Going ‘Off the Grid’ in Little Italy
For locals, Oaks Inn has been around long enough that it needs no introduction. It doesn’t even need a website.
That’s because the way it draws its patrons is as old-school as the business itself. By word of happy mouths, they’ve managed to pretty much pack the place nightly. In fact, some customers have been coming for generations.
It’s the kind of neighborhood eatery you’d expect to find in a place like Little Italy in Endicott. The neon sign out front is the only feature distinguishing it from its residential neighbors on Oak Hill Avenue.
You’re almost inclined to knock on the plain front door. Open it and you’re immediately greeted by a set of stairs that leads to a landing that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the pre-War housing around here.
Inside, the layout and decor has changed very little since a 1940 renovation. Outside of specials, the menu is basically the same too. Black and white photos on the walls tell the Oaks story: the portrait of “Uncle Poppy,” a candid shot of suit-clad men reminiscent of a mobster flick and a photo of the bar with a sign boasting “refrigerated beer.”
If it weren’t for the color of the images, you would swear they were taken yesterday. Uncle Poppy’s passed away, but the tables are basically in the same place and the cash register behind the bar today probably rang up more than a few of those refrigerated beers.
And Oaks is still a gathering place. There are standing reservations for Friday nights. The hum of conversation and the clink of utensils on glass plates tell that story. Generations of patrons tell that story.
“Back when you could smoke in here, it would be smoky [at the end of the night],” Richard Cerasaro says. His father and uncle routinely smoked cigars during and after work. “Once in a while, you’ll get that whiff, because it’s permeated.
“Even though it’s been painted and cleaned, it’s still in the bones of it,” he says. “At the end of the night when everyone’s gone, sometimes I’ll just sit here and you can feel that energy pulsing.”
Cerasaro is a fourth-generation owner of the Inn, which by the way was never a hotel. Built around the turn of the 19th century, it was a shoe store and, in an interesting twist, a pasta factory. For the past 85 years, it’s been a place to gather.
Albert “Poppy” Cerasaro ran it most of that time. Rick started working for his dad’s brother too many years ago for him to remember. It’s always been a family affair, with each generation having a part at one time or another.
“Nobody in my family really retires. They work until they can’t,” says Rick. And that’s pretty much his plan. He’d like to witness the business turn 100 in 15 years when he’ll be 70.
The restaurant is among the oldest in Greater Binghamton – all of them Italian. That’s one of the great legacies of the immigrants who came to work at Endicott-Johnson Shoe Co. There were many others – mostly Russians and Eastern Europeans. But, what is still known as “Little Italy” is where the primary portion of Italians settled.
Today, Little Italy is more than a place to eat, although it does host a variety of culinary businesses from a third-generation bakery across the street from Oaks to an artisan cupcake maker just down the road.
Visitors can wander down the blocks and bump into a musical performance in the park or a festival thanks to a committee formed in part to support events in this classic neighborhood.
And, yes, there are other eateries all sharing the benefit of being off-the-grid in the digital age. Cerasaro has found no need to bother with the web. His dedicated customers post menus and glowing reviews on his behalf and people seem to just find the place.
“There are hidden gems,” Cerasaro says. “You just sort of walk around and go, ‘That looks pretty cool, let’s go in there.’ And it’s great food.”
Little Italy, in particular, has appealing geography for the adventurous traveler looking for hidden gems. It’s also the perfect location for a foodie in the mood for fantastically classic dishes.
This is happening all over Greater Binghamton as a younger generation of restauranteurs is getting back to their roots.
“All these younger people, they want to go back to the traditional. So, you’re seeing these places popping up that are more nationality-based. They’re wanting to do what they came from,” says Cerasaro, who finds himself in excellent position to satisfy international cravings.
He admits it hasn’t been easy. The restaurant has seen plenty of ups and downs he can identify just by looking at volume in the dining room. But, now this vanguard business is fitting in nicely with the new niche-focused crowd.
“Sometimes you get a bad rep. You know, losing IBM and these big companies has definitely changed our dynamic,” Cerasaro says. “Yet, the families are still here. There’s still new people coming in and things are changing.”
In a place with so much change, though, Cerasaro is happy to keep Oaks Inn just the same. That’s his niche. Even if it does create some unwanted curiosity.
There are memories that aren’t outlined on the wall. The restaurant – one of the first in Binghamton to get a liquor license after Prohibition – probably did a little bootlegging beforehand. And Cerasaro heard about meetings of men associated with the notorious Apalachin Convention mafia gathering to conduct “business.”
“I heard this story from customers growing up. They were coming up for lunch and the door was locked … but, the street was filled with Cadillacs,” Cerasaro says.
If anything, it really just speaks to the quality of food. And the depth of the stories within these walls. Step up to the bar, ask about the ancient cash register or the photos on the wall and you might hear a few …