Bimbo’s menu is short enough that it’s written in its entirety on a pizza circle above the bar, and all of it is good: boats (a lean meatball-type sausage served with red sauce in a ceramic dish), thin-crust pizza, porketta and Italian hot beef sandwiches.
Bimbo passed away five years ago, but his daughter Deb Constantini, a sharp, poised businesswoman with a bob and a commanding presence, came home to carry on his culinary traditions. During her Iron Mountain childhood, starting three days before Christmas every year, dead rabbits would show up on the Constantini house’s front step. The family never knew who brought them, but Bimbo knew what to do with them: slow roast them with Italian seasoning. One hundred people stopped by the Constantini house on Christmas morning, so he roasted venison, too, and served melons with proscuitto, and his wife June’s double-crust Abruzzi-style pizza with roasted red peppers, anchovies and olive oil. Later, after the last guest left, they family had a Christmas dinner of meat ravioli and red sauce.
Here’s the secret of traditional Iron Mountain red sugo: it’s slow-cooked with cheap cuts of meat, like pigs feet and sausage, which are then strained so only the drippings are imbued in the sauce, which is as smooth as gravy.
To go with their red sauce, all of the Paisanos’ mothers made homemade pasta.
“In our house it was gnocchi,” says Buzzy Olivanti, “and polenta.” The corn porridge was poured right from the cooking pot onto immaculately clean wooden boards, on top of the table. The golden polenta spread out in a circle, and the family sat down with their forks and worked their way to the meat and sauce in the middle.
Philly Crispigna’s family was—and still is—renowned for ravioli. His parents Oreste and Tomaidi Crispigna ran an Italian grocery store, which today still produces made-on-premises sausages and ravioli (during deer season, they can’t make ravioli fast enough for the hunters who come through town). Robert and Pete Mondavi, the California winemakers, frequently stayed at his house in the 40’s and 50’s. The Mondavis rode trains across the country, dropping carloads of grapes from the Napa and Central Valleys to Italian immigrant communities in the eastern United States, and Iron Mountain was one of their stops on the way. All the Italians in town waited down at the railroad tracks, pushing Zinfandel and Muscat grapes onto the beds of their pickups and bringing them right to their basements to press. Each family made wine for itself or for the older Italians on the Northside who couldn’t make their own anymore. The streets were filled with fruit flies.
At Easter, Philly says, his family had a lamb in the garage, alive. “Dad had people come over and butcher it,” he says. “They saved the blood and cooked it into a congealed form and baked it into a pie.” Italian cooks did not believe in being wasteful, so on the Saturday before Easter they cooked the head and split it so they could eat it, picking out the brains.
The live lambs in the garage are a thing of the past, but the Italian tradition of porchetta, or porketta as it’s come to be known in Iron Mountian, is alive and well. The immigrants brought the tradition of spicy, slow-roasted pork from the Umbria, where a whole pig is seasoned for hours with salt, garlic, pepper and fennel before being cooked for many hours more. Schinderle’s Bakery on the Northside now stands empty, but in its day it cranked out pasties, biscotti, pizelle and Italian breads, using its big ovens to roast whole pigs in the traditional style. At least five taverns in town served porketta, sending waiters out with eight-foot pans to carry the whole roasted pigs—their crispy skins gleaming—on foot through the streets and back to the bar to be tucked in a crusty roll.