Caruso's Aging Well

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Eight gallons of Caruso's signature red sauce simmers in a big copper pot visible from the dining room.

The pot is seasoned with nearly 70 years of use by three generations of the Zagona family. They have owned and operated Caruso's Italian restaurant at 434 N. Fourth Ave. since 1941.

It is the oldest restaurant on North Fourth Avenue, anchoring an eclectic mix of mostly locally owned eateries burger and sandwich shops, coffee shops, Mexican restaurants and the lone national chain affiliate, Dairy Queen, which has been on the avenue for 55 years and is the city's first Dairy Queen.

"They've all kind of evolved," said John Sedwick, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association. "Lindy (Reilly) was a doorman at a bar and he decided the late-night crowd needed a burger place, so he opened (Lindy's on 4th). Delectables was a sandwich shop that was here many, many years ago, and Donna (Difiore) was one of the clerks there and ended up buying it and opening it up in the Harley store." Nestled amid clothing stores, gift and crafts shops, bars and smoke shops, the restaurants draw in tourists, longtime residents and college students.

Caruso's has long been the pillar of them all. Nicasio "Caruso" Zagona opened the restaurant in 1937 a block away from its North Fourth Avenue location. A raging summer flood drove Zagona to a multifamily house on higher ground, where neighborhood shops dotted a mostly residential neighborhood.

Caruso's has survived the avenue's transformation from neighborhood shopping district in the 1950s and '60s to the campgrounds for the homeless in the 1970s. It weathered severe economic downturns in the 1970s and early '80s, holding tight as the avenue rebounded in the mid- to late '80s.

"Between then and now, it's improved a lot," said Salvatore Zagona Jr., the grandson of Nicasio Zagona. "Occupancy of the buildings has gone up, there are a lot fewer transient people hanging around on the street. The Fourth Avenue Merchants Association has gone a long way to make the street look nice and be a welcoming place." Salvatore Jr., who started working at the restaurant while he was still in high school, is the third Zagona to run the Italian restaurant, which has a loyal following for its sprawling patio that faces North Fourth and for its pastas and house-made sauces, all of which have strayed very little from Nicasio's original recipes.

Zagona's 89-year-old father, Salvatore Zagona, started working at Caruso's in 1946, dividing his time between full-time studies at the University of Arizona, where he earned bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees.

The elder Zagona, a father of six, took over Caruso's from his father while he was still in school and continued running the restaurant full time, even after he got a professorship in the UA psychology department. Throughout a 30-year teaching career, he continued running the restaurant.

"It was a matter of keeping the restaurant alive," he said. "It was important to me. It was part of the family. My children, some of them were born on the premises and they are now in their late 50s and 60s. It's a long story, but it's been an interesting double life."

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Caruso's Franchising Corp
202 W. Ironwood Dr.
Coeur d'Alene, ID

Phone: (208) 659-5039
Fax: (208) 765-1085

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