Then and Nau
Of Kash-Karry, Casiraghi's, and Jeffrey's: Clarksville's culinary history
News about a flurry of restaurant activity along West Lynn Street inspired me to take a Sunday drive through the historic Old West Austin and Clarksville neighborhoods recently. I hadn't spent much time in that part of town since raging gentrification in the early Nineties finally priced me out. Among the McMansions, exclusive condos, and traffic islands, I was pleased to observe that the true soul of the place, as well as some of its culinary history, remains intact.
When I moved into Old West Austin as a UT grad in the mid-Seventies, certain things instantly made it feel like home. There was a charming old elementary school just down the block and a wonderful new restaurant on the corner. The grocery store and a laundry were within walking distance of my $85-a-month garage apartment, and the soda fountain at the corner drugstore was remarkably like the one in the family drugstore of my childhood. That and the fact that my dad's signature (as a Board of Pharmacy member) was on the pharmacist's diploma established my genuine family connection to the neighborhood. The elementary school, the restaurant, the grocery store, the laundry, and the soda fountain are thankfully all still there.
From the mid-Seventies through the early Eighties, the historic inner-city area was undergoing a renaissance of sorts. There was food, music, community fellowship, and family entrepreneurship. On a Sunday walk down the dusty streets of Clarksville, it was possible to hear the full-throated joyful noise of gospel music bursting forth from the Sweet Home Baptist Church or the quiet musings of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt emanating from a funky trailer at 11th and Charlotte.
Pharmacist Lambert Labay had purchased the venerable Nau's Enfield Drug from founders Hylton and Eleanor Nau with a firm commitment to maintaining the store's well-established personal service, as well as the treasured soda fountain. Business partners Nancy Sewald, Jeffrey Weinberger, and Ron and Peggy Weiss opened Jeffrey's in 1975 at the corner of West Lynn and 12th with chef Emil Vogely in the kitchen, sparking a citywide fine-dining revolution. Clarksville, a neighborhood settled by freed slaves in 1871 (officially West Sixth to Waterston and West Lynn to MoPac), was recognized in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The Woody Hills produce co-op was started by a bunch of hippies from Oakland House, and nearer the end of the decade, pals Mark Skiles and Craig Weller would create Clarksville Natural Grocery at the corner of West Lynn and 10th. Mary Robinson made White Mountain Yogurt in a dumpy building across from Kash-Karry, affectionately known as the "hippie kitchen," and she leased me space there for my fledgling wholesale dessert business. A couple of years later, Jake and Arnette Knippa would become the third generation of his family to operate grocery stores in Austin when they took over that well-loved Kash-Karry outlet at West Lynn and 13th.
While the gospel sounds from Sweet Home Baptist remain ageless, Van Zandt didn't live in the neighborhood for long, Robinson sold the yogurt business, and the neighborhood gas stations on opposing corners at 12th and West Lynn turned into Sledd Nursery (northeast) and a series of restaurants (southwest). Skiles and Weller partnered up with John Mackey of SaferWay to found a natural-foods grocery at 10th and Lamar. That one store would be the birthplace of the corporation known as Whole Foods Market. The company maintains a swanky flagship store and national headquarters just a stone's throw from its Clarksville birthplace. Under the Knippas' direction, Kash-Karry evolved into Fresh Plus, one of the best neighborhood markets in the city. West Lynn was home to two fine gourmet takeout shops, Cook's Night Out and Lilly & Co., for more than a dozen years in the Eighties and Nineties and now boasts Cipollina. Clarksville's culinary culture had been firmly established.
That renaissance was not the neighborhood's first, however. Clarksville's culinary and ethnic history is much richer and much more diverse, with threads stretching back to the 1920s. When I first moved into the neighborhood, the prevailing legend was that of Casiraghi's, a beloved Italian family restaurant sacrificed when the western section of the Clarksville neighborhood was condemned to build the MoPac freeway. In researching Casiraghi's, I discovered a treasure trove of Austin culinary history I'd never really known existed. In the early decades of the 20th century, Austin had an Italian immigrant community, some of whom were descended from Italian stone masons and tile workers who came here to work on the Capitol building. The Franzettis, Perrones, Casiraghis, Viscardis, and Colanettas were related by blood, by marriage, or by friendship. They all bought property in the Clarksville area, building businesses and shaping the flavor and character of the neighborhood for generations to come.
Arturo Casiraghi apprenticed as a cook in his native Italy and served his country as an army cook in World War I. Arturo emigrated to Austin from the village of Malgesso, Lombardy, Italy, to live with sisters. The Casiraghi sisters married the Franzetti brothers, also immigrants from Malgesso. In 1924, Arturo purchased some property in Clarksville from his brother-in-law Nat Franzetti and opened a general mercantile store at 1901 W. 10th. Two years later, he married Luisa Pasquale (from Sequals in the Veneto), and they raised their family in a house built behind the store. Arturo prepared cured meats such as salami, corned beef, pancetta, and pastrami to sell from the deli case, and soon the delicatessen and catering aspects of the store developed a strong following. For years, he dreamed of operating a restaurant but wouldn't consider it until he could get a permit to sell wine along with his authentic Italian cuisine. Sometime after World War II, Arturo and countryman James Macry (from Calabria) developed a line of pasta sauces, salad dressings, and frozen pasta dishes under the Il Paesano label, but the company might have been a little ahead of its time and only lasted a couple of years.
In 1958, Arturo Casiraghi finally realized the dream of opening his own restaurant. He secured a license to sell beer and wine and turned the humble storefront on an unpaved street near the railroad tracks into a beloved neighborhood restaurant. The eatery had only 10 to 14 tables, and Dan Macry (son of James) recalls that on busy nights, overflow diners, friends, and family members were sometimes escorted through and seated in the adjoining residence kitchen. The restaurant was small, but the menu featured a full complement of authentic Italian dishes: soups, antipasti, combination dinners named for major Italian cities, pastas, pizzas, entrées, Arturo's signature cured meats, and desserts. There was imported beer and a wine list chosen by the proprietor himself. The restaurant thrived, attracting diners from all over the city, as well as tourists.
Like so many other revered Austin landmarks, Casiraghi's was lost to progress. The restaurant near the railroad tracks disappeared in 1969 with the building of MoPac. In an Austin American-Statesman article from that year, Arturo bemoaned the loss of the business he'd nurtured for 45 years and discussed the possibility of finding a new location. Luisa, on the other hand, was "tickled to death" to be free of the restaurant and looked forward to a lengthy vacation in Italy and retirement. The restaurant never reopened, but Arturo's culinary spirit lives on in the community. Distant relative Dan Macry is known among his friends for his delicious cured meats, especially his salami, and he invests the necessary month of preparation time in making Arturo's famous corned beef at least once a year. Dan's son, Benny Macry, is a chef instructor at the Texas Culinary Academy.
A few years after the Casiraghis began their business in Clarksville, another young Italian couple established their home near 12th and West Lynn. New Yorker Andrew Viscardi married Austinite Josephine Perrone, whose parents operated a grocery store at the corner of East Sixth and Chicon. The newlyweds settled in a little frame house on West 12th and started a family. Andrew Viscardi's children described him as a resourceful man who dabbled in various careers. In the early 1930s, he purchased property at the corner of West 12th and West Lynn and built a building with shops on the street and a home for his growing family upstairs.
At about the same time, Josephine's father, Pasquale Perrone (Godrano, Sicily), built a new cottage on the corner of Waterston and West Lynn for his wife, Rosa Franzetti Perrone. (Family legend has it that Rosa refused to move from the established Perrone home on East Sixth, and so Pasquale's cottage was always a rent house. It became Lilly & Co. in 1984 and was christened "the Josephine House" in honor of Mrs. Viscardi when the Jeffrey's folks turned it into a special event venue around the turn of this century.) Over the years, the Viscardi building at 1204 West Lynn housed grocery stores, liquor stores, florist shops, beauty parlors, and offices for Andrew's sundry business ventures. In 1975, some young entrepreneurs rented the largest section for a new restaurant named Jeffrey's. There was a small liquor store tucked in the middle and the un-air-conditioned Clarksville Cream Shop serving up refreshing scoops of ice cream on the corner. Over the next 30 years, Jeffrey's would expand to fill the entire building.
Long after Andrew's death, Josephine Viscardi remained a force in the Clarksville neighborhood, overseeing her many rental properties and her large extended family. Before her death, she sold the properties that house Jeffrey's and the Josephine House to the owners of Jeffrey's, thereby protecting them from potential family disputes or developers. Jeffrey's has maintained its reputation for consistency during the past 30 years under the aegis of only four major chefs: Emil Vogely (now chef at the Tarry House), Raymond Tatum (now chef at the Backstage Steakhouse), David Garrido (now corporate executive chef with Comida Deluxe Inc.), and Alma Alcocer-Thomas, plus a well-seasoned waitstaff, many with years of service in double digits.
While the staff at Jeffrey's was busy serving presidents, visiting celebrities, and Austinites celebrating special occasions, they also made friends in the neighborhood. A bet about the completion date of one of their many expansion projects was the beginning of a monthly potluck lunch tradition at the restaurant.
Because she lost the original bet, Clarksville native Zelma Maxwell would fry chicken in cast iron skillets for the Jeffrey's crew, and they would contribute all the side dishes and desserts for the monthly feasts. Miss Zelma, who lived in the Viscardi's old frame house directly behind the restaurant on West 12th, kept a watchful eye on the entire neighborhood. She regularly admonished the Jeffrey's cooks to carefully wrap all the smelly fish carcasses before depositing them in the Dumpster that sat near her home. Zelma was such a fixture around Jeffrey's that she appears in many early staff photos, but her participation in the potluck parties is only one connective thread in the overall culinary history of the neighborhood. She also worked for the Casiraghis for years.
Though not related to the Viscardis or the Casiraghis by anything but long friendship, Anthony (Sicily) and Alice Pontallo Colanetta (the daughter of a tile cutter from Cavassanuova) were another Italian immigrant couple who helped shape the neighborhood. Anthony relocated his family from Houston to Austin in 1939 to start a linen service. In 1950, he bought property on the southeast corner of West Lynn and 12th, building Anthony's Laundry & Cleaners for himself and a drugstore complete with soda fountain, which he leased to his friend Hylton Nau. Anthony's passed from father to son (Victor, now retired) and was eventually sold to Charlotte Bennight, who operates the business today. UT pharmacy grad Lambert Labay went to work at Nau's fresh out of college and ended up buying the store. Both businesses remain neighborhood mainstays, with Laura Labay now running the venerable drugstore with her father, and third-generation Mike Colanetta managing his family's real estate holdings along West Lynn. Here's hoping the next generation sees to it that the soul of the neighborhood lives on.
Many thanks to Frances Perrone Mezetti, Dan Macry, Sylvia Viscardi Milosh, Kathy Henley, Charlene Viscardi, Laura Labay, Jake Knippa, Victor Colanetta, and Ron and Peggy Weiss for their help in the research for this story and their generosity with treasured family photos.