Italian restaurateur serves up a delicious slice of American history
When Renzo Maietto opened his eponymous Ristorante in downtown Hendersonville four years ago, his mission was a passionate faithfulness to his culinary heritage. With his newest space, Renzo’s Speakeasy, the goal is still authenticity, but part of the flavor profile has changed.
Maietto is a native of Italy’s Verbania-Pallanza region, where a spread of the Swiss-Italian Alps and picturesque Lake Maggiore resembles the topography of mountainous Henderson County into nearby Lake Lure. Under Maietto’s favor, Hendersonville gained sister-city status, and he brought the taste of his homeland to his new hometown’s Main Street, opening for business next to the circa-1904 historic building he acquired last winter. Three years ago, the restaurateur told Bold Life that, for him, “cooking knowledge is like music … you have to be infused with it in childhood to have a basis for excellence with it in the future.”
He’s never thought much of Americanized versions of Italian food, preferring the simple but sophisticated recipes he learned from his grandmother, “Nonna Angelina,” during childhood summer vacations. But when Maietto decided to explore a disused top-floor room in his new building, he discovered a slice of American history too delicious to resist.
Vintage illegal-liquor bottles led him back to the Prohibition years, when the space was a hotbed of illegal shenanigans, proven by a period newspaper clipping that shows satisfied revenuers posing on Main Street, a handcuffed moonshiner in custody. The liquid treasure of mountain stills was served up in the building’s remote upper regions, and today, the narrow beadboard preserved on the ceiling and walls looks like lines of old writing paper waiting for a new story.
Always prowling after the next big thing, Maietto set about restoring the space to its former dark glory, this time as his own Speakeasy. On opening night in late June, one had to whisper a predetermined password — a popular slang term from the 1920s — in order to gain entrance via a formal doorman.
A trip up the steep interior stairs ended in a boxcar-like space that segued into a small dining room. Ornate chandeliers, a midnight palette with pops of Art Deco glitz, and a well-appointed bar stylishly accomplished the vibe of the time.
The spread of special small plates included avocado and smoked salmon on radicchio; pasta topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, and Besciamella (commonly known by its French name, Béchamel) sauce; squash risotto; and other delicacies. The full menu from the adjacent Ristorante was also available.
As usual, the food was exquisite. Maietto’s “Pasta Della Nonna,” with meatballs, herbs, and creamy cheeses in a gorgeously fresh tomato base, was so good it could make a hardened mobster (or moonshiner) cry. And the drink list was comprehensive and expertly curated, including classic Prohibition cocktails such as The Sidecar, a Gin Rickey, The Last Word, and many more. It’s hard to gush enough about the fantastic Mary Pickford, a deceptively simple mix of top-shelf white rum, grenadine, and pineapple juice created specifically for the 1920s film actress and producer on a trip to Cuba.
Maietto’s own star quality is plucked full cloth from Old Hollywood. In one of his signature tailored suits, kissing hands and sweeping about the room tending to guests, he evoked various famous figures spanning the ’20s through the ’40s. For him, dance icon Fred Astaire was always the epitome of the American dream — “that kind of ambition, that sophistication,” he explains. Citing his former stints as an actor and architect, Maietto reveals that “to [be of] that time period was always my inspiration, one of my biggest dreams — and I am living it today. A miracle.”
Live music is pretty essential to any flapper-era bar, and tribute group Nello Masci, a local Italian family band, played crowdpleasers from many decades. They “can embrace all ages, young and old,” points out Maietto. The act’s repertoire was stocked with Big Band standards, disco nuggets, soul classics, and ’80s pop tunes, and since the drinks here are served strong — as they should be in any Speakeasy — there wasn’t any danger of the dance floor emptying out.
Going forward, however, it would be nice to enjoy low-pitched smoky jazz some nights, the better to hear the spicy revelations of one’s dining companion. Because isn’t a mystery bar all about low-spoken secrets?
Renzo’s Speakeasy, 504 North Main St., Hendersonville. The bar is open Fridays and Saturdays with appetizers, small plates, and full-menu options, 7pm until late. For reservations or questions, call Renzo’s Ristorante at 828-551-7766 or see renzos.us.