At Ida’s restaurant, ‘It’s like dinner and a show’
Dressed in his suit and fresh from Saturday Mass at Mount St. Pete’s, attorney Frank Rapp makes his way to Ida’s Place at 1605 Fifth Ave. in Arnold.
Among the pizza joints, closed bars and a heating and air conditioning shop stands Ida’s, celebrating its 30-year anniversary and outliving many businesses that are now just shuttered storefronts.
The restaurant’s warm glow spills out onto the sidewalk with its spotless red-and-white checkered table clothes and soft hues from Tiffany-like lamps. There’s an antique oak buffet stacked with wine glasses awaiting customers.
Rapp looks at the specials handwritten on a white erase board including braciole, pizza pie and chicken Parmesan. Most of the entrees cost about $15.95.
Ida Peluso herself, a 66-year-old, raven-haired Italian woman dressed in men’s khaki shorts and checkered shirt comes out of the kitchen to greet Rapp.
“What da hell do you want?” she snaps.
“Aaaah, mmmm, the chicken Parmesan,” Rapp says.
“Not the chicken,” she sighs. “Now I gotta cooka da chicken,” she says revealing her thick Italian accent.
Rapp almost retreats — to the spinach and cheese lasagna. But, no. He wants the chicken.
Ida walks away in a huff and within two minutes his salad with homemade Italian dressing and fresh dinner roll arrives.
Rapp has been coming here for almost a decade, showing up with other Pittsburgh attorneys, judges, even a Pittsburgh Penguin hockey player. They always ask, “Where’s Arnold?”
The Italian restaurant has survived because its customers come from far and wide, and are loyal. Monsignors, priests and mill workers have shared tables next to professional athletes, judges, businessmen, convicts and those who have not been in the slammer.
“The food is great,” Rapp says. “You can’t possibly eat it all,” he says of Ida’s legendary portions that require the waitresses to label numerous to-go boxes.
“Plus, if you’re not an a******, you become a part of the family.”
And what a family it is.
The walls are lined with framed photos much like someone’s home. A senior class picture sits next to a candid shot of many faces that Ida effortlessly names.
“He’s dead and, he’s dead. Oh, the guy next to him, he was here last week,” she says.
Among the photos of clergy and judges is a picture of teenage girl. Ida pauses. Her eyes fill with tears. “She was killed in a car accident. Such a beautiful girl,” she says.
As easily as Ida bares her soul for the lovely and tragic things in life, she takes no guff from anyone and has the language skills to prove it. Aside from her heaping helpings of lasagna and tomato sauce made fresh daily, Peluso is famous for her profanity.
“I swear a lot,” she admits. “I never did swear in front of my mother because she would kill me. The priest says ‘Ida, wash your mouth.'”
One of her customers, Jimmy Carr of Harrison, described the restaurateur this way: “She cooks like Julia Child, but swears like Tony Soprano.”
What might seem to some like an adventure in dining is just an extension of Peluso’s personality: fierce, honest and Italian.
A native of Calabria, the southern region in Italy’s toe, Peluso cried when she arrived in Brooklyn, New York, more than three decades ago.
She cried again when the family settled in Arnold. “I had lived next to the Mediterranean and it was beautiful,” she explains.
Peluso established her restaurant with one table and slowly built it up as a way to become financially independent.
Working 17-hour days, she has put two daughters through private school and Duquesne University. Peluso comes home to her house in East Deer to wash the napkins, take a shower and go to bed. On her one day off, she goes to church and cleans the floors in her home — on her hands and knees.
Considering the hectic pace she keeps, Peluso views her salty language as a minor infraction.
She never takes uses the Lord’s name in vain, and of her vocabulary, she says, “Words don’t kill people.”
But they sure can scare them off.
There was one unfortunate customer who refused to stop griping about not getting any lemon meringue pie. Ida prepares homemade biscotti, not a full dessert menu.
Rapp was there. “The guy wouldn’t shut up,” he remembered. “And she made some hand gestures and said, ‘Yeah, well, you come over here to get it.'”
She embarrassed him out of the restaurant, as she has famously done to others.
Rapp says, “When you come here, it’s like dinner and a show.”
And patrons come back for more.
One of her loyal customers, retired Pittsburgh Penguin Dennis Owchar, makes it a point to stop at Ida’s when he’s in town.
“Dinner at Ida’s is a little like being fed lasagna in the locker room,” he says. “You have all the camaraderie and excellent food to top it off.” He added, “Letterman should definitely do a remote from her location.”
And it’s a legion of people like Rapp and Owchar who have keep the restaurant ticking.
“I was very lucky that people liked me and supported me,” Peluso says.
“They have been good people no matter what walk of life,” she says. “They respect me and take care of me and I do the same for them.”