As a kid, Joe Campbell of Oneonta thought a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs was the "real thing" when it came to Italian food. Campbell soon learned otherwise. (Mark Simonson photo)

"A bottle of red, a bottle of white,

It all depends upon your appetite,

I'll meet you any time you want,

In our Italian Restaurant."

--Billy Joel

ONEONTA _ The "Piano Man" could well have been singing about one of Oneonta's popular Italian restaurants in his hit song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," as the singer-songwriter visited the State University College at Oneonta in the early 1970s.

Recollections of some memorable Oneonta Italian restaurants were shared Sunday afternoon at a Summer Sunday lecture series program at the Swart-Wilcox House. Just as in the song, the local stories weren't limited to food or restaurants, but encompassed a variety of memories.

Although it's unknown whether Joel actually dined in Oneonta, Julie Spaziani did describe a celebrity visitor that once ate at Oneonta's Rex Restaurant. Spaziani has been a teller at the Key Bank drive-through at the corner of Market and South Main streets, and said many customers told her that her window was where the restaurant's kitchen once stood.

"People have told me that Buddy Ebsen came here for breakfast," Spaziani said.

Although Ebsen was well-known for his television role as Jed Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies," he came to Oneonta during the vaudeville years to perform at the city's theaters.

Joe Campbell, Oneonta's "Grand Old Man of Radio," also shared his memories of eating Italian food while growing up during the Great Depression. Campbell brought a few props to tell his stories, first pulling out a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs.

"I wasn't acquainted with Italian food as a young kid, due to our English and Scottish heritage," Campbell explained. "But one day at lunch Mom opened up a can of this for lunch. I thought this was the real thing for Italian food!

"As a teen our family visited relatives in Scranton, Pa., and we went out to dinner at a place called Primo's. I ordered spaghetti and thought I was going to get this," Campbell said, pointing to the Chef Boyardee can. "I had to quickly learn how to spoon-wrap the long noodles around the fork. It was a bit clumsy for me, but I loved it."

Campbell said that, as he entered high school, he became acquainted with new friends from Oneonta's Sixth Ward and started to truly enjoy authentic Italian food in this city.

Outside of the Sixth Ward, options for Italian food were quite limited in Campbell's youth, but that changed after World War II. It is believed the first Italian restaurant on Main Street was the Orion, which sat on the south side of the street across from today's Greater Oneonta Historical Society History Center. Earlier mainstays were just a block or two off Main, such as Molinari's and the Rex, on South Main and what was then Prospect Street. Both were demolished during urban renewal in the 1970s.

When Campbell asked the nearly 30 audience members Sunday to name other old Italian restaurants, the response was vigorous. In the Sixth Ward, people remembered Tommy's Place, Ma's or Joe & Mary's. On Chestnut Street, it was Andy & Gay's. In Oneonta's East End, it was Rizzo's, where 482 Main St. is today.

Pizza places that served Italian food were named in large numbers as well. Mosca's appeared to be the overall favorite. The pizzeria's recipe is served at today's Depot Restaurant. Earlier places, such as Sal's, Pizza Rendezvous and Italian Kitchen, were also fondly recalled.

The Swart-Wilcox Summer Sunday series will continue for three more weekends, with each program beginning at 1 p.m. Janet Glantz will share stories and songs for families on Aug. 14. "A Night at the Opera" with Lorraine Tyler and Lois Herrick will be featured Aug. 21, and the Swart-Wilcox Antiques Road Show will conclude the series on Aug. 28. The programs are free and open to the public. The Swart-Wilcox House is on Wilcox Avenue near Riverside Elementary School, off River Street. For more information, call Tina Morris at 432-0665 or Debby Clough at 432-8417.

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