Spaghetti & Meatballs from Cafe di Napoli in Minneapolis

580

Location:
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Status:
Permanently closed

Dates active:
1938-2005

When Cafe di Napoli opened in Minneapolis in 1938, Italian restaurants were still a new concept in the Twin Cities. Saint Paul had a higher population of Italian immigrants in its Little Italy neighborhood near the river just east of downtown. Because of that population, Saint Paul had Cosetta’s, which opened in 1911. So it was a treat for Minneapolis residents when Dave and Providenza Piazza opened Cafe di Napoli at 816 Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis with help from their son, Joe. 

Under the guidance of chef Nick Labalestro, Cafe di Napoli became known for its spaghetti, meatballs, ravioli, lasagna, pizza, and cacciatora. Diners filled the two dining rooms with polished maple booths and hand-painted murals of Mount Vesuvius and the Neapolitan waterfront that wrapped around the room. 

The restaurant became a popular stop for many famous athletes, politicians, and cultural icons, including Laurel and Hardy and the Andrews Sisters. After World War II ended, the restaurant gained a devoted following from soldiers who wanted to experience the flavors they sampled while serving in Italy with their families now that they were back home.

As the decades passed, little changed at Cafe di Napoli. Some food critics found the food boring and the atmosphere dated, but the restaurant’s devoted customers kept coming back for the same reasons. Nostalgia, good food, and reasonable prices kept the doors open until 2005. 

In 2007, two of the original owners’ children opened a re-imagined version of Cafe di Napoli as a quick-service cafeteria in the skyway of 601 Marquette. Ten of the old maple booths moved to the new location, as did digital reproductions of the murals that graced the walls of the restaurant for more than 60 years. Sadly, the new atmosphere and menu weren’t a hit with downtown diners. It closed shortly after opening.

The murals

The murals in the dining rooms at Cafe di Napoli were hand-painted by artist Aniello Aprea.

Aniello was raised and educated in Naples, Italy, and moved to Minneapolis to work for the William A. French Company interior design firm. There, he painted murals, decorative interior elements, and furniture for the firm’s wealthy customers. 

In addition to Cafe di Napoli, his work could be seen at Saint Mary’s Russian Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Northeast Minneapolis, the now-demolished Bijou Theater, local mortuaries, and more. He also reportedly re-painted murals and decorative elements for many years at the Pantages Theater while it was closed in the summer. 

Aniello Aprea worked in the Twin Cities until his death in 1954

A note about this recipe

This recipe from Cafe di Napoli first appeared in the 1953 edition of Recipes of the Month: Famous Foods from Famous Places. The same recipe was sent to the Star Tribune by Joe Piazza in the 1970s. However, people who have made the recipe have said it tastes nothing like Cafe di Napoli sauce. It’s hard to say why the Piazza family would share this recipe as their own, but I wanted to be clear that the recipe may not be as authentic as we’d all like it to be. In any case, I still wanted to share the recipe and history of Cafe di Napoli to spark memories of all the good meals people enjoyed there.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

This dish was served at Cafe di Napoli in Minneapolis, Minnesota for nearly seven decades.
Servings 4

Ingredients

Sauce

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ¼ cup salad oil
  • ½ pound coarsely ground beef
  • ½ cup onions, chopped
  • 2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 4 (6 ounce) cans of water
  • teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 pinches of black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf

Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 cup very dry diced white bread, soaked in milk
  • ¼ cup onions, diced
  • 4 cups bread or cracker crumbs
  • 3 tablespoons Italian cheese, grated
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 pinch of black pepper

Other

  • 1 pound thin spaghetti, cooked
  • Parmesan cheese

Instructions

Sauce

  • Sauté garlic in oil for 15 seconds. Add ground beef and brown. Add onions.
  • When onions have cooked, add tomato paste, water, salt, sugar, black pepper and bay leaf.
  • Simmer for 1 hour, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.

    Meatballs

    • Soak diced bread in milk for around 5 minutes. Lightly squeeze off excess milk.
    • Combine all ingredients and roll into 10-12 balls the size of golf balls. Brown in a frying pan or oven.
    • Add meatballs to the sauce in the last 20 minutes of cooking time.
    • Serve sauce and meatballs over cooked spaghetti noodles. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.
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