One of my duties as Curator for Italian American History is to assist researchers with inquiries into Italian American history, be it for genealogy, school projects, articles, books, or general interest. I often direct researchers to the resources contained in the WRHS Italian American Collection. It contains a lot of good, primary documents and photographs that help people find what they need.
Recently, I assisted Elaine Cicora with her research on Chef Boyardee for an article she is writing for an upcoming issue of Edible Cleveland. In this case, I was not able to rely on the WRHS Italian American Collection for the needed resources as it, currently, does not contain anything on Chef Boyardee. Even in the general WRHS collections, we could find very little. The Cleveland City Directories contain a couple of listing of his restaurants, but otherwise nothing directly about him.
So, where’s the Chef? To not have the great Chef Boyardee documented in the WRHS Italian American Collection, the only singular collection of materials documenting the history of Italians in Northeast Ohio, is something that needs to be corrected. He had a major influence on the food and restaurant industry locally, nationally and internationally. Chef Boyardee helped Italian food become an American dinner staple.
Everyone is familiar with Chef Boyardee, but here is the quick story. His real name is Ettore Boiardi. He started cooking with his father, Giuseppe, in 1907 at age 10. Boiardi emigrated from Piacenza, Italy, in 1914 and eventually found work in the kitchen of the Ritz Carlton in NYC. In 1917, he came to Cleveland where he worked at the Hotel Winton and was quickly recognized by patrons for his culinary skills. A year after marrying Helen Wrobelewski in 1923, he opened his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, at E. 9th St. and Woodland Ave.
On the second floor of the restaurant, the Chef and his wife made prepackaged dinners of spaghetti, sauce and cheese for people to take home. It was inexpensive, delicious and easy to prepare, so it quickly became a hit. Boiardi opened other restaurants in Cleveland, but moved his production plant to Milton, PA. The plant made food for soldiers during WWII. Boiardi sold his business to American Home Foods but remained a consultant until 1978 and was featured in TV and print ads. He maintained his home in Shaker Heights, OH, until his death in 1987. He is buried in All Souls Cemetery in Chardon, OH.