Aficionadough: Jimmy Corrova, R.I.P. (Restaurateur, Italian, Poor Boy) and the End of the Old School
Jimmy Corrova passed away in his home surrounded by his family and in peace this past July. When you have to go, that is the preferred way for most of us. However, I think if he could have called all of the shots and it was not year two of a global pandemic, he would have opted to do so at his real home, TAT Ristorante.
The restaurant was the epicenter of his heart and soul for his whole life. Many of you have never heard of Jimmy. Most of you never had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. That is a shame. In a few trips to TAT, Jimmy would know your name and you would know that he was truly glad you came. When was the last time you left a business feeling that way?
Jimmy was born September 19, 1934 to Pete and Philomena near what is called the Short North today – back then, it was often referred to as Flytown. He was a first generation American living in a “mixed” household, one parent Sicilian and one Italian. The business survived the Great Depression, discrimination, shortages during World War II and urban development. He weathered all of that with his family. His restaurant career began standing on a crate so customers could see him when it was time to cash out for the evening. He graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in 1953, married his wife Delores, and the two opened their first TAT in 1955. He lived his life with a focus on three things: family, faith and food. He excelled in all three.
Let’s start with the R part of R.I.P., Restaurateur. Jimmy grew TAT in several directions. His parents continued with a full-service location and he expanded in that format and a location devoted to pizza take out and delivery on the west side. Along the way, he avoided what I call the Columbus Curse, which often plagues our restaurant industry. The curse is the pursuit of growth and profit at the expense of the soul of the business. Classic examples of this pox are: Damon’s, Max & Erma’s, G.D. Ritzy’s, The Cooker, Sister’s Chicken and Biscuits, Rax, and so many more.
In 1980, he faced heart disease and some hard decisions, and after a family meeting decided to consolidate operations to one location on the east side. While this site is “newer,” walking through the door, visitors are transported back to the 1950s. He also took a very bold step for the time and for the industry by closing the restaurant for a week every July so that every employee could have a break and family – who largely lived at the restaurant – could have a respite. TAT may not be a household name today, but it has a legion of loyal customers earned from almost one hundred years of customer services and a focus on family recipes.
Next, let’s progress to Italian. In Jimmy’s case, his Italian / Sicilian heritage was intertwined with his faith. The restaurant walls are lined with highlights of this important aspect of his character. He was a member of countless Italian clubs and organizations, he was a fourth-degree member of the Knights of Columbus, 2000 Catholic Man of the Year, Aqudas Achim Brotherhood Man of the Year in 2002, a member of The Guild Athletic Club, and because he was an equal opportunity supporter, he was an lifetime honorary member of the Columbus Shamrock Club. When the community needed him, he showed up and helped any way he could. He was especially focused on supporting Bishop Hartley High School. His connection to his community was real and persistent, not for photo-ops or an occasional social media post, but because giving back was important to him.
When his passing was noted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, within a few days there were 200 plus comments and over 300 shares. The most common word among the comments was generosity. One comment read in part: “After Dad passed, Jimmy drove to St. Joseph Church in Sugar Grove, OH, with a station wagon loaded with delicious food for the gathering after the funeral.” The first responders at Fire Station 21 turned to Jimmy for help: “TAT ALWAYS RESCUED US. Jimmy would show up with enough delicious food to feed all three shifts. He would never give us a price so we always sent him back with “Tips for the help.””
To wrap up with the P the R.I.P, let’s talk about a Poor Boy. Jimmy did grow up relatively poor. Italian immigrants in Columbus had to work as hard as any immigrant today to be accepted and establish a life for themselves. However, in this case, we are talking about a sandwich he created for his restaurant, the Poor Boy. It was inspired by his early high school experiences with other Italian immigrant kids and some of their south side friends pooling their meager resources to make simple sandwiches for their lunches. They would gather bread, meats, cheese and anything else they could source from their homes, family businesses and gardens to create sandwiches for these poor boys of the south side. This became a signature item at his TAT.
When an out of town company started selling frozen sandwiches called Poor Boys at Columbus-area grocery stores in the mid 1950s, Jimmy decided he needed to take action. Against the advice of local businessmen, government officials, and perhaps the mafia, he decided to sue these companies. In a classic David vs. Goliath story, Jimmy persevered in the end and still has the trademark on the use of Poor Boy Sandwich in Ohio. In October 2019, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of TAT, the restaurant sold this sandwich for 90 cents each, quickly selling 400 plus per day.
Finally, let’s talk about the end of the old school. There are just a handful of restaurants in town that are long in the tooth, The Top, Ding Ho and Lisska Bar come to mind. However, none are as old nor feel as traditional as TAT. Jimmy dressed up in a suit and tie everyday to serve as ambassador for the business. To keep that feel going while he was sidelined from his business, a cardboard cutout of Jimmy and Delores was set up at his booth to watch over the patrons as they dined in at TAT.
There is nothing about TAT that a restaurant consultant or focus group would advocate for today. It is not located in the trendiest zip code. TAT’s menu and methods have changed little over the course of nearly a century. They literally can’t and won’t make them like this anymore, it is impossible. The era of this type of restaurant, as well as the circumstances that created the character and heart of Jimmy Corrova, has passed on. To many, “Old School” means serving PBR or having a vintage video game. Old School is really an approach to service, a connection to community and people that no longer exists. Our last connection to this vestige of a bygone time checked out and was 86-ed on July 19, 2021.
Jimmy would have turned 87 this month and I am sure he would have celebrated at TAT. What can you do in honor of Jimmy? Spend some time with his family with a meal at the restaurant. If your schedule is full, drop in during October, when the family business observes 93 years of serving the community. Jimmy can’t be there any more, but I know his spirit is. A few four course meals can keep the Old School in session and make sure we have our first 100-year-old restaurant just a few years from now. Don’t let COVID win after keeping Jimmy out of his place for his final months, do your part to keep his legacy alive.
For more information on the legacy of Jimmy and TAT Ristorante Di Famiglia, 1210 S. James Rd, visit tatitalianrestaurantcolumbus.com.
Author’s Note: Most of the photographs in this article were taken by Jodi Miller, an extraordinary local photographer. All of these photos were taken in October 2019, when I was researching my book, Columbus Pizza: A Slice of History. Jimmy was, as always, generous with his time and access to everything at the restaurant when Jodi and I were there. He comped the entire meal (I intended to pay Jodi with food), which included a pizza to take home to my family. This was the last time I saw Jimmy. Not too long after I saw him, he was hospitalized for surgery just before the onset of COVID-19. These photos show him in good health and good spirits and that is how I will always remember him.