Travel back in time with spaghetti Caruso

Pasta topped with marinara and chicken livers brings back memories

click to enlarge Travel back in time with spaghetti Caruso
Photo by Ann Shaffer Glatz.
Spaghetti Caruso

Food memories have the power to transport you back in time and trigger strong emotions. When an old favorite restaurant closes, it can make you sad. It can feel like a part of your history has been erased. These establishments often hold a special place in our hearts, reminding us of happy moments, people and places. Trying to re-create favorite dishes in your own kitchen offers an opportunity to relive cherished memories and reconnect with the past.

Many years ago, I boldly but rather naively decided to go winter camping at Starved Rock State Park to see the frozen waterfalls. On a February weekend, armed with a three-season tent, candle lantern for heat, down sleeping bag and bag full of groceries, I optimistically embarked on this great adventure. Unfortunately, that weekend turned uncharacteristically warm, and though I still got to see the spectacular frozen waterfalls, the trails had turned into slippery mud, and I returned to my campsite with cold, wet feet. As the cloudy sky turned to darkness, it started to sleet and the romance of cooking over an open fire left me.

Remembering an old-looking restaurant I passed in Oglesby on my way into the park, I decided to abandon my original dinner plan and head back to Garzanelli's Supper Club for warmth and sustenance. Walking in, I was greeted by the comforting aromas of garlic cooking in olive oil and the music of Dean Martin. I walked past the crowded bar into the large dining room filled with families spanning three generations. I ordered an Old Fashioned cocktail and perused the menu. It had all of the expected Italian-American offerings: veal parmigiana, chicken piccata, lasagna, sausage and peppers, stuffed shells and an option I had never seen before: spaghetti with chicken livers. Perhaps it was finally being warm or it might have been the cocktail kicking in, but that simple plate of pasta topped with marinara and chicken livers ranks as one of my strongest food memories.

On my way to Wisconsin recently, I stopped at Garzanelli's, hoping to order spaghetti with chicken livers. Sadly, the restaurant was under new ownership and the menu resembled Olive Garden's, offering only the typical selections. I was crestfallen.

Every few weeks, I roast a chicken. After a nice Sunday dinner, I'll have some leftover chicken for the next week. I pick off most of the meat and put the carcass into a Crockpot with vegetable trimmings I've saved up and make chicken stock. That leaves me the giblets. I used to cook them for my dog Toulouse, but he died a few months ago and giblets have been accumulating in a bag in my freezer ever since.

Being retired and living on Social Security, there comes a time each month when I'm between checks and I have to go on a scavenger hunt through my pantry and freezer to find something to cook for dinner so I don't have to go to the store. I spotted the zip-close bag of chicken livers and flashed back to the chicken livers I had that cold winter evening at Garzanelli's. I googled "spaghetti and chicken livers" and up popped "spaghetti Caruso."

The famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso is considered one of the greatest opera singers of all time.

He spent 18 years of his 25-year career in New York City, where he graced the stage of New York City's Metropolitan Opera House for 863 performances. Besides being a supremely gifted opera singer, Caruso was what in modern times would be considered a "foodie." He helped more than a dozen chefs from his hometown of Naples obtain citizenship and open restaurants in Brooklyn, and he often cooked with them. He was especially fond of chicken livers and one of his favorite Italian dishes – pasta con fegatini di pollo, cipolle e funghi (pasta with chicken livers, onions and mushrooms) – became known as spaghetti Caruso.

Caruso allowed his name to be used by a chain of restaurants in New York and New Jersey called Caruso Spaghetti Place. Their recipe for spaghetti Caruso appeared in the 1939 cookbook Where To Dine in Thirty-Nine by Diane Ashley. By the 1950s, spaghetti Caruso was served at many Italian-American restaurants across the U.S.

Spaghetti Caruso
Serves 4-6

This is a great way to use the chicken livers saved up from whole chickens. This recipe comes together very quickly, so it's good for a weeknight.

8 ounces of chicken livers
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
1 pound mushrooms, quartered (button, crimini, shiitake, oyster or a combination)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the pasta water
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups tomato passata (or run canned whole tomatoes through a food mill or purée in a blender)
2 cups frozen peas
1 pound spaghetti
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
2 cups freshly grated parmesan


Pick over the livers, trimming away dark spots and fibers. Chop into ½-inch pieces. Set aside in a mixing bowl lined with a sieve to drain.

Bring a large amount of heavily salted water to a boil to cook the spaghetti.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. When hot, add the onions and 1 teaspoon of salt. When the onions are translucent, add the mushrooms. Cover, and cook until the mushrooms release their liquid, about five minutes. Uncover and increase the heat until the mushrooms start to brown.

Add the chicken livers and season with one teaspoon of salt and the red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the livers are browned, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and add the peas. Cook until the peas are tender.

Meanwhile, drop the pasta into the boiling water, and cook until al dente. Using tongs, transfer the pasta to the simmering sauce. Add a little of the pasta water and toss to coat. Remove the skillet from the heat, Transfer to a serving bowl, top with the grated cheese and parsley, and serve.

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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