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Why Are Italian Restaurants Always Covered in Celebrity Photos?

Ever gone to a sushi restaurant and encountered walls upon walls of celebrity photos? Didn’t think so

On May 14, 1998, Frank Sinatra died of a heart attack at the age of 82. But nearly a quarter of a century later, his legacy is alive and well. His music is still played on the radio, and his iconic “New York, New York” still rings in every new year. His classic films are still airing on Turner Classic Movies, and on the walls of Italian restaurants all over America, signed photographs of Ol’ Blue Eyes still adorn the walls under thin layers of dust and marinara.

How and when the tradition of decorating restaurants — particularly old-school Italian joints — with signed celebrity photos started is unclear, but it’s safe to say that a few famous ristorantes have made it part of their identity. There’s Patsy’s in New York — whose only location is on West 56th street — which was made famous by Sinatra himself. Across the country there’s Dan Tana’s, West Hollywood’s old-school red-sauce joint popularized by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, which is still where George Clooney throws his private Oscar parties. The tradition has even carried over to at least one famous restaurant in Italy, Il Vero Alfredothe birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo — which became a popular haunt of vacationing celebrities thanks to silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks

Thankfully, the owners and managers of those restaurants were happy to talk about their sprawling, storied and certainly dust-free (I was kidding before) walls of photographs. And each of them, of course, has at least one picture of Sinatra.

On How Their Wall of Photos Began

Sal Scognamillo, Owner and Chef of Patsy’s and author of Patsy’s Italian Family Cookbook: My grandparents opened Patsy’s in 1944, but they had had a restaurant before that starting in 1942. That’s when they started with the photos. In fact, I think the first photo Sinatra gave them was from that year. 

My grandfather also kept a log for people to sign — that was popular back then. I hate to say it, but it was kind of like when you go to a wake and you sign your name. That log was kept from about 1944 to 1953, and there are some crazy names in there, like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis Jr. — it was a who’s who from back in the day.

Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. at Patsy’s

Christian Kneedler, Manager and Maître d’ of Dan Tana’s: We opened in 1964, and in the beginning, the artwork on the walls was mostly Dan Tana’s ex-wife’s art. Then more photos came onto the walls around the 1970s and 1980s. We’ve got Harry Dean Stanton up there, James Gandolfini, James Woods, George Clooney, Tom Selleck, the cast of Dynasty, Dabney Coleman — he’s on the menu too, because one of the dishes is named after him. 

Dabney Coleman at Dan Tana’s with bartender Michael Gotovac

Chiara Cuomo, Co-owner of Il Vero Alfredo: It’s not very common in Italy for restaurants to have photos on the walls, but for us, it’s a tradition. It was started by my great grandfather, Alfredo Di Lelio. Around 1930, it was suggested to him to start the tradition by his friend, the great Italian actor Ettore Petrolini. He suggested that Alfredo put pictures on the walls of all the celebrities that came to the restaurant, and they could come back again to see their picture. 

On Just How Many Photos They Have

Scognamillo: I’d say there’s about 100 hanging up. We ran out of room on the walls a while ago. We have to cycle them, especially if someone comes in that hasn’t been here for a while. If their picture isn’t there, they get mad. Some will always be there, like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack. 

Kneedler: For us, it’s a mixed bag of artwork, posters, photos and jerseys, but if we’re talking just photos, I’d say we have at least 50. It’s part of the history of the place. 

One of the walls at Dan Tana’s

Cuomo: At the moment, we have 408 photos on our walls, and more in the archive. We’re in the historic registry, so I just had to count them for that.

James Stewart with Alfredo Di Lelio at Il Vero Alfredo 

On How They Get New Photos

Scognamillo: With the newer ones, we’ll take photos and have them printed out. And, hopefully, when that person comes back, they’ll sign it for us. 

Ines Di Lelio, Co-owner of Il Vero Alfredo: We ask them if they’d like to be photographed, and they usually say it would be their honor to be on the wall with these other celebrities, presidents and people like that. 

JFK with Alfredo Di Lelio

On What Their Favorite Picture Is

Kneedler: My personal favorite is Harry Dean Stanton. I knew him before I worked here, and he was one of my favorite people. I was actually trying to have a statue made of him with a cigarette and a shot of tequila sitting on a bench, to be put out front. I even had an artist make a clay model of it, but then the pandemic happened and things changed a bit. 

Harry Dean Stanton at Dan Tana’s

Scognamillo: Besides Sinatra, my all-time favorite was Rosemary Clooney. She was a real sweet woman. I’d call her “Mrs. Clooney,” and she’d say, “Call me Aunt Rosemary.” There’s a story behind that, too. Her and her sister Betty used to come here in the 1950s when they were just starting out on the Broadway chorus lines. They didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and my grandfather, Patsy, wouldn’t give them a check. They’d have a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread, and they’d give him a signed IOU. Unfortunately, he threw those out. I told him, “Those autographs now would be worth more than what they ordered!” 

Another reason that she’s so dear to me is that, shortly after Sinatra died, she was on The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder and they started talking about Sinatra. She told the story about how my grandfather wouldn’t give them a check for six months, and then she said that no one would still do that nowadays. But then, she looked at the camera and said that Patsy’s son Joe — who is my dad — would still do that for people. 

On Whether Any Photos Had to Be Removed

Cuomo: President Erdogan. Many, many Turkish people didn’t like him, so we took his picture down. 

Scognamillo: We have to keep it timely, so sometimes, we take down ones that people don’t remember too well. Like Red Skelton — I’m not sure if anyone under 50 remembers him. We’ve had a few stolen, too. The day Sinatra died, someone stole Frank Sinatra Jr.’s picture. Now they’re all mounted to the wall a bit harder, but they’re all copies because a lot of them are irreplaceable. 

Kneedler: No, we haven’t had to take anyone down for any controversial reasons. I know Phil Spector used to come in a lot, but his picture was never up. Though, I did have to walk Seymour Cassel out when he was drinking once.

On Their Picture(s) of Frank Sinatra

Di Lelio: Yes, we have a picture of Frank Sinatra from many, many years ago. I think Sinatra was about 40 years old. That was long ago. 

Sinatra at Il Vero Alfredo

Kneedler: Yeah, we’ve got a picture of Sinatra up there. That was before my time. 

Scognamillo: In our advertising, we say “The Restaurant Made Famous by Frank Sinatra” because I don’t think you could get a better PR person than that. So many of the celebrities on our wall can be traced back to him. He brought in Jackie Gleason, who brought in Tom Hanks. He also brought in Rosemary Clooney, who brought in George Clooney, who brought in Julia Roberts. We call it the “Six Degrees of Frank Sinatra.” 

Sinatra and Jackie Gleason at Patsy’s

The first time my grandfather met Sinatra was at his previous restaurant, The Sorrento. Before that, my grandfather was the manager of a number of places, and he had a following from restaurant to restaurant. One of the people who followed him was [jazz musician] Tommy Dorsey. One day at The Sorrento, Dorsey brings in Sinatra and introduces him to my grandfather and says, “I’ve got this skinny kid from Hoboken, Patsy, and I want you to fatten him up for me.” That’s the first time he met Frank Sinatra.

They became good friends over the years, and even after my grandfather and Sinatra died, the tradition has continued. When I wrote my first cookbook, Nancy Sinatra wrote the foreword. It’s a nice part of our history. It’s a good way to reflect upon how lucky we’ve been to have people be so loyal to us and to come here for years and years.