Alfred Caruso’s name is a legacy in Sault Ste. Marie’s restaurant industry.
From Barsanti’s Small Frye, to Aurora’s, to Barsanti’s at Root River, he has spent the last 55 years of his life creating timeless dishes for homegrown, locally, and family -owned restaurants.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Al since the summer of 2013, when I became a server at Barsanti’s.
Little did I know that this part-time gig would end up meaning the world to me, as I’ve spent the last 5 years serving on the side, even after graduating and finding full-time employment in my chosen field.
Barsanti’s has brought so much joy in my life. I’ve made friends for life with my Root River family, gotten into golfing, developed a taste for wine and beer, and tasted some of the most delectable dishes, as well as got introduced to the love of my life – Rob Barsanti.
But I’ve also had the honour of working with someone as experienced and dedicated as Alfred Caruso.
His name bears meaning and weight.
People come in and say, ‘Is Al here?’ ‘Tell Alfred so and so said hi!’ ‘Is Al still running the kitchen?’ ‘I have to have Al’s famous ribs!’
Affectionately, people (like our very own Treena and Bruce Clement) will say, ‘Oh I worked with Al at the Small Frye!’ or ‘I worked with Al back at Aurora’s!’
People associate Al with quality food and quality service.
Since I started in 2013, Alfred has been in the process of ‘slowing down’ at the restaurant. Becoming ‘semi-retired.’
The thought of him actually leaving the business seemed so far away, but the time has finally come.
As of the end of this month, Al will have officially ended his career with Barsanti’s, celebrating with a three week trip across Italy, where he is from.
When Rob told me the news, I knew I just had to do a story to celebrate the contributions he has made to the Sault’s food and restaurant industry, and how that career came to be.
Alfred came to Canada from Italy when he was 13 years old, and didn’t know any english when he first arrived.
He only finished up to grade 7 in Italy, and they put him back to grade 5 here.
Despite this, a bread man by the name of Laurie Simonini referred Alfred to Barsanti’s Small Frye, owned by brothers Cleto, Remo, Marsh, and Howard Barsanti.
(These Barsantis also owned and operated Barsanti’s Steakhouse on Queen St. during this time).
Anna Barsanti, Howard’s daughter, worked with Alfred at the Small Frye, and calls him “like family.”
Having grown up working in the Small Frye since she was 12 and Alfred was 18, she saw him as her big brother.
She said, “I spent a lot of time with Alfred, he was a cook and I worked in the front. Chuck (Gassi) and his brother worked in the back. We all became so close.”
Al spoke very highly of the Small Frye Barsantis, “If I had a mentor in life, it was Remo Barsanti. He taught me so much of what I know, and he was a very trusting man, the kind of man that will give you something if you deserve it, you won’t have to ask. I always look back to him. He was so helpful to me. His brother Cleto, too.”
He started there when he was 16 and has worked in restaurants ever since.
Of the 22 years he worked at The Small Frye, Al told me, “The best parts of my life were spent there, I met and worked with and for so many amazing people.”
Anna explained how her family depended on Alfred because he was such a reliable and dependable cook.
He helped to create a new menu about halfway through his time there, and it was very successful.
Of Alfred’s expertise, Anna told me, “When Alfred was in the back, we knew everything was going to be amazing through the whole shift. We only got compliments, only thank-yous, no complaints about his food, because when you are getting fed by Alfred, you are getting good food.”
In this mid-80’s, Al moved from The Small Frye to Aurora’s, where he worked at the Bruce street. location for 8 months before moving into their bigger location on McNabb.
Of Al leaving the Small Frye, Anna Barsanti told me, “When Alfred left to work at Aurora’s with Chuck, it was so hard. He was so important to our family, it felt like a piece of my heart left. But we understood that he needed to do what was best for him.”
The original Aurora’s Pizza and Spaghetti House was owned by Chuck Gassi’s family, he now owns Ubriaccio’s Take Home Italian Eatery Pizza.
Gassi did not hesitate to share with me some of his cherished memories with Al, or as he has affectionately called him over the many years he has had the pleasure of knowing him, Mr. Alfredo.
Chuck explained that he met Alfred in 1964, where they worked together at Barsanti’s Small Fry Restaurant, Gassi as a dishwasher/cook helper, and Al as a short-order grill chef. They enjoyed many summers working together in their youth before embarking on the next leg of their respective culinary careers, Aurora’s, in 1984.
The original Aurora’s served up speciality, fresh, and homemade desserts, pizzas and pastas, and were also well known for their salads, steak, seafood, and sandwhiches.
Their one of a kind restaurant was a real family place, with stained glass, brass, and carousel horses.
They sat close to 400 people, and put on very popular New Years Eve and Mother’s Day parties.
While Alfred did work for Aurora’s, Chuck hugely emphasized that their relationship was above and beyond employees – they truly became great friends.
Al became the kitchen manager there and helped out with the menus, creating dishes that would define his career.
Chuck reminisced, “Mr. Alfredo and I would spend the next 20 years working together to put out some of Sault Ste. Marie’s finest food. In all the time we were together, I never once saw Alfred put out a dish that he did not put his best into, or that he was not proud to serve.”
What Chuck said resonated with me, as Al has mirrored those words time and time again. As he said to me when we spoke about his career, “You do the best you can, you don’t serve to customers anything you wouldn’t eat yourself. You put your best foot forward.”
Alfred described his 20 years at Aurora’s as, “It was such a nice place to work, and so much fun. I made so many friends who I am still friends with today, and learned a lot from the Gassis.”
In 2003, when the time came to move on, Tim Murphy, brother-in-law to Richard Barsanti, who was running Barsanti’s at Root River, told Alfred that he would love it at Barsanti’s.
“And I do love it here,” said Al, “I’ve been here ever since.”
Barsanti’s at Root River, owned and operated by cousins of the Small Frye Barsantis, was started by Jane Barsanti and Dorothy Kucher in 1961.
They brought to fruition the dream of Jane’s late husband, Harvey Barsanti Sr., who passed away in 1960.
Al has really influenced the menu at Barsanti’s, whose standards and precedent were set by Jane and Dorothy.
Their legacy lives on through 60 years of passing down faultless recipes like the slow-cooked chiff choff and famous lemon tarts.
When asked what went into perfecting the menu at Barsanti’s, Al told me, “It really came down to Tim, Richard, and I really putting our heads together and putting together dishes that we could put out fast, that were truly wholesome. Not fancy, but popular. Steak, ribs, chicken. Food I knew how to do. And people really enjoyed it.”
He continued, “The inspiration really comes from learning throughout my whole career, you know you pick up something here, you pick up something there, you take what people like, and you leave the rest aside.”
The trick to succeeding in the business, according to Al, is “working hard and being honest.”
And evidently, he did both.
Richard Barsanti told me, “Alfred is what the service industry is all about, and he could always do the work of three people. It’s just how he was.”
In fact, it was Alfred coming on board with Barsanti’s that aided Richard’s decision to keep the restaurant open year-round, as it was previously only open for golf season.
Of the decision, Richard said, “We needed someone like Alfred to maintain the standard that had been set by my mother and aunt.”
Moving forward, Al has been working hard to pass on his wealth of knowledge to Barsanti’s newest kitchen manager, Ari Viitala.
Of passing down a legacy, Al said, “You can’t do anything to pass the legacy on unless the people want to pass it on. You can suggest things, but you can’t force people to do something you have done. I have shown Ari how I do things, I’ve trained him exactly how I did things, and he has all my recipes. My job was to train him, and I did, the rest is up to him.”
Al has faith that Ari will do a good job.
But in addition to his contributions to the kitchen and dining experience at Barsanti’s, Alfred also found another corner of Sault Ste. Marie to form life-long friendships.
“Richard is more like a friend than a boss, you can discus with him and if he says he is going to do something, he sticks with it.”
Richard Barsanti was happy to share that the opportunity they had to work together also brought a friendship that will last a lifetime.
As of May 19th, Al’s retirement will commence. After a lifetime of pulling 10-16 hour days, day in and day out, Al will enjoy a well-deserved three week trip to Italy, spending one week in his hometown, Calabria, and two weeks touring the country.
Gassi extends his best wishes to his friend, Alfred. “If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie chances are you’ve enjoyed a meal cooked by Alfred Caruso. Alfred has been serving the people of this fine city one plate at a time for over 50 years.
Alfred came from Italy as a young boy and worked hard to support his family his whole life. He will be returning to his roots for a well-deserved holiday. I am so excited and happy for Alfred and his retirement. He has made so many friends and acquaintances over his years of working in hospitality and I am honoured to call him my friend.”
Anna Barsanti also extended her most heartfelt message to Al for this article, “Alfred, you need to know that you are family. And you are like a big brother to me. I loved growing up and having you a part of those years. I only wish you the best in your retirement. You need to know that you made a difference in our family’s life.”
Richard Barsanti sends regards to Al, “Alfred is like family. He didn’t skip out on anything, he took care of us, and we took care of him. If I turned away from the restaurant, I knew things would be okay with Al there. It is not an easy thing to do. I do wish Alfred all the best in everything he is going to do, and I hope he enjoys all of the recipes that he has accumulated through years of experience.”
Rob Barsanti is sending Al off with best wishes, “The thing I will miss most about Al, that made him so special was that he went above and beyond to make sure everything was perfect. You could trust that he wouldn’t serve or prepare anything that we wouldn’t want representing the Barsanti family and that’s why he feels more like family than anything. You can’t teach someone to care about or take that much pride in their work. You either have the passion or you don’t and we were lucky enough to have Alfred for the last 15 years.”
Alfred, if you haven’t been able to tell yet through all of the amazing words that your friends and colleagues have shared about you, let me put it simply. You are so loved, so valued, and mean so much to the Barsantis and the Gassis.
Enjoy Italy, Ciao for now.