Mangia Bene!Jun 01, 2020 03:40PM ● By Mike Cutillo
Joe and Bob Spaziani learned all about feeding lots of people from their Italian grandmother while growing up in Elmira.
“She had nine kids,” Joe says. “She used to make polenta and the kids would get around the pasta board. She would put the board right on the table and put the polenta on it with the sauce over it and the meatballs and the sausage, and the kids would just get around and just eat their way to the middle.”
He laughs, remembering those good old days as if they were yesterday. These days—in fact for the last four decades—the two Spaziani brothers have been serving thousands of diners a week as co-owners of the Queen City’s iconic Lib’s Supper Club, which covers 10,000 square feet, seats 350, and will almost double that capacity when a new banquet room opens soon.
And it all started with grandma, who came to America from Morolo, Italy, a small village about fifty miles south of Rome, unable to speak a lick of English.
“She was a very, very good cook. She always taught us how to cook, and especially how to eat,” Joe says. “She cooked a lot of pasta, gnocchis, cavatelli, the stuff like that. She had a garden that was bigger than Lib’s. Every day she’d be out working on her garden, and we’d have to go help her out.”
That family background—bolstered for Joe by an education at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and hands-on apprenticeships at five-star restaurants in Florida and New York City—led the Spazianis to Lib’s.
Like those meatballs in the middle of the polenta, Lib’s is in the middle of Elmira at 106 West 5th Street, a few blocks from Elmira College and maybe a half-mile north of the Chemung River. Originally a hotel, possibly as far back as the late 1800s, Joe says its name came “from a guy named Liberatore, then my uncle bought it in 1954, and he decided to keep the name.”
Later, their father bought it, but he owned it for just a short time before falling ill. Joe graduated from Elmira Free Academy and had gone on to Frederick Military Academy in Virginia, a prep school, primarily to play basketball. He later landed a scholarship at Southwest Minnesota State University, but his life took a different path when their dad got sick and needed help at Lib’s.
“I had an instructor at Southwest State who graduated from the Culinary Institute,” Joe recalls. “At the time it was very, very hard to get into, but he got me in. I would go to school during the week and go home on weekends.”
He graduated in 1979 after stops at top restaurants, including the famed Down Under and Casa Vecchia in Ft. Lauderdale, under restaurant pioneer Leonce Picot, who he calls his mentor. He then moved back to Elmira to cook at Lib’s full-time. In the meantime, Bob had left a good job as head of purchasing at the Elmira Correctional Facility in 1977 to run the business side of the restaurant. Their father died in 1981, but the brothers have remained, side-by-side since ’79, first as co-owners with their aunt and uncle and then, for the last twenty years or so, as sole proprietors.
“It’s like we are connected at the hips,” Joe laughs. “Even when we’re done working, I go sit on his porch and we watch the baseball game, or basketball, or football. You hear rumors about brothers fighting all over the place, and people say, ‘How do these brothers get along? They’re like gleep and gloop, they do everything together.’ A lot of people don’t have that.”
Maybe that’s what makes Lib’s, which has won numerous dining awards in New York’s Southern Tier, such a success.
Another thing, Joe says, is that early on the brothers changed the joint from more of an entertainment venue to just a restaurant.
“They did bands, a little bit of vaudeville, mostly entertainment,” Joe says. “But I told my father, that’s short-lived. These bands are expensive. You’re paying for them, and as your clientele gets older, they’re nursing their drinks, and everything you end up working so hard for all day long, you’re giving to the bands.” He told his father, “I’ll let my food do the talking.”
And so, it has. Joe says there is no real house specialty because he likes to cook everything. It’s basically Italian with influences of French and Chinese, and steaks and shrimp have become calling cards.
“Especially filet mignon, people just love that,” Joe says, ticking off a list of other top sellers: shrimp scampi, chicken parm, veal chops, New York strips, prime rib, and seafood.
Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, a native son of Elmira, has dined at Lib’s, as have sports celebrities, astronaut Eileen Collins, and Little Rascals producer Hal Roach. Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver proposed to his wife at Lib’s, and Joe remembers that friends and family of the late Ernie Davis, 1961 Heisman Trophy winner and also an Elmira Free Academy alum, gathered at Lib’s after his services.
Certainly because of its size, Lib’s can accommodate weddings, and does so, as well as banquets, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties, and showers. Lib’s smoothly handles them all.
When we spoke in May, the restaurant was doing only takeouts because of the coronavirus pandemic—and who knows where that stands as you read this now—but Joe says Lib’s is more than holding its own. Thanks to a loyal clientele, the business is still doing hundreds of dinners a night and even more on weekends. (You can call them at (607) 733-2752.)
“It’s better than I anticipated,” he remarks. “You don’t take in what you do on the in-house dining, but it’s enough to pay the bills, and so that’s what we’re doing. We’re maintaining until we’re ready to open again.”
His grandmother may not have known how to say that, but she could, and probably would, say: Chi mangia qui mangia bene. Whoever eats here, eats well.