Stories From Nick’s: Jim Cullum

It was a ritual in our family for my father to take us all out to Naples Restaurant, on Broadway, in San Antonio, every Sunday for a big meal. The food was fantastic. The owner/chef, Ralph Branchizio had come to San Antonio from New York, and was originally from Naples, Italy. The story went that he had, from time to time, served on Italian ships as a cabin boy and chef. He eventually went ashore in New York City, and never looked back. He’d worked his way up taking any job he could get, perfecting his skills in New York’s Italian restaurants. Soon, he had a reputation as a fine chef. In 1937, when Nick Rongetti was about to open his club in Greenwich Village and was looking around for a chef to run the kitchen, he hired Ralph. In the process, Nick’s became the best steakhouse in New York. Nick also played the piano and began to feature six and seven piece jazz bands of great quality. The place was a roaring success.

The secret to Nick’s ‘sizzling steaks’ was Ralph’s technique of grilling over live charcoal. Few, in New York, were grilling on charcoal. Ralph had another trick. He made sure that brandy was poured on the scalding hot platters. This made the steaks sizzle as they were brought to the table. The combination of the charcoal grilled steak and sizzling brandy created a sweet and smoky atmosphere in the club that was unique.

Well, back to San Antonio. Ralph would be in the kitchen at Naples Restaurant every week and over time we got to hear all his stories. My father and I would bring visiting musicians into Naples Restaurant to have a great meal and meet Ralph. Also, Ralph was a big fan of classic jazz. And his first question was always, “Did you ever play at Nick’s?” And if the answer was ‘yes,’ he’d fall all over our guest.

One night I brought the trumpeter and leader of the Tonight Show Band, Doc Severinsen into Naples Restaurant for a feast. I went back to the kitchen to bring Ralph out to meet him. But Ralph said to me, “Jim, look at me, I’m full of tomato sauce. I’m too busy. I can’t come out.” I said, “But Ralph, I’ve been telling Doc all about you and how you worked at Nick’s.” And Ralph says, “Look I get doctors in here all the time, I can’t talk to all of them!” I said, “No, no, he’s not a doctor! He’s a great trumpet player from New York and bandleader—he’s on television!” Ralph looked me in the eye and said, “Did he work at Nick’s?” “No,” I said, “He never worked at Nick’s.” Ralph shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “Well then, he can’t be any good.” And that was that.