hey arrive before the crack of dawn every Thursday morning.
Somewhere around 4:30, quarter to 5, they pull in to the Italian Center on North Hill in Akron.
One by one, they tie on their aprons, put on their hats and hair nets, and get to work.
After 25 years, it’s all very systematic and organized, like a well-oiled machine — an olive-oiled machine.
Frank Iemma, 71, of Cuyahoga Falls, president of the center, is usually one of the first to arrive. His first job — chopping cases of iceberg lettuce — is sometimes done before the others arrive.
Adele Hopp is often next.
The 71-year-old Tallmadge resident grinds chunks of Romano cheese and fills the shakers that will sit on the green-and-white-checkered tablecloths here at “Ristorante Abruzzo” in the basement of the brick building at East Tallmadge Avenue and North Main Street.
Next come the sauce makers: Mario Centula, 83, of Hudson, and Gabriele Donatelli, 77, of Akron, who mix up more than 150 gallons of sauce and put it on to simmer.
Don’t even think about asking for the recipe. The mere suggestion brings shouts and admonitions from them.
“That’s a secret,” Centula said.
God forbid the cooks at Carovillese Lodge might find out.
By 5 a.m., the entire crew has arrived.
Hopp, Clara Donatelli, 78 (Gabriele’s wife), and Lina Iannacchione, 74, both of Akron, roll forks and knives inside paper dinner napkins, while they wait for the men to finish the heavy lifting — mixing more than 80 pounds of beef and pork for meatballs.
Inside an industrial-size mixer, the meat is combined with a bread crumb and seasoning blend that already has been prepared. They all remember before they had the mixer and one of their members used to mix the meat by hand in a giant metal bowl.
Iannacchione cautiously lists the ingredients in the meatballs, stopping at one point to pop her head into the kitchen to make sure she hasn’t spoken out of turn.
“I’m not giving you amounts, just the ingredients,” she emphasized.
Ground beef and pork, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper, eggs, milk, water. That’s as close to the secret recipe as anyone’s going to get.
Iemma sets part of the meatball mix in the center of a long, stainless-steel work table. He and Vittorio Quaranta, 70, of Tallmadge, the youngsters of this group, use ice cream scoops to portion out the meat, and the three women get to work, rolling the scoops into perfectly round balls.
It’s not yet 6:30.
Meatballs line up, 12 down and nine across, filling industrial-sized sheet pans that have been coated with olive oil.
As soon as a tray is filled, Centula and Donatelli move the meatballs into the oven, where they will bake for about 25 minutes until they are browned on the bottom.
Tray after tray is filled and moved to the oven. Nine full trays and part of a 10th. “We make about 1,000 meatballs every week,” Iemma said.
By 7:40 a.m., meatball production is winding up and the cooked meatballs are added to the sauce as they continue to emerge from the oven.
Iemma will let the sauce simmer until about 10 a.m. The serving crew will put it back on the heat about 2 p.m. when they come in to get ready.
The women finish rolling the silverware into napkins and sit down to relax and talk after their meatball marathon.
“We cook today what we will serve today. It’s all cooked fresh,” Iannacchione said.
There are rumors that their competition is using bagged lettuce, and worse yet, frozen meatballs. That doesn’t happen here, they stress.
Let’s do the math: 1,000 meatballs each week, times 52 weeks a year, times 25 years. That’s 1.3 million meatballs these women have rolled.
“It’s a homemade meal,” Iannacchione said.
The women head home to bake and frost the cakes they will serve for dessert, and to dress for their waitress jobs later that afternoon.
The meal is served from 4 to 7 p.m., but the customers start coming by 3:30.
“Early birds,” Hopp said.
Dinner is spaghetti or penne pasta, served with sauce and two meatballs, Massoli’s Italian bread, lettuce salad, cake and coffee. There’s also an option of having your pasta covered with sauteed garlic and olive oil instead of red sauce. Price tag: $7.50, and, no, they don’t take credit cards.
By 5 p.m., the dinner crowd is in full swing, and nearly every table is filled.
Hopp, Iannacchione, and Clara Donatelli are all back, waiting on their regular tables.
The rest of the morning crew, plus many more volunteers, fill the kitchen and dining room, serving a steady stream of customers who come down the steep staircase each week to this basement eatery.
The sauce pots compete for space on the stove with pots of boiling water. Club manager Jim Lewis (his wife is Italian) said they’ll go through about 100 to 140 pounds of pasta each week.
Victor Donatelli, 85, still works every Thursday dinner.
From his perch behind the bar, where he fills up pitchers of water and coffee for wait staff, he surveys the packed house.
“May 12, 1988,” he said. The date the first Thursday night spaghetti dinner was served at the Italian Center.
At the time, no one was thinking about silver anniversaries. They were just thinking about the empty seats at the restaurant and bar each night.
The club was founded in 1934 as a gathering place for the Italian immigrants who filled Akron’s North Hill. Many of them came to Akron from the Abruzzi region of Italy, and many in this crew still speak with accents of their homeland.
The club, like most ethnic clubs of that time, served as a unifying place for strangers in a strange land. A place where their traditions, their foods, and their language could be preserved in the midst of the middle-American landscape of Northeast Ohio.
The club and the hall above it hosted more wedding receptions, graduations and first communion parties than anyone can count.
But by the time it was 50, the club was in dire need of revenue to keep it afloat.
Victor Donatelli, then club president, and Rita DeSantis, president of the women’s auxiliary, decided to try having spaghetti dinners to raise money. DeSantis, a retired Akron school principal, died a year later from cancer and didn’t see the successful operation that she helped to start.
On their first night, they served 68 meals, Donatelli recalled. One night in August 1990, they served 684, their current record.
Most Thursdays, they serve about 375.
Hopp was part of the original crew in 1988 and has worked all 25 years, most of the time working alongside her mother, Grace Scarlatelli. At 94, Scarlatelli decided to retire her apron last December, but still complains that she misses the people.
“She loved it,” Hopp said. “I guess I’m like my mom.”
“It’s just such a nice atmosphere. I have the same people who come in every week to my tables. I look forward to seeing them,” she said.
Next year, the club will celebrate its 80th birthday.
Members have died off. Their kids and grandkids moved away.
But the weekly spaghetti dinner keeps the center thriving.
“It’s really kind of a social event for us,” Victor Donatelli said, “It’s a nice thing for the club.”