became Heritage

This is a photo of the original Italian Inn just before it opened on the East Side in 1953. The man on the left is Mangano, the restaurant’s first chef; the man on the right is the restaurant’s co-founder, Sid Smith. Read the sign between them: “No hamburgers.” “No bar-b-q.”

No burgers or barbecue? Deep in the heart of Texas? In Cowtown? You can almost see passing motorists as they slowed to read that sign sixty years ago and sputtered: “But . . . but . . .” You can almost hear those motorists reading “No hamburgers, no bar-b-q” and then muttering, “Kids, get the noose out of the trunk.”

The history of Fort Worth’s oldest Italian restaurant began with a most un-Italian partnership: Smith and Jones. Sid Smith was a producer-director at WBAP. Armand Jones was a staff announcer at WBAP. But Jones had long wanted to put down the microphone and pick up the parmesan grater: He yearned to open an Italian restaurant. As a G.I. during World War II he had passed through Italy and had even collected some recipes. One day at WBAP Jones suggested to Smith that they open an Italian restaurant in Fort Worth, where, after all, there was little competition from other Italian restaurants in a town of burgers and barbecue.

A few years later Smith recalled in a newspaper interview: “Armand’s terrific optimism finally sold me.”

So, Sid Smith and wife Floy and Armand Jones and wife Anita agreed to pool their resources—$800—and open an Italian restaurant in Cowtown. But where in Cowtown?

Enter Bobby Peters, who hosted a children’s show on WBAP. Peters told the Smiths and Joneses about a house he had seen not far from the studio. Its rent fit their tight budget, and the house was located on one of the busiest thoroughfares in town: East Lancaster.

But then Smith and Jones saw the house. They later recalled that “the house looked like it was slipping off the edge of the road.”

That’s because the house originally had been located elsewhere on the East Side and had been moved to the Lancaster lot. The lot sloped sharply down away from the street, and the house movers had butted the front of the house up against the slope below street level and had leveled the rear of the house on blocks. The house also was a house divided: Before it had been moved it had been sawed in half, and each half had been stitched back up. Only one half had been moved to the lot on East Lancaster.

The house had then been used by the T&P railroad, which had a storage reservoir between the house and the tracks near Vickery Boulevard.

italian inn aerial 52In this 1952 aerial photo the future home of the Italian Inn (I) can be seen between the County Children’s Home (C) and the creek (T) that Roger Tandy dammed in the nineteenth century to impound Tandy Lake to the east. That creek also would have fed the railroad storage reservoir.

Armand Jones recalled the house when the partners first saw it: “It looked like the aftermath of an avalanche. The inside was in shambles. The second floor was about to cave in, the walls sagged, the floors buckled, and the kitchen was about as big as a telephone booth.”

But the two couples saw potential in that quaint old house. With hammer and saw and paint and sweat they turned a house into a restaurant. Most of their $800 went for equipment: a second-hand G.I. stove, a household refrigerator, a couple of washtubs for dishwashing.

Janis Shaffer of Dallas, daughter of Sid and Floy Smith, told me: “The original tables were old Singer treadle sewing machine bottoms with plywood where the machine used to be for tabletops.”

Come opening day the four partners were understandably nervous. Would the people come?

They came. When the Italian Inn opened on November 13, 1953, the kitchen ran out of food in three hours. On their first Saturday, the partners took in $850—more than their original investment.

Word got around. And lo, in Cowtown the multitudes did put down their Dairy Queen double cheeseburgers and their plates of ribs. And verily they took a deep breath. There was something in the air.

It was basil and garlic.

Early on, Armand Jones recalled, “We hired a genuine Italian chef [Mangano in first photo] with a Brooklyn accent who was very good at home-type cooking. Very temperamental—he quit six or eight times a day—would take off his chef’s hat and stomp on it.”

“Then,” Smith added, “we employed a Mexican chef. We had to let him go when the meatballs began to taste like enchiladas—that comino [cumin] flavor. We would take it away from him, and he would bring it from home.”

So, the partners created their own recipes for their future chefs to follow.

Among the early diners at the Italian Inn was a hungry student from North Texas State University. Sid Smith was the first TV producer to hire Pat Boone. WBAP paid Boone $45 a week to sing on Teen Time and Bewley Mills-sponsored Barn Dance TV shows, produced by Smith. Boone, who sometimes hitchhiked down from Denton to WBAP because his old car broke down, would go from the studio to the restaurant to eat free meals.

“He would eat like a horse,” Sid Smith recalled, “but he would eat anything.” (Photo from Janis Shaffer.)

Pat Boone put down his fork long enough to pick up Sid and Floy Smith’s daughter Janis. Behind them is the restaurant’s celebrity wall, which displayed photos of famous faces who had eaten at the inn, including the Four Freshmen, George Liberace, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Laine, and Johnny Desmond. Others, such as Glen Campbell, Conway Twitty, and Johnny Cash, ate at the inn after performing next door at Panther Hall.

One night, Smith and Jones recalled, a diner with a particular interest in the house-turned-restaurant came in with his children and asked to sit at the center table. The man explained his request: “On this very spot my grandmother used to rock and tell me stories when I was a child. Now I want to sit here with my own children.” (Photo from Janis Shaffer.)

This menu (cover drawn by WBAP artist Johnny Hay) is from the late fifties.

The Smith and Jones partnership was a success. Janis Shaffer said the Italian Inn “was the first restaurant to bring atmosphere to Fort Worth.”

Success brought expansion and improvements. A player piano was bought from the next-door neighbor, McBrayer Piano Company. Remodeling increased the restaurant’s dining capacity from 48 to 240 in four dining rooms on three levels. One dining room in particular is remembered by those who ate at the inn. Along the walls each table unit, consisting of a wooden table flanked by wooden seats, was enclosed in a wooden booth that had two swinging wooden doors that could be closed for privacy. All that privacy elicited from cloistered diners two very different—but not mutually exclusive—responses: graffiti and romance. Diners scrawled graffiti with Marks-a-Lots, pens, pencils, pocketknife blades, lipsticks, grease pencils, nail files, nail polish—anything that would serve as a writing implement. The surfaces of the booths over the decades became covered with layer upon layer of graffiti. And many a couple let their spaghetti or pizza get cold as they exchanged deep sighs and heartfelt gazes over a graffitied tabletop. Through the years many couples became engaged in those booths. Many of those couples returned to the Italian Inn and asked for “their booth” to celebrate an anniversary.

“We called them ‘stalls,’” Janis Shaffer recalled, because originally “they were made to look like horse stalls, and the decorations were old farm tools (pitchforks, shovels for mucking the barn, horse collars, etc.). Little did we know this would be what everyone remembered and became our trademark.” (Photos from Janis Shaffer.)

Red checkered cloths covered the tables. Wine racks and wine casks lined the walls. (Postcard from Janis Shaffer.)

On the tables candles stuck into large wine bottles had encrusted the bottles with wax.

With expansion a rear dining room was built from an army barracks and became the main banquet room. It was decorated to resemble restaurants in Florence, Italy, and called the “Buca,” which means “cellar.”

Success also brought more Italian restaurants for the Smith and Jones partnership, including restaurants in Dallas, Austin, and the surviving Italian Inn in Ridglea. Sid Smith and Armand Jones were able to quit their day jobs at WBAP. (Postcard from Janis Shaffer.)

But eventually the partnership dissolved, and the restaurants were divided among the four partners. The original Italian Inn is long gone, of course, and the West Side Italian Inn (booth shown in photo) closed in 2013, but together they turned heresy into heritage and for sixty years gave Cowtown “just real good spaghetti.”

(My thanks to Janis Shaffer for help in compiling this history.)

The Italian Inn (Part 2): Smith and Jones, Meet Scooter and Wino

Share:Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on Tumblr
This entry was posted in Downtown, All Around, East Side, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Italian Inn (Part 1): When Heresy Became Heritage

  1. Durwood Barnes says:

    Visited and dined in Genova, Pisa, Milano, Venezia and Palermo while serving with the Mediterranean Sixth Fleet during Korean War. Really became fond of Italian food.

  2. Gus says:

    A wonderful story that a lot of us East Siders experienced in one way or another. The only other eating out options I recall us using was the cafeteria and HoJo on the turnpike. If there were any others, I’ve forgotten what they were. Years: 1958-1963

  3. Jen says:

    This story brings back good memories of Armand Jones. I knew Armand from 1993-2000 in San Diego, CA. where he retired on the coast of Del Mar, CA. I was a dear friend who helped him write his memoirs during this time. I still have his memoirs of his life. His beautiful daughter’s have the other copies. Some of these photos and menus he had in his albums. He spoke fondly of Sid Smith and all his friends he met during WW2. He was a beautiful man with a radio voice that would talk to me for hours reminiscing of his life. All I can say is that I was very honored to have known him and miss him dearly.

    • hometown says:

      Thank you, Jen. The Smith and Jones families created a lot of good memories for a lot of people in Fort Worth.

      • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

        Thank you for this wonderful article! I am Michelle Jones,(Swaving) Armand Jones’ youngest daughter. I have wanted to retrieve the archives of the articles in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about the Italian Inn. Were you able to retrieve those? In those it has their trips to Italy, Ads, and the food critic Elston Brooks column. My dad kept in close contact with him the food critic through the 80′s Also the article about Panther Hall that was right next door, stories and advertisements in the 50′s and 60′s contributed to the popularity of Italian Inn. The autographed pictures on the wall included my mother with Glen Campbell (1971), Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash in 60′s as they would come to the Italian Inn after their performances at Panther Hall. Please feel free to contact me if you would like some additional information about this landmark restaurant and my dad. Thank you again for this wonderful tribute to my dad’s legacy!

        • hometown says:

          Thank you, Michelle. Janis was my source for the photos and newspaper material. Could not have done it without her.

          • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

            Yes, so grateful that you had at least one source that was there from this very beginning. I was not there as I was not born until 58. My dad and I went back to this II together in June,1992 after the 25th Anniversary celebration in Ridglea. It was an extraordinary experience as it was the same as it was in 72 and aside from my mother’s picture with Glen Campbell on the wall, probably not much different than 62 including the employees! It captured that nostalgic time and even the new owner insisted on not changing a thing!
            I remember this moment so vividly as we walked in the smells, the sound of the creaking floors, even the sound of the pay phone as it rang, the sight of hostess Nelda,who had been there since 1970, the waitress, Jeanne who my dad hired when she was a struggling single mom of 3 sons at the age of 30 and she was now 65 and talked about retiring that year, to the taste of the meal, brought tears to my dad’s eyes! When we entered the kitchen the cook Maypearl who had been there for as long as I could remember, had taken over after the passing of Australia who was our main cook until her death in the late 70s. With her assistant cook Leon who started as bus boy and I use to help him make Pizza crusts when he was just 16, he was now in his 40s!
            After my mother’s sudden death on August 22nd 1975 that happened at the restaurant, my sister’s Patricia and Annette ran the restaurant for the next 6 years, and in 81 we decided to put it up for sale as we saw the nostalgia fading as the neighborhood in the 70s. Larry, the new owner was living in California running a Pizza place and had kept his subscription to the Fort Worth Star Telegram in hopes that the II would one day be for sale. Within 2 weeks of the listing, we sold it to him. He put it up for Sale in 1996 with no buyers for a few years. I contacted him to ask him for the pictures which also included a large portrait of my dad over the cash register and he refused as he wanted to keep everything the same for the new buyer, still in hope to hold on to that nostalgic time!
            So glad someone as yourself has held on to a piece of this time and place!
            My sister Annette Jones Carter lives in Irving and has some of the menus and recipes. My step brother Christopher Rasmussen still lives in Ft. Worth as has some memorabilia. My other sister Patricia Ledesma is a psychologist in Denver and has some of my mother’s memorabilia.The interesting thing about my mother’s role in this creation is when my parents divorced she got one of the best lawyers in the state to insure that she was awarded this restaurant and was one of the first woman if not The First, to be awarded business property in a divorce decree in the state of Texas in 1970!

      • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

        Actually, Sid Smith had the Italian Inn in Dallas for the rest of his life. He only was a part of this Original Italian Inn until 1961 or 62. I remember it, I was little. That is as far as this article went because that was the time of the dissolving of their restaurant partnership. I can fill in the gap of the 60′s & 70s & even to almost it’s closing in 1996.
        Please you need to broaden that time line and those location names to distance the Italian Inn’s name to include the Italian Inn’s Ridglea 46 year history as well as the continuation of Sid Smith with the Italian Inn in Dallas too. A continuation story on the history of the Italian Inn name that began in Fort Worth and lived half a century from there! I will help, it is important, thanks.

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Hi Jennifer! I hope you get this!! I am so glad you saw this article and I was able to find you!
      I have a facebook page please if you or any others would like to connect with me please do! I am Michelle Jones Swaving, Armand Jones youngest daughter!

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Jennifer, contact me please on fb!! I miss him dearly too!!

  4. Sean Hendrickson says:

    I was brought to this restaurant many times as a child growing up. I wanted to go here for my 13th birthday I recall, but they closed down just prior to that. I will be turning 32 next month. Years later, I went to Italian Inn Ridgelea but the magic was not the same, the food not as good. I know I will never find another place quite like this and if I had a fortune, I would try to recreate it.

  5. Randy & Claudia Roach says:

    In looking up info on the history of WBAP TV, there was mention of the Italian Inn. We attended Poly High School (grad 1964) and the Italian Inn was for a special night out when we were dating ‘way back then’. We have been married since 12/24/1966, and this still holds wonderful memories for us. Thank you so much for the pictures and smiles your article bring back. I sent the link to friends who will also remember the good times there. God bless you!

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Randy. You express the feelings of a lot of us East Siders/Poly people.

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Thank you for the sweet words and memories!My dad use to say he went into the restaurant business because he wanted to bring the ambiance and flavor of Italy to his home state and serve it with love. He was an extremely loving man and insisted that each dish be served with love! The result: many many Texans fell in love with each other and his food and that was his claim to fame!

  6. Rick Lawlis says:

    I grew up in Poly (graduated in 67) but in late 50′s my first job was picking up trash outside the Italian Inn on Saturday mornings.I was paid $2.00 cash and a free meal.Thought I had the best job an 8yr old could have. Thanks for the memories!!

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Rick. The Inn continues to be one of the fondest memories of East Siders. Am lucky enough to have a pair of stall doors.
      Mike Nichols

      • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

        My dad told me the story behind how those doors became part of the atmosphere and it was by accident.
        After they completed the tables and booth benches they had wood left over and it was actually Sid’s idea that they use the extra wood as doors! And because they were made of wood, in 1953 sweethearts were carving their initials on trees, so when the first couple asked if they could carve their initials into the wood my dad said “sure, that way you can come back to this booth again”!!It was marketing genius, as it etched those memories on those doors and walls for repeat customers and lifetime memories! We sure had our regulars too, that was one of the reasons for it’s longevity, the community would actually become part of the Italian Inn family by etching their names on those walls at a moment of love in their lives!

  7. cheryl sander says:

    I loved this place, any one know how to make meat sauce like they did????

    • hometown says:

      Have never found anyone who doesn’t have a fond memory of this East Side icon.

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Actually yes! My dad told me the secret to a savor Italian sauce is to cut the bitterness of the tomatoes, however do not add sugar (as Americans do) finely grate carrot!

  8. john trey linyard says:

    Sid was my step grandfather and was married to my grandmother Margaret, they lived on Belmont Dr in Dallas. I remember many nights eating and playing at the restaurant, and feeding the snake in Sid’s office. I also remember son Patrick our birthdays were one day apart.I remember when Sid moved the restaurant to coit road and how he could barely see, but he was still in the kitchen working.

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Yes, I remember Sid as my father was with him almost to his dying day. It was 1962 I believe when they dissolved their partnership so Sid could run the Italian Inn in Dallas and my parents could open other restaurants. There were 5 Italian Inns including this one, the one in Dallas, Ridglea, Arlington, one in Austin (only there a short time)My dad went on to open 4 other restaurants to include Creole House (64) La Fiesta (65)at the same location on East Lancaster across the street from Cox’s, Marcello’s on NW Hwy, Dallas (75)and Caruso’s Spaghetti & Wine in Medallion Center & Theater Skillman and Northwest Hwy, Dallas opened in 74 and there till 1999(25 years). Only reason it is no longer there is they lost their lease to make room for a bigger parking lot for the Medallion Movie Theater. It is where the Godfather,Star Wars, Indiana Jones series played for years in the 70′s making this Dallas restaurant very popular with my dad’s all you can eat spaghetti and bottomless wine glass served by Singing Waiters!

    • Michelle Jones Swaving says:

      Yes, I remember Sid very well as my father was with him almost to his dying day. It was 1962 I believe when they dissolved their partnership so Sid could run the Italian Inn in Dallas and my parents could open other restaurants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>