The Baratta’s commercials of the late 1990s were clever, homey vignettes of something that used to happen in the “olden” days. The scene opens with “us,” the ad viewers, looking toward someone leaning in, perhaps into a car window. And we learn that we’re lost on some side street of the south side of Des Moines, trying desperately to find 2320 S. Union Street.
The next bit went just like it usually did when someone stopped a random stranger to ask for directions. We’re given a series of instructions: “turn this way and take that road, and then go to this four-way stop…”
You know—the kind of details that leave the clueless even more so.
Today GPS has made that scenario a thing of the past, but the deal with Baratta’s was that the search actually made finding the restaurant that much more rewarding once you dined there. And I, with my family and like so many locals, have managed to find the way back many times over the years to this favorite eatery with a rich history.
You’ll have the chance to “fly by the seat of your pants” as Lisa relays the charming details of how she and co-owner Joe Gatto came to own the restaurant in 1993, and the anecdotes of launching in those first days when they were 25 years old with nothing but chutzpah and experience as their guide.
With the bones of restaurant toil as their guide, good luck and good calls have paid off for this team and, as of May 1, 2019, Lisa and Joe celebrated 26 years as owners of Baratta’s. Their longevity is a testament to hard work, skill, talent and a remarkable set of circumstances that helped them take a local neighborhood hidden gem and transform it into a destination place to dine.
BARATTA’S INTERESTING PAST
A bit of research turned up another interesting story I’ll relate here, which Lisa and I didn’t discuss in the interview. There was this other chapter of involving the original owner Charles Baratta which highlights an immigrant story, and the tenacity of a family to persevere under challenging circumstances.
Baratta’s Restaurant was first a private home and the prior occupants were named Berard. I could not readily find when the house changed ownership, but the Baratta Place Grocery was the first business documented in operation at the property in the early 1950s. The first year of operation may have been earlier because Anthony Baratta and his young family had already immigrated from Scala Coeli, Italy in 1926.
As with other immigrants, the Barattas were fleeing bad times to start afresh for opportunities in the United States. After WWI, Italy endured a deep and long-lasting depression fueled by the rise of fascism, and those issues would continue to bring us Italian immigrants well into the 1960s.
Anthony Baratta’s family comprised of one daughter and three sons, arrived in Des Moines and established themselves on the south side of the city where there was a strong Italian-American community. Charles was one of those children, born in Italy and age 6 when they immigrated.
In 1950, Charles Baratta was a 29-year-old man known by the nickname “Cat,” which he acquired in school. As an adult, Charles engaged in competitive fighting, which probably suited his work as the operator of The Last Chance Tavern at 400 Third Street owned by his sister Frances Madonia.
On a June evening that year, one Wilbur Sandine was unruly in the bar and threatened Baratta, who threw a punch in self-defense. Sandine went to the hospital and a couple of days later he died. Charles was charged, tried and convicted for second-degree murder, but petitioned for a re-trial and in 1952 he was acquitted.
In the interim from the first conviction, Charles’ sister Frances had to close the bar as the bar’s liquor license was revoked due to her affiliation to her brother. After the acquittal in 1952, Charles filed for bankruptcy under the burden of legal expenses, primarily involving a $30,000 judgment made against him in the wrongful death of Sandine. Years after the acquittal in 1958, Charles’ father Anthony was unable to obtain a beer license for the grocery because Charles operated the store.
Remarkably, Charles eventually opened Baratta’s Restaurant in the same building as the grocery, and it thrived during his ownership. By his death in 1988, Charles was a widower with no children, but beloved in the community. He adopted a myriad of children as grandchildren and was known for throwing a lavish Christmas party that swelled to 300 attendees annually.
BARATTA’S IS GOOD FOOD AND COMMITMENT
Charles brother Mike and sister-in-law Marge owned and continued to operate Baratta’s until the perfect new owners could be found. In an unusual twist, it turned out to be young entrepreneurs with only the equity of experience to their name. They blog their story with some photos here.
The building has been updated several times since then and the menu reflects the innovations of current culinary trends and talents, but the spirit of this neighborhood restaurant remains intact. It is the quality customer service that drives customer loyalty as well as the commitment that Lisa and Joe maintain, along with a great staff which help Baratta’s thrive today.
ABOUT STORIED GIFTS
Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
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