LAWRENCE — After nearly 60 years of serving just two Sicilian delicacies, the Italian Kitchen had a long line spilling out the door, and a wait even longer. But patrons in the queue winding down Common Street didn’t mind standing for hours. The experience reminded them of childhood.
Inside the tiny storefront, the crowd cheered when a customer’s number was called to pick up an order.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” said Mary Ellen Gioia, laughing. The 51-year-old Lawrence native had waited two and a half hours for her order on Friday — and it was worth it, she said. She was back again on Sunday.
The air was full of anticipation and nostalgia. The restaurant’s closing was not a surprise — the husband-and-wife team who operated it were getting on in years — but that didn’t make losing the Italian Kitchen any easier.
“You’re talking about three or four generations of family members that have been coming here,” said Christine Conte, 53, of Haverhill. “That’s what makes it so sad to see it go.”
The two-item menu has only rice balls (known as arancini) packed with chicken and peas; and crispelli, an Italian fried dough so hard to find in the United States that the Italian Kitchen’s owners and customers speculate that no one else in the country serves it. Customers order the crispellis stuffed with salty anchovies or creamy ricotta, or coated in cinnamon sugar.
Standing in line outside, customers discussed a rumor that the owners had sold their crispelli recipe for $85,000.
Dismissing the notion that anyone else could make them as well, the customers listening agreed that an $85,000 price tag for the recipe was plausible.
“I’d buy it if I had the money,” said 17-year-old Kelsey Paris of Haverhill.
Inside the kitchen, owner Peter Messina smiled at a mention of the rumor — “a lot of bull,” he said, as he deftly moved rice balls in and out of a giant vat of oil.
It’s not just the ingredients, he said, but the chef’s experience.
“We mix it by hand so we know the feel of it,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s a big secret, but it isn’t.”
His father started the Italian Kitchen “for cigarette money” in 1958, a few years after the family came to the area from Sicily, Messina said. He and his wife, Ruth Messina, have run the restaurant on their own for decades. They also offered catering, which expanded beyond the two-item menu.
But on the Italian Kitchen’s final day on Sunday, the couple was assisted by a large team of relatives and a few close friends. The kitchen was organized chaos, cranking out hundreds and hundreds of each item, piling crispellis in laundry baskets.
The restaurant had opened at 11 a.m. — an hour earlier than usual for Sundays — but customers had been waiting outside since 8:30 a.m., each ordering boxes of the softball-sized rice balls and white bags filled with a dozen crispellis each. Though orders for the final day were capped at a dozen crispellis per flavor and 10 rice balls, some customers waited more than two hours — happily.
“People want to have their last of them because they’ll never have them again,” said Dave Gioia, 56, the husband of Mary Ellen Gioia and also a Lawrence native. He and his wife said they saw a woman buy 87 ricotta crispellis and two dozen anchovy ones the week earlier.
“One bite and you’re mesmerized,” said Kylie McComiskey, who drove from Manchester, N.H., with her boyfriend, Michael Byrne, and his two young children.
“She told me that we had to get here today or we’d break up,” said Byrne. “That’s what she told me! It was not a joke.”
Reminiscing as they waited, many customers recalled Lawrence’s annual Feast of the Three Saints. The popular Italian festival was the time of year when the small restaurant would see a crowd like this, said Messina and the customers.
Otherwise, throughout the year, it was mostly quiet — an atmosphere that ensured the Messinas knew their customers well, and vice versa. Indeed, many of the customers in line treated the restaurant’s final hurrah as a community reunion: swapping stories, snapping photos, and marking the end of an era.
The customers will miss the Italian Kitchen, but they understand. Peter is 73. Ruth is 69. It’s time.
“We don’t want to drop in here,” said Messina. “I’m surprised we don’t need oxygen every time we start.”
He and his wife plan to fill their retirement with family time and regular trips to Sicily. They’ll keep busy.
“I make wine, I have a garden, I paint,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you I’ve got a stove because you’ll write it down.”
Nicole Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.