There are an endless number of Italian restaurants vying for your business these days but if you truly want an authentic Italian dining experience, check out The Italian Center, 134 Tallmadge Ave. in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, every Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.
Italian cuisine is not merely consumed here; it’s savored in a family-style atmosphere where guests have enjoyed homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs for the past 25 years. The center is also a place where its patrons come each week to learn more about each other’s joys, sorrows, passions and family traditions.
Gabriella DiSanza, a native of Molise, Italy, has been in this country for 50 years. She’s one of 10 waitresses ready to serve dining patrons spaghetti with meatballs, rigatoni with meatballs, or spaghetti with oil and garlic. Guests can request the waitress of their choice, but DiSanza’s Italian accent, coupled with her love of people and genuine concern for them and their families, makes many gravitate to her section in the center’s basement each week.
“You become like family with your customers,” DiSanza says. “I’ve been serving here since the beginning, and you become friends with your customers. But above all, it’s the homemade sauce and the homemade meatballs that keep people coming back. And the price is very reasonable too.”
The Italian Center serves as a social club for its estimated 200 members, and its Thursday night dinners began in 1988 as a fundraiser to support and sustain the organization. All these years later, this event is still scoring big with customers who come to North Hill from Akron, Cleveland, Canton, Youngstown, Hudson and the surrounding communities.
For just $7.50, guests can enjoy a full Italian dinner, salad, bread and butter, coffee, water and dessert, while children’s meals are priced at $6.50 — and ever since this fundraiser began, Dominic Rizzo has been collecting payments from guests at the foot of the stairs.
Frank Iemma is one of a dozen volunteers who arrive at the center each Thursday morning at 6 a.m. The crew begins the task of making homemade sauce and pasta for the diners who will undoubtedly descend upon the center that afternoon. Everything they make is homemade, and nothing is frozen.
Although the food is predictably tasty, guests have — on occasion — enjoyed Italian music played by a local band while they dined, and an autographed photo of “Hot in Cleveland” actress Valerie Bertinelli hangs on the wall as proof that she, too, has visited the center.
The walls also have several maps of Italy with the country’s villages listed. Guests with an Italian background can check out where their ancestors lived in the old country. And, guests will notice huge spoons in the center of each table: As any bona fide Italian knows, you don’t cut spaghetti; you twirl it with your fork into your spoon.
“When I get a new customer, I tell them what they’re going to get here,” DiSanza says. “If they need a box to take home, we provide that too.”
If you haven’t been to The Italian Center on Thursday night, you should make the extra effort to stop by. You’ll be welcomed with great-tasting homemade Italian food and fellowship at every table. And you won’t find that anywhere else.
/ Writer Ben DiCola is a full-blooded Italian with discriminating tastes, especially when it comes to preparing Italian food.
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