Charleston’s Best Kept Secret

Leonoro’s Spaghetti House celebrates 100 years in the Capital City.


Written and photographed by Katie Griffith

Like always, we start the sauce out every morning. That’s our bread and butter,” says Albert Leonoro early on a Wednesday morning from the kitchen of Leonoro’s Spaghetti House in Charleston. It’s been 100 years since Leonoro’s opened its doors in Charleston, first as a confectionary and then as a spaghetti house. The business is on its third generation of owners—fourth if, like Al Leonoro, you consider the age gap between his uncles, the founders, and his father.

IMG_0715The Leonoros immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, settling around Cabin Creek, where Al’s father, Umberto, was born. But soon after his birth, the labor feuds of the southern coalfields erupted into war. “My grandmother got scared,” Al says. She took little Umberto and, with her husband, went back to Italy, while Umberto’s adult brothers, Frank and Joe, stayed behind to open a confectionary on Broad Street in Charleston in 1915. Leonoro’s got its start there, first selling sweets before switching to pasta in the 1930s. As a young man Umberto would later return to the United States, trying to escape the rise of Mussolini and a looming second world war, to work for his brothers on Broad Street. For decades the family endured wars and depressions and European dictators, serving lunches to hefty crowds of Broad Street workers until 1973 when the construction of the city’s interstate system forced a move to Charleston’s East End where the restaurant sits now.

The business’s ability to hold out through the ups and downs of economy and culture, Al says, comes from its size. It’s a small enterprise in every possible sense. “You just get through it. I remember Dad said during the Depression, the wars, you couldn’t raise prices. You couldn’t get products. You do what you have to do,” Al says. “When you’re small you can weather the storm a lot easier than when you get real big, expense-wise. I have seven people, but we can run it with three if we have to. All the family will get in here. We’ve done it before.” They still do it. Al and his brother, another Joe, are in the restaurant every morning by 7:30 where they bring Leonoro’s famous sauces to a simmer, hand roll meatballs, and ready the store for the day’s business. Their children, Alicia Pinney and Michael Leonoro, are right by their sides. The business has supported the whole family since Frank and the original Joe began sending money home to the old country from the confectionary.

But running a tight ship doesn’t mean cutting corners. Those sauces come straight from the annals of southern Italy, always made with fresh plum tomatoes and sprinkled with the sharp saltiness of goat’s milk Romano cheese. “Our main thing is our spaghetti,” Al says. “My dad used to put on our checks ‘The Best Spaghetti in Town.’ We can always hang onto our sauce and that’s why we put so much emphasis on it.”

IMG_4270Visit and you’ll see what he means. The menu is small. The plates are simple, adorned only with the tawny strands of freshly boiled pasta and the deep red of a finely seasoned marinara and finished with a meatball—or two—on top. The staff, as loyal as the restaurant’s customers, will tie a plastic bib around the necks of diners to save their crisp business attire from the inevitable drippings of twirling pasta. “Charleston’s been good to us. We appreciate the courtesy of our customers. I call them friends,” Al says. “People have eaten here 50 to 60 years. Some came from Broad Street. That’s a long time ago.”

 

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