Wandering AmyLessly: Family still operating Reno’s oldest restaurant, 1937 style

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November 20, 2022

By Amy Larsen
Wyo4News feature writer

Okay, so to clarify from the start, I didn’t actually wander into a family’s current home, although it sure felt that way. It all started a few weeks ago when I made a post on Facebook asking if any of my friends had suggestions for places to eat in Reno. I wanted something that wasn’t a buffet or a casino restaurant. Basically, I was looking for something local.

A friend had posted that there was an Italian restaurant that many locals went to and that if I wanted to go, I would need reservations. The name of the restaurant was Casale’s Halfway Club. At first, I was a bit skeptical as I wasn’t sure I wanted a fancy Italian dinner but I decided to google the place anyway. After all, I had asked for suggestions, so the least I could do was follow up on what friends took the time to post.

Photo submitted by Amy Larsen

Let me start by saying this is no ordinary Italian restaurant. This is Reno’s oldest restaurant, having opened in 1937! When Elvira Casale immigrated from Genoa, Italy, to marry John, whom she only knew through letters they had written to each other, she traveled with her ravioli press, rolling pins, and family recipes. Eventually, to help her struggling young family, Elvira opened a fruit stand outside the family home on HWY 40 and did what she knew best: make ravioli and then sell them.

As word got out about how great the ravioli was and demand grew, they ended up converting the front of their house into a small market. Then by the 1940s, they converted their entire house into a dine-in restaurant specializing in Northern Italian Cuisine. Four generations later, they are still using the same ravioli press, rolling pins, and recipes.

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Diners eat around the original table Elvira rolled her ravioli out on. There is nothing elegant or incredibly fancy about Casale’s. They only take cash, seat maybe 40 people and everything is homemade. Warning, sometimes, it’s a long wait for the food. Yet when we left three hours later with our bellies full of not only food but laughter. We all agreed it indeed was one of the best dining experiences we have ever had.

The outside of the restaurant is very unassuming; it actually looks like a building on one of the old great American highways. When we walked in, our table wasn’t ready yet because it was still occupied by a group celebrating a birthday. They were in no rush to leave, nor was the staff anxious to speed them up.

They encouraged us to grab a drink at the bar, where the market counter had originally been and was the family’s old living room. There was a gentleman behind the bar in a red shirt, and I joked with him that I had heard he was the best bartender in the area. He laughed and told me his specialty was ice water!

Eventually, our server popped behind the bar and made us some drinks, and the guy was off serving soup and salads to a table. When our table was finally ready, the guy behind the bar took us over and helped us get situated.

Photo submitted by Amy Larsen

As I knew it was a family-run business, I asked him if he was part of the family. He laughed and said, “No, I deliver the garlic bread.” I laughed as well, thinking he was being funny. Nope, he legitimately worked for a local bakery that supplied their garlic bread. In the 1990s, when he first started, Casale’s was on his route. On Saturdays, after he finished his route, he would come into the bar and finish his paperwork for the day. Mama Inez, who was the second-generation owner, would serve him a meatball sandwich and then give him a couple of beers to take back to the bakery for the guys. He became part of the family. That was a theme we picked up on quickly, and as with any family, when they need help, everyone pitches in, hence the reason he was entertaining us with stories and garlic bread that evening. He joked with me that the best seat in the house was actually the bar because that is where you learn what really to order, which I thought was funny as there really is only lasagna, spaghetti, meatballs, pizza, and ravioli on the menu. Sadly, that day, they were out of ravioli.

By the end of the evening, Maria, who is the fourth generation to run the restaurant, had shared family stories with all of us. We also met the fifth and sixth generations, who will hopefully carry on the tradition. As I had no idea what a ravioli press was, they took me back into the room where they are made, showed me the original press, and explained to me how they are still made, just like they were back in 1937.

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I saw the homemade lasagna noodles, pots that had been used to make the sauce, and the youngest member of the family, who was maybe age two, playing with dough like it was a normal toy, fist bumping guests and giving us all smiles. It truly wasn’t a restaurant but someone’s home, and they were excited to share their family with anyone who came through the door.

As I got back to my room after our three-hour dinner experience, my mind was going crazy with all of the stories they had shared, the experience we had, and honestly, how I was going to share the experience in this column.

I kept thinking back to the delivery guy who showed up because they needed help that night, the great-nephew who had to come in to make the pizzas, and even the daughter-in-law, who had already made ravioli twice that day but was back to make more. By the way, it did get to try one before I left.

I realized there was no way I could share their story effectively, there were too many to tell, too much history, too much love, and too many family members. Then I realized that was the story. In the 85 years they have been in business, they have stayed true to who they are, they have created community, and they have created countless stories and memories. They haven’t expanded out of the original house, they haven’t franchised, and they haven’t even modernized their kitchen. In the midst of an ever-changing world, they have remembered that at the heart of it all, the most important thing is family and traditions, and there is no reason to change who they are!

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