Yano Caniglia was the mister in Mr. C's Steakhouse - Omaha.com
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In a 2000 photo, Sebastiano “Yano” Caniglia, a member of one of Omaha’s largest restaurant families, stands outside his Mister C’s Steakhouse, which operated from 1953 until 2007.(KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Mister C, Yano Caniglia, smiles as he listens to people tell stories about experiences at his steakhouse during a club meeting on Sept. 18, 2007. The restaurant closed that month.(JEFF BUNDY / THE WORLD-HERALD)

Yano Caniglia was the mister in Mr. C's Steakhouse
By Sue Story Truax / World-Herald staff writer

Sebastiano “Yano” R. Caniglia was the mister of Mister C’s Steakhouse.

Starting in 1953, he and his late wife, Mary, turned Caniglia’s Royal Boy drive-in, which featured carhops, into a sit-down steakhouse that at its peak could seat 1,400 between indoor and outside spaces.

Mister C’s Steakhouse served its last meals at the restaurant, 5319 N. 30th St., on Sept. 30, 2007.

Caniglia died Wednesday at Hospice House-The Josie Harper Residence. He was 89 and had congestive heart failure, said his son David Caniglia of Omaha.

“He was only at Hospice House for a few hours,” said his son. “He was singing to the nurses, telling them stories and ­having a wonderful day when he dropped.”

Brothers Yano, Ross, Lou, Al and Eli Caniglia grew up in the family that introduced pizza to Omaha in 1946. The brothers each became restaurateurs, securing the Caniglias as one of Omaha’s largest restaurant families. Among the other Canigila restaurants: Venice Inn (still open), Caniglia’s Pizzeria, Drawing Room and Top of the World. Their sister, Grace, married into the family that still operates Piccolo Pete’s. Only Al is still alive.

David Caniglia said his father had a simple business model that included “good, old-fashioned hard work.”

“He was sincere when people came into the restaurant. They were more than just customers, they were coming into his home,” he said.

On the last day for Mister C’s, Yano Caniglia told The World-Herald: “I couldn’t wait to get to work every day. I never wanted it to end.”

A reporter in 1983 described Mr. C in his restaurant:

“If it was your first visit, you probably were still recovering from the dazzle of thousands of Christmas lights that festoon the place when he bustled up to your table, welcomed you in his booming voice and, if there were kids in your party, deftly twisted balloon animals for them.”

Yano Caniglia, who served in the Navy during World War II, was inducted last month into the Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality Hall of Fame.

He grew up in Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood, as did Mary Marino, who became his wife. They had been married for 67 years when she died Nov. 14, 2011.

Besides his son David, survivors include sons Larry, of Florida, and Tom, of Aiken, S.C.; six grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

No services are planned, said David Caniglia.

Caniglia's Introduced Omaha to Pizza

The following is a story by former staff writer Kenneth Freed that appeared in the Oct. 28, 1996, edition of The World-Herald.

It was on Saturday, Aug. 3, 1946, that life began for many Omahans.

On that day, in a little bakery on the east side of Seventh Street between Pacific and Pierce Streets, a thin piece of dough covered with cheese and tomato sauce was sold for the first time in the city.

It was the birth of pizza.

To those for whom the slogan "pizza and beer are not just for breakfast" has become a watchword, it may be hard to imagine the culinary world of Omaha before Cirino and Giovanna Caniglia transformed their bakery into a pizzeria.

To be sure, pizza existed before that hot and humid August day. But in Omaha, where the Italian world was dominated by Sicilian and Calabresi immigrants, it looked, tasted and was called something different from the Naples specialty that was already widely available in Italian enclaves in Eastern cities.

According to Caniglia family legend, Giovanna Caniglia would bake something for her five children called cucurene, a thin, usually double - crusted pastry containing cheese and whatever meats and vegetables were lying around.

It was nothing exceptional, just another wonderfully casual creation like the spaghetti or tripe or sausages that every Italian mother made for her family in that part of Omaha called, by those Italian and not, Little Italy.

As it would turn out, what transformed cucurene from a homemade snack into the staple of on - the - run eating would also be the agent that changed one of Omaha's most self - contained ethnic neighborhoods into just another fond memory of a dissolved time.

"It was World War II, " said Lucille Gibilisco, who grew up in Little Italy and now lives with her husband, Fred, near Elmwood Park. "The men came back. They were educated and had saved some money. They wanted larger homes and yards, just like everyone else. We all started moving west."

How did the war inspire pizza in Omaha? The Caniglias sent their four sons to fight in the war. One of them, Eli, happened to be in Baltimore in 1945 and was looking for something to eat in the city's large Italian North End.

What he found was very much like cucurene. One thing led to another, and on that Saturday in August in Omaha in Little Italy, Yano Caniglia, another of the four sons, baked the city's first commercial pizza.

"I burned it, " he later told The World - Herald.

If that first one was ruined, what followed surely caught on. From the year of creation into the 1960s, Caniglia's was almost a shrine for a ballooning population of aficionados of pizza, as well as the steaks and the other Italian items that were quickly added to the menu.

The popularity brought competition, notably at first from La Casa, which was probably Omaha's first restaurant devoted to pizza, particularly the thincrust, open - faced style of Naples.

Not only did the success of Caniglia's spawn competitors and imitators, it led to a family industry of restaurants. At one time, the children of Cirino and Giovanna Caniglia owned or were involved in at least eight area eateries.

Those children are still in the business today. Ross, the oldest of the children at 81, is recuperating from a fall, but he plans to return to work at the Seventh Street location.

Yano Caniglia owns Mister C's on North 30th Street, Eli's children have the Venice Inn at 69th and Pacific Streets, Al Caniglia runs a club in Shenandoah, Iowa, and sister Grace is married to Tony Piccolo, owner of Piccolo Pete's on South 20th Street.

The source, the original bakery, is gone now and so is the home the Caniglia family shared with the wood - burning bread oven. But the restaurant at 1114 S. Seventh St. remains, as do the assortment of singleand double - crust pizzas, the dry - aged steaks and the family atmosphere.

"We're still here, " Ross Caniglia's son Robert said of the restaurant now called "the Original Caniglia's Pizzeria and Steakhouse."

"The kitchen is now where the bakery was, " said Caniglia, who, with his brothers Ronald and Charles, is the third generation of the family to run the restaurant. "And the banquet room is where the house was. But Little Italy is largely gone."

It is, indeed. Nancy D'Agosta Calinger, who grew up on South 10th Street and still lives in the D'Agosta family home, says that only about 10 percent of the people who live in the area bounded by the Missouri River, 24th Street, Poppleton Avenue and Leavenworth Street are Italian. That estimate is shared by the American Italian Heritage Society.

But from the late 19th century, when a wave of Italian immigrants, mostly from the Sicilian towns of Lentini and Carlentini and the province of Calabria, first settled in what originally was called Grandview Township, until the exodus of half a century later, Little Italy was an idealized blend of the supposed riches of the New World and the nostalgic values of the Old.

To the 12,000 or so Italians who lived in Little Italy when it was mostly Italian, or to the outsiders ("Americans" to the residents) who walked its streets in search of a Mediterranean world of aroma, tastes and sounds, the little neighborhood was an immersion into intense culinary sensuality.

The following passage is found in "The Italian American Experience, " a book published in 1941 by the federal government's Work Projects Administration about Omaha's Italian life.

"The streets of Little Italy resound with the noise and laughter of many children. The stores display foods found dear to the heart of the people - salamis, cheeses, olive oil, macaroni, spaghetti, braided lengths of garlic and strings of gleaming red peppers drying in the sun. In season, the Italians make pasta pomodoro, a highly seasoned tomato sauce, and the appetite - teasing odor of it pervades the entire neighborhood."

Hearing that, Mrs. Gibilisco smiled. "Yes, that's the way it was, " she said. "What else I remember was how everyone was friendly.

"People would gather in the evenings. We had a screened porch and Mother would make lemonade. Neighbors would come over, uncles and aunts. Someone would bring biscotti.

"There would be a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin. Someone had an accordion."

"Ah, yes, there was always an accordion, " Mrs. Calinger said. "There was singing. My mother always sang. People would come in our place (the Pearl Harbor restaurant on 10th Street) and say, 'I heard your mother singing last night. She has a beautiful voice."'

If there was music there would be dancing and drinking, usually the fruity red wine made in Little Italy before, during and after Prohibition.

Again, from "The Italian American Experience":

"The women begin to clap their hands in time to the music. Someone suggests that Compari Puddo (an affectionate nickname) should bring his fischietto, the homemade flute.... The neighbors are already dancing."

Little Italy was more than just a place to live. For many of the residents, it was where they worked and opened the stores and shops that would make the Omaha Italians one of the most economically successful of immigrant groups.

There is an argument over who was the first permanent Italian settler in Omaha. Some accounts name John Godola, a shoemaker from Genoa who arrived in 1857 and opened a shoe repair shop in Grandview Township. His son Luigi was Omaha's first Italian policeman.

The other contender was George Giacomini, who opened the first of nearly countless numbers of Italian restaurants and taverns when he started the Nebraska Bar and Restaurant near 13th and Douglas Streets in 1863.

By 1940, there were 14 Italian specialty restaurants or steakhouses, 100 bars and taverns and 200 Italian bartenders. There were 40 Italian chefs, including those at the Fontenelle Hotel's several restaurants.

The fruit and vegetable trade was dominated by Italians from the time Antonio Rizzo opened a produce stand in 1873. By 1940, nearly half of the fruit and vegetable operations in the city were owned by Italians.

In 1948, at least 76 of Omaha's 94 shoe repair stores were owned by Italians, a reflection of both the trade the immigrants brought from Italy and the post war shortage of new leather goods.

Then there were bakeries. In 1940, the Rotella family turned out bread and rolls from its building at 2117 Pierce St., while Cirino Caniglia had been baking on Seventh Street since at least 1920.

Across the street from Caniglia's was the Orsi bakery. It's still there, its yeasty and toasty aroma filling the air of dawn just as it did for a little boy in the 1940s taken by his father on a Sunday morning to buy rolls and unsliced bread warmer than his mittens.

Orsi's and Caniglia's. There isn't much else of Little Italy.

There is A. Marino's grocery on 13th Street where you can still buy loose orzo by the bag and freshly ground sausage.

Piccolo Pete's still serves up enormous portions of steak, pasta and red wine at fair prices, just as it did when Giuseppe Piccolo opened more than half a century ago.

There are a few buildings left, some now bearing unfamiliar names, others with familiar names but new owners. A handful of older American Italians lives in the neighborhood, along with a few younger descendants such as Mrs. Calinger, who has invested in the area.

The annual parade and festival honoring Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Carlentini, is now largely a commercial venture held at Rosenblatt Stadium, driven from Little Italy by complaints about the traffic and congestion, Robert Caniglia said.

Gone is Sam Nisi's Spare Time Cafe, where doctors paid more than working people and the customer picked out his own cut of meat from the glass - fronted meat locker just inside the entry.

Gone, too, are Little Frank's, a restaurant that adjoined Caniglia's, the European Cafe, the Italian Gardens with its unusual Tuscan dishes, Cesar's Country Club, the Round Table, Cantoni's Grill and dozens of shops, stores and businesses.

Also gone are the little cafes that dotted 10th and 13th Streets, places where simple home - cooked items and fair prices created something akin to a community center.

One such place was the Pearl Harbor Cafe, a tiny eatery at 1207 S. 10th St., run by Salvatore and Maria D'Agosta, the parents of Mrs. Calinger and her brother, Nino, now the owner of a west Omaha tavern.

Before the place burned down in 1961, the Pearl Harbor epitomized the struggle and joy of Italian immigrant life in Omaha. When he wasn't at the cafe, Salvatore worked at Union Pacific and Maria ran the restaurant, watched the children and helped others who had trouble with English translate letters and documents.

Nino and Nancy sorted bottles, cleaned up and made deliveries. Maria's mother, who came to Omaha in 1947 at age 70, prepared thick soups.

When they opened the place in 1947, the D'Agostas charged 25 cents for a hamburger, 30 cents for a footlong, a quarter for a malt or milkshake and 15 or 25 cents for an ice cream sundae, depending on the number of scoops.

When fire closed the Pearl Harbor 14 years later, the prices were 25 cents for a hamburger, 30 cents for a footlong....

The place has an easygoing, friendly feel and attracts people of all sorts, but "mostly families, " said Robert Caniglia. One recent Saturday night, the crowd at 7:30 was made up of several families, including some parties of six and more.

There were no mandolins, and Compari Puddo wasn't there to play his fischietto, nor was the voice of Maria D'Agosta heard outside the Pearl Harbor singing "Santa Lucia."

But walking in the dusk to the spot where pizza was born in Omaha, the sense of Little Italy was there in the aroma of pasta pomodoro drifting from the restaurant's kitchen where once stood yesterday's bakery.

Contact the writer: Sue Story Truax

sue.truax@owh.com    |   402-444-1165

Sue writes obituaries and covers community news and schools for Omaha.com's Living section, primarily Community Connection.

Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom

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