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.”

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.

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.

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) is closing, 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.)

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

This entry was posted in Downtown, All Around, East Side, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

13 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.

  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!

  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

  7. cheryl sander says:

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

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