Imagine the scene sixty-eight years ago as motorists on East Lancaster Avenue slowed to read this sign as they drove past this modest frame building:
This is the original Italian Inn just before it opened 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? Deep in the heart of Cowtown? Heifers, Herefords, and heresy! In 1953 as passing motorists read “No hamburgers. No bar-b-q” they must have sputtered: “But . . . but . . .” You can almost hear those motorists muttering between clenched teeth to their children in the back seat: “Kids, get the noose out of the trunk.”
The Italian Inn began with a most un-Italian partnership: two men named “Smith” and “Jones.” Sid Smith was a producer-director at WBAP-TV. Armand Jones was a staff announcer at WBAP. But Armand Jones dreamed of grater things. Cheese grater, that is. Jones had long wanted to put down the microphone and pick up the parmesan: 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—all of $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 East Lancaster Avenue 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 only one half had been moved to the lot on East Lancaster.
In this 1952 aerial photo the future home of the Italian Inn (I) can be seen between the Tarrant 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 as the creek flowed west to Sycamore Creek.
Armand Jones recalled the house when the four 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. It was ciao time, baby! On their first Saturday, the partners took in $850—more than their original investment.
Word got around. And lo, it came to pass that in the Town of Cows the multitudes did put down their double cheeseburgers and their plates of ribs. And those who hungered for something different took a deep breath. There was something in the air.
Verily, it was basil and garlic and olive oil.
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.”
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. (Photo from Janis Shaffer.)
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.”
This menu (cover drawn by WBAP artist Johnny Hay) is from the late fifties. (Photos from Janis Shaffer.)
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. One couple celebrated twenty-seven consecutive wedding anniversaries at the Inn, once flying back from Thailand to keep the tradition alive. One man proposed to all five of his wives at the Italian Inn (in different booths).
“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.”
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. (Postcard from Janis Shaffer.)
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 Italian Inn in Ridglea. Sid Smith and Armand Jones were able to quit their day jobs at WBAP.
But eventually the partnership dissolved, and the restaurants were divided among the four partners. This photo shows a booth of the Ridglea Italian Inn.
Anita Jones, owner of the original Italian Inn, died in 1975.
Under new ownership the restaurant in 1976 boasted of its twenty-two years of graffiti.
The original Italian Inn closed in the 1990s, and the West Side Italian Inn 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.)