“This was my mother’s cookbook,” said Joe Tiso, flipping through the soft, worn, curled pages of a 1947 Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book. “During the war you couldn’t get stuff, so you had substitutes. This book gives all the substitutions. We used it all the time to look things up.”
After five decades of serving great Italian food in Mount Tremper, Tiso’s Trattoria closed on December 13. Joe’s wife, Marge, has a stack of cards sent by customers, thanking them for all the years of serving people who will miss them intensely.
When I tried to set up in an interview with the Tiso’s in September, Joe said, “No way. I’m already shutting the door on people who want to come and have one more meal here. If it gets in the paper, we’ll be completely overwhelmed.” I called back a few weeks later, and they were even busier. Finally Joe said they’d talk to me after closing day.
We sat in the kitchen and discussed the history of the family-run restaurant, as well as the many celebrities, from Jimi Hendrix to Cousin Brucie, who made friends with the Tiso’s while savoring their cuisine.
Years before Joe arrived in Mount Tremper, his mother, Susie, was serving friends and former neighbors from the Five Towns area of Long Island who came to the Catskills to hunt and fish. Her husband had been a butcher in Inwood, alongside Kennedy Airport. He moved the family upstate when Joe’s sisters, after attending Camp Hurley, pleaded to live in the country. “In Inwood, his mom was such a go-getter,” said Marge. “She was never home. His dad figured if he brought her up here, she’d be a homebody. But she wanted to see people and do things.”
The Food Fair supermarket in Kingston was looking for a butcher, so Joe’s dad took the job. Later he worked in Phoenicia for McGrath’s Market, run by the father and uncle of former Shandaken police chief Jim McGrath. When the Tiso’s bought an old boarding house, the Randall House, in Mount Tremper, friends from Long Island asked if they could visit. “Mom would make them breakfast at 4 a.m.,” said Joe, “pack them a lunch when they went out to hunt, and then after they came back, make a big sumptuous dinner. They said, ‘Susie, you’re crazy if you don’t open a restaurant — you’re such a good cook.’ That gave her the impetus.”
In 1966, the restaurant opened, at first with only a few dishes. “People would come in, and she’d say ‘This is what I made for today,’” reported Joe. “If she wanted to go to a wedding, she’d put up a ‘Closed’ sign. It was gradual.” Four years later, Joe finished his Army service and spent a winter helping out in the kitchen. “I was 20 years old. There’s no way I’m living here in the mountains. I went back to Long Island and got a job. But the more you visit up here…”
Joe worked for the phone company, installing telephones in Bedford-Stuyvesant and other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Marge had grown up on the other side of Kennedy Airport in Jamaica, where her brother played ball against Mario Cuomo. She had a job with the Federal Aviation Administration, and the air traffic controllers wanted some women on their bowling teams. Marge and Joe met at Calcaro’s, a bowling alley in the Five Towns.
They married, had kids, and went regularly to Mount Tremper to visit. When their first child was ready to start school, they decided to move upstate. The restaurant was getting busier, so Joe spent a summer working with his mother, figuring he’d get another phone company job in a few months. “One thing led to another,” he said, “and here we are.”
Joe likes to point out, “We don’t have a clientele — we have friends that come and eat with us. It’s the third generation for some of these kids in their twenties. We started with their grandparents.” Italian friends called the place a trattoria, a family restaurant, and the word became part of the business name.
“Family” referred to both the customers and the Tiso’s, including Joe’s brother Chuck, who has long been part of the business. “We always had family behind the stove,” said Joe. “If I wasn’t here, my kids learned to cook.” Their son started washing dishes at the age of ten. Now a major in the Army, when he came by last week, he took off his uniform shirt and started busing tables. Deanie Elwyn, proprietor of the famous Deanie’s in Woodstock, was a mentor who encouraged Joe to keep it in the family. “He’d say, ‘Do it yourself, you’ll be happier,’ recalled Joe. “He used to come every Tuesday. After he died, I closed on Tuesdays instead of Mondays.”
In the 1960s, Albert Grossman brought rock musicians to the restaurant from his studio in Woodstock. The Tiso’s met Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, John Sebastian, Robbie Dupree. “I knew Robbie ten years,” said Joe, “ and then I find out he lived off Rockaway Boulevard, on the other side of the airport. These guys would come with their families. Their kids would be outside playing with my kids.”
“This was a place they could go to relax and be themselves,” added Marge, “and not feel people looking at them. We got to know them as friends. They’d say, ‘It’s like I’m at my grandmother’s house.’”
Joe was not starstruck by the rockers. “My mother told me, ‘Jimi has a group,’ he said. “I lost track of groups when Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers broke up. Now it’s come full circle. Six or seven years ago, we met Cousin Brucie in Kingston, and he started coming. We’ve become fast buddies. So I’m back to doo wop.” He had listened to radio personality Bruce Morrow back in the 50s. Joe especially cherishes two large framed photos of Sicily that Morrow took on a trip to Italy and gave to the Tiso’s.
Movie people came by as well: Celeste Holm, Kirk Douglas, Robert DeNiro. Film critic Judith Crist would come in with a group of friends around Kentucky Derby day.
But restaurant business is hard work. In recent years, Tiso’s has been closed for four months a year so Joe and Marge can go south for the winter, reopening every April. Without overhead and staff to worry about, they gradually cut back to three days a week, four hours a day. It was hard to close as long as Joe’s mother was still living above the restaurant. When Susie died in July, at the age of 96, they decided it was time.
“People are so disappointed,” said Marge. “I tell them, hopefully someone will come and continue, and I’ll come here to eat too, and we’ll be a big family again. That’s going to be the hardest part, not seeing them on a regular basis, sharing all those good times.” The building and business are on the market, priced at $279,000.
In January, Joe and Marge will be going to Florida to avoid the snow, but they’ll be back here in the spring. “This is one of the one of best spots in the whole country,” said Joe, “and I’ve been all over the country.” He plans to golf, and Marge will keep singing with the Phoenicia Community Choir. They’re looking forward to having a rest.
Nevertheless, said Joe wistfully, “I don’t know how I’m gonna feel in April.”