Whistle While You Work: The Carfagna Dining Dynasty

Whistle While You Work: The Carfagna Dining Dynasty

Madeline Northup

“He’d like to see you in the kitchen,” the host called, ushering me towards the unassuming, swinging metal doors. As I pushed them open, I couldn’t help but feel like I was unmasking the man behind the curtain, finally revealing the Ozian wizard whose food I had enjoyed for so many years.

As I entered, I knew I had underestimated the sheer amount of people that it took to run a thriving business. I had assumed there would be people in the kitchen, preparing for the lunchtime rush, and that the man I was seeking would be tucked away in his office, carefully going over accounts and scheduling information.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shuffling through the small mass of chefs, dishwashers, managers, and waiters, I finally caught sight of Sam Carfagna, his hands in a bowl of tomatoes as he washed and peeled them. His son, Salvatore, stood next to him, opening packages of fresh ingredients ready to be washed and cooked. The whole room hummed with intensity, a feeling of keen rigor and determination that I had never experienced before. The sound of my voice among the din of pots clashing, sauces simmering, and people shuffling through the narrow walkway seemed to interrupt the flow that had developed, leaving me feeling like an intruder in a sacred place.

This feeling did not last for long, though, as I watched Sam make a batch of one of Carfagna’s famous pasta sauces, a delicacy that patrons know about all too well. Carfagna’s Ristorante in Columbus, Ohio would simply not be the same without it.

Carfagna’s Market, originally known as Cleve Meats. Provided by Ohio.org.

The Carfagna name was not always synonymous with their delectable sauces, nor their restaurant. Founded in 1937, Cleveland Avenue Meats, affectionately known as Cleve Meats, was located one block south of Hudson and Cleveland Avenue. Saturnino Carfagna, farmer and businessman, founded the business out of his passion for food and to support his growing family. He had immigrated to the United States in 1919 after living a life filled with hardship, despite his young age. Born in 1898 in Vastogirardi in the Isernia Province of Molise, Saturnino had fought as a cavaliere (cavalryman) in World War I before being hit by a falling bomb, which lodged multiple pieces of shrapnel in his leg. Temporarily incapacitated, he was taken prisoner by the Germans, who sent him to a farm in Germany to work as a slave laborer. He spent over two years toiling in the fields, desperately trying to find a way to escape his dire situation, but to no avail.

Eventually, after one year serving the family who owned the farm, he was finally able to sleep inside of their barn, instead of out in the open air, subject to the harsh elements of nature. A while after that, he was invited to eat at the kitchen table with the family. In a sickening way, they treated him almost as one of them, appreciative of his labor, yet still holding his life in their hands. Finally, after the war ended and he was set free, the patriarch of the family asked if Saturnino would marry his daughter, as he was a hardworking young man and would be able to support her. Saturnino, of course, declined, and left for his home, and the future he yearned for, immediately.

Scenes from around Carfagna’s Ristorante and Market. Provided.

For many years, he went back and forth from Italy to the United States, spending two years in the U.S. working, making money for his wife and children back home, then returning for six months to enjoy what he had worked for. His older brother, Uldarigao, also known as Eddie, had immigrated to the United States permanently in 1910. He supported Saturnino and his new life, welcoming the sight of his brother after so many years.

Finally satisfied with the money he had made, Saturnino moved his wife, children, and mother-in-law to the United States, and bought two farms in Ohio. There, he would raise chickens and cattle, and sell them and their products to markets, as well as customers on the streets. After founding the more permanent business of Cleveland Avenue Meats, Saturnino decided to sell the farms and move his family to the floors above his business. After another move in 1971, his grandsons, Sam and Dino, took over the business, but he continued to help for many years before his death in 1986. As Sam said, it is his hard work that they learned so much from, and which continues to help the Carfagna’s business survive.

Sam, now in the “twilight” of his own career, as he said to me, has expanded his grandfather’s business, in partnership with his brother, Dino, to include a manufacturing company for Carfagna’s pasta sauces, which can now be found in twenty-six states, as well as a family-style restaurant. As of 2021, the restaurant and market were combined in a new development in Gemini Place Towne Center in Columbus, Ohio. Not only can customers now find delectable homemade pastries, pastas, sauces, and pre-cooked meals in the marketplace, but they can also walk right into Carfagna’s wine shop for a tasting, as well as their restaurant for a bite to eat.

Portraits of a young Dino, left, and Sam Carfagna, right. Provided by Carfagna’s.com.
Carfagna siblings in order from left to right:
Sam Carfagna,Julie Riley, and Dino Carfagna.
Provided by Columbus Monthly.

With the Carfagna name gaining more and more recognition every day, the responsibilities of running the business begin to fall on Sam and Dino’s children, as well as their many cousins, aunts, and uncles. Salvatore, Francesca, Dino Jr., Michael, and Carmine all have vital roles in their parents’ and grandparents’ business, and work to continue the family tradition. Sam hopes that all his children, as well as his nephews, continue to hold their families close, and work hard for the business and for their own goals. The Carfagna businesses’ success would not be possible without these values.

It doesn’t matter if you live in Columbus, near it, or even in Ohio, Carfagna’s Ristorante and Market is worth the trip. Not only will you get a fabulous homemade meal (I recommend the Gnocchi Carfagna with creamy pomodoro sauce), but you will walk away feeling the same energy I felt, the hum of hard work and appreciation for people who come, and for people who keep coming back.