Dalesandro’s: The story of the family behind Tulsa’s most famous Italian cuisine

By on July 31, 2015

Contributors: Brian Schwartz, Valerie Grant, Mitch Dees

1989 was not an easy year for Buzz Dalesandro. He lost his job and his wife left him. “His back was against the wall,” says his son, Sonny Dalesandro, stretching his lean, wiry frame — he’s built like a professional athlete because he was one, spending 5 years playing pro soccer in Milwaukee. “And in our family,” continues Sonny, “when we have hard times, we do what makes us feel comfortable, and that means cooking and eating Italian food.” And so Buzz got his savings together, borrowed $10,000 from a friend and opened a restaurant. It was a tiny place, lunch only, downtown in a mall at 6th and Main. You could fill your belly for under $3. The place attracted a crowd of loyal regulars. “A bright new lunch-hour star,” the Tulsa World called it.

Sonny said the regulars referred to his father, Buzz, as “The Pasta Nazi”.  Sonny wryly smiles and says that Buzz had no knowledge that it was a Seinfeld reference to the popular episode “The Soup Nazi”.

“It’s just who he was and how he did it.  You know, he had a- ‘I don’t give a shit about the modifications you think you want to my family’s recipes’ way of looking at things.”

But, that gets to the heart of why Dalesandro’s has become such a beloved Tulsa icon.  Sonny casually told us that there is nothing special about him personally.  He said “I think any Italian can open a restaurant, as long as they stay true to their family recipes.”

As we continued to banter back and forth about history of the Tulsa food scene in general Sonny interjects : “Hey, I hope our story is colorful enough for your readers.  It should be. It’s got divorces in it. And profanity.  Please excuse my language – I’ve spent my entire life in kitchens and locker rooms, so what would expect?” Indeed, this story has all that and magic too, carried along by food and family. And like all good stories it begins long long ago.IMG_2723
Once there was (and still is, for that matter), a tiny medieval village named Gorgoglione clinging to the rugged hills of the forgotten south Italian region of Basilicata. It was not much more than a cluster of centuries-old houses surrounding a picturesque church built in 1131 and the ruins of a castle constructed in 1070. Time seems to stand still in that part of the world. Though rich in culture, family and tradition, Sonny explains, “it’s still a poor mountainous region. Cooks can’t find the wealth of ingredients you’d get farther north, so they do the best with what they have.”
I asked him to describe what “poor” means there.  “Well, our family has a tractor and we are like the Rockefellers of the area. And you know what, it’s kinda funny, they’re sitting on a bunch of oil, but there like: ‘nah we’re good’, we’re used to this.”
But, out of this culture a culinary tradition was born and became full grown long before Buzz or Sonny were even born themselves. The stunning simplicity of the village’s recipes inspired the food you’ll find at Dalesandro’s.  Sonny visited the region 30 years ago and has fond memories of grinding the pasta.  Simply but perfectly made tomato sauce accents lasagna and homemade pasta.IMG_3729
“We don’t call ourselves chefs at Dalesandro’s,” Sonny muses. “We get good ingredients, cook simply, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.” And this isn’t just talk.  Our staff has overheard Sonny introducing himself to guests who come in for the first time as “the guy who is in charge of cleaning the dishes. Chief Dishwasher they call me.”IMG_2763
 In the early years of the last century, a young village woman who was to be Sonny’s great-grandmother left Gorgoglione to try her luck in America. She brought her family recipes with her. She found a husband and started a family. Her son, Sonny’s grandfather, opened a restaurant in Wisconsin. Though it didn’t serve Italian food, his son Vincent learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business by working there. And Vincent learned to cook at home, from his grandmother. “Hey, we’re Italian,” says Sonny “and what that means is at dinnertime everyone helps, everyone lends a hand.” Later on, Vincent’s sister married an attorney from Tulsa. Vincent visited, loved it, and settled there. At some point he got the nickname of Buzz.IMG_2753
For over a decade, you couldn’t get a seat at Dalesandro’s without standing in line. And then history repeated itself. Someone bought the building and tore it down. And his wife left him… the same wife!  “I thought I was done, then Sonny called from London,” Buzz told the Tulsa World in 2005. “He said, ‘Dad, I want to come home.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he [Sonny] said, ‘I want us to open a restaurant, and I want you to teach me the family trade.’ What father doesn’t want to hear that?”IMG_2743
And so it was that Dalesandro’s was reborn. It’s open for dinner now, not lunch, and Sonny helms the kitchen. He’s inherited, and you might say further ‘refined’, the Dalesandro magic.
Towards the end of our conversation Sonny discloses that he has a secret desire to celebrate the 18th and Boston location being open longer than his dad’s location was downtown.  We asked him when that would be.  “Well, I won’t say exactly.  But it’s coming up in about 2 years”, Sonny said.  When we asked why Buzz shut down the original location Sonny responded: “Well, it went like this – The bank bought the building and turned it into a gorgeous parking lot.”IMG_2724
At this point we were drinking wine and feeling comfortable enough to ask “How do you get along with your dad now?”.  Sonny chuckled and said “Well, when your business partner is your dad and you’re both hot-blooded Italian Scorpios, shit’s gonna hit the fan. He still gives me shit when he comes in.”  Sonny concluded on a serious note “But, man what I’ve learned from my father… I’ve learned from my father how to survive in this business.  And it might be the toughest business that exists.  People think they want to own a restaurant – they don’t.  It’s a non-stop barrage of problems, and my father taught me how to be successful.  I’m not necessarily talking about money either – that’s not the ultimate thing.  The secret is in what truly motivates you.”
Those who have frequented Dalesadro’s over the years know intuitively what motivates Sonny and the Dalesandro family.  We now suggest you find out for yourself.
Tulsa, OK 74119
Tuesday – Thursday 6pm – 10pm
Friday – Saturday 6pm – 11pm
918.582.1551IMG_2789
Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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