Dear Vance: In the 1960s and ’70s I remember a small Italian restaurant on Park Avenue run by a fellow named Mario. I recall him always “preaching” about the health advantages of his food. Can you tell me about him and his establishment? —G.F., Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Dear G.F.: Nobody who dined at Mario’s Pizza Palace — for that was the fancy name of the rather humble establishment you remember — ever forgot it. The stone cottage at 3836 Park Avenue was sheathed in handmade signs, urging patrons to “Protect Your Health NOW!” and “Eat Well and Forget Di-Gel!” Diners crammed into two little rooms and munched on baked pizza and ravioli, sipped wine from old mayonnaise jars, and were often serenaded — in Italian, no less — by the feisty owner himself, Mario DePietro.
So many stories were told about (and by) Mario that it’s hard to sort them out. He supposedly won indoor bicycle races at Madison Square Garden back in the 1920s. He personally delivered an airplane-shaped chicken to Charles Lindbergh somewhere, sometime after his 1927 transatlantic flight. And, of course, it was Mario himself who first brought pizza to America from his native Naples, Italy. And if you didn’t believe him, he would proudly display the battered tub he carried on his head, as he walked the streets of New York City peddling this new kind of food.
What was definitely true, however, was Mario’s obsession with healthy living. “Be young, sane, and spry,” proclaimed the menus of the restaurant he opened here in 1949, “and eat Mario’s Pizza Pie.” He would usually sit down with his diners, beseeching them to stop eating greasy foods that “clogged up arteries like mud in the pipes.” For visual evidence, he nailed a bucket of nasty grease to the wall of his dining room. Sweets, he had concluded, kill dozens of youngsters every day. Hamburgers were nothing more than “cremated meat.” Carrot juice, he insisted, could perform miracles, since it “has the whole 16 elements that your body requires” and besides, “rabbits have better sense than humans.”
And if you still didn’t believe him, he would hand you a typed essay titled “Proper Foods Can Alter Our Moods.” Among other things, this interesting thesis claimed that “riots, parades, shootings, and hating police are caused by a multitude of half-starved or wrongly fed humans.”
Skeptics were commanded to feel the “potatoes” in his strong arms, legs, and stomach — something chefs these days rarely demand of their patrons, which I think is a shame. It would definitely enhance the entire dining experience.
As you might expect, he often became fodder for the local newspapers, and Press-Scimitar columnist Eldon Roark devoted stories to the “little bulldog of a fellow.” One time Mario invented a home incinerator that he claimed would eliminate air pollution. Assembled from pipes, a garbage can, a water hose, and all sorts of other parts, this gadget supposedly burned household waste and then filtered the ashes through a “water curtain.”
When Roark went to Mario’s to investigate, the machine just belched smoke. “But Mario didn’t get mad and kick his contraption to pieces and throw it on the junk pile,” wrote Roark. “He went to work to take out all the bugs. When he grabs hold of something, he won’t let go.” (In this case, he did let go when he never could get it to work properly.)
Mario was a popular character here, as he drove around town in an old station wagon, with his signs for good health plastered all over the back windows. But nobody seemed to be paying attention. “You can’t teach jackasses anything,” Mario complained to a reporter. “They just turn and kick you.” But his diet for life certainly worked for him. He rode a bike until he was 80, and he remained healthy until his death in 1985 at the age of 84. His little palace on Park Avenue, shorn of all the signs, became a real estate office, then a business called the Door Exchange, and then housed a number of other companies. But nothing — and nobody — would ever replace Mario.
Dear Vance: I own an old soft-drink bottle manufactured by the Whistle Bottling Company of Memphis. Can you tell me anything about this company? — T.H., Nashville
Dear T.H.: A half-hour of Internet research told me that the Whistle Bottling Company did indeed produce a drink called — as you might expect — Whistle. But it wasn’t an exclusively Memphis concoction; instead, Whistle seems to have been a branch of a larger bottling company called Vess, which is still in business, based in St. Louis.
Vess was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of similar bottlers that jumped on the “soda pop” bandwagon after the success of drinks like Coca-Cola. Even so, despite all the bottle collectors and Internet sites devoted to this industry, little mention is made of the Memphis operation, so I’m pleased as punch, so to speak, to share with my half-dozen readers this wonderful old photo (above) from the Memphis and Shelby County Room files at the main library.
The image is dated 1919. As you can see, the company has lined up its fleet of trucks — and probably all of its employees — outside the bottling plant and offices, which were located at 303-307 South Main. The company’s slogan, painted across the top of the building, was “Just Whistle.” The two large trucks carry the name of salesmen above the doors, and several of the men wear Whistle caps. If you look carefully, you can see a rather odd addition to this group. What appears to be a little girl sitting stiffly among the burly workers on that middle truck is, in fact, a doll or a mannequin — probably designed to be a soda fountain display, since “she” is pouring herself a glass of Whistle.
Next door, the old Longinotti Hotel displays painted signs for five-cent Coca-Cola (“Delicious and Refreshing”) and Star Tobacco, which boasted the inexplicable slogan, “A Thought in Every Chew.”
Memphians apparently never puckered up for Whistle. Based on old city directories, the company opened its bottling plant here in 1919 and closed it just three years later. Other Whistle offices in other cities managed to survive for many more years though, and in fact the Vess company I mentioned earlier (were you paying attention?) recently produced a canned drink called — yep — Whistle.
The Whistle Bottling Company’s Memphis building is still standing on South Main, most recently home to the Rumba Room club, but as you might expect the bold sign and slogan have been covered by decades of paint. The old hotel next door has also survived, though for some reason years ago it was cut down to one story, and it’s now home to Pearl’s Oyster House.
WHISTLE BOTTLING COMPANY PHOTO COURTESY MEMPHIS ROOM, BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY