Nicola Paone, who died Christmas day at age 88, had a career as the sauciest of Italian singers before settling down to run one of the top Italian restaurants in the city for 40 years. To Italian immigrants of the 1940s and 1950s, Paone was the troubadour responsible for sentimental folk songs like “Uei Paesano” (“My Countrymen”). For Americans of all ethnicities, he was the charming Italian novelty singer of “The Telephone No Ring” and “The Big Professor”.
He sold millions of records in America and abroad, especially in Argentina, where he also made a film version of “Uei Paesano.” His self-named restaurant was long listed among the handful of top-flight Italian eateries in Manhattan. It became a favorite of the staff of National Review, which had offices nearby.
Paone was born in 1915 to Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania’s coal belt, where his father worked the mines for 20 years. His mother recognized his vocal talents early on, and encouraged him to sing traditional Italian folk
tunes that would serve as his musical inspiration. The family returned to Sicily in 1923, where he imbibed local folk culture. Paone said it was at this time that he began to compose little melodies to distract himself from his troubles. In 1931, he moved back to America and settled in the Bronx with a sister. There, he worked as a shoe-shine boy, a hat blocker,and a busboy at an Italian restaurant.
Dreaming of becoming an opera singer, Paone won amateur contests at local theaters and radio stations, and sang in commercials. Lacking the money for formal training, he learned the jeweler’s trade. He opened a jewelry store in 1942 while he was nurturing a part-time singing career for Italian American audiences on the side. At one point, he bought a 10-minute radio advertisement for his jewelry store in which he sang as “Il Cantante Misterioso” (“The Mysterious Singer”).
His compositions – eventually there would be more than 150 of them – concerned the lives of immigrants in the new world struggling to get ahead and send money home to the old country. Titles included “Tony the Iceman,” “The Subway Song,” and “Yakity Yak Blah Blah Blah,” about a nagging wife.
By the mid-1940s, Paone had begun his own record label, Etna, and was scoring hits, including the several-million-selling “The Telephone No Ring,” which Professor Victor Greene, in “A Passion for Polka.” described as “the story of a frustrated foreigner who is trying unsuccessfully to cope with an officious telephone operator and the complexities of modern communications technology.”
Paone became impresario of his own vaudeville troop. Hiring out the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the later 1940s, his act included comics, midgets, and a bear act.
His success spread back to Italy, as well as into Italian communities as farflung as Israel and Argentina. In Buenos Aires, he once sang to a crowd estimated at three-quarters of a million. When the boisterous throngs threatened to riot, he was credited with calming them by singing “Uei Paesano.”
In the 1950s, Paone became involved in a legal wrangle with Louis Prima, originally a jazz musician who had turned to Italian dialect novelty tunes like “Please No Squeeza da Banana.” Prima’s recording of “The Little Donkey” – a minor 1940s hit for Paone in Italian as “U’ Sciccardeu” – seemed to Paone a direct copyright violation. The two reached a negotiated settlement, but Paone became convinced Prima was cheating on the agreement. The affair seemed to dampen his interest in show business.
Although he was still charting singles by the late 1950s – “Blah, Blah, Blah” hit no. 1 in the Cash Box magazine song charts of 1959 – he determined to quit to spend more time with his wife and young son, whom he said he hardly recognized after years of touring.
In 1958, he opened his eponymous restaurant on East 34th Street, and it soon grew into a bastion of classical Italian cookery, with the owner manning the stove at times and contributing favorite recipes with names like “Veal Boom-Boom” and “Pasta Serenata.” While he rarely performed – making exceptions for brief tours of Argentina in the late 1960s and some charity gigs in the late 1980s – he could be found in the restaurant at the start of each day plucking his guitar and singing softly. Some mornings, he would sing his changing menu in radio ads on WQXR. He celebrated the restaurant’s Caesar salad with a cute ditty.
In a 1978 review of the restaurant, William F. Buckley, the National Review’s editor,opined,”I can name my favorite restaurant as glibly as I can name my favorite wife, country, religion, and journal of opinion.” Buckley found Paone’s zucchini particularly piquant. So enamored was Buckley of Paone that he named a character for him in his novel “Spy Time: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton.”
Paone retired from the restaurant in 1998 and recently moved to New Mexico to live near his son Joseph. Sadly, Joseph died suddenly in August, and Paone’s last days were in some ways more melancholy than any of his laments of an immigrant for his mother back in the old country.