The Prince Grotto and Its Place in Lowell Restaurant History

Prince Grotto Ad (Prince Spaghetti Restaurant) Lowell
Prince Grotto ad (ca. 1985)

When it opened just before Memorial Day in 1959, Lowell’s Prince Grotto Restaurant promised big things. “New England’s finest Italian restaurant,” they said, catered to “those who know and appreciate fine foods elegantly served.”

And for nearly thirty years, the Prince Grotto served fine Italian, American, and French cuisine from its well-hidden alcove down Carter Street. Today, it’s hard to find any trace of the Prince Grotto in this South Lowell neighborhood known too for the also-gone Sacred Heart Church. But, that doesn’t mean this South Lowell landmark doesn’t deserve a place in any discussion remembering closed Massachusetts restaurants.

The Genius of Joseph Pellegrino

The Prince Grotto Restaurant was the brainchild of Joseph Pellegrino, Sr., the longtime owner of the Prince Macaroni Manufacturing Company. By the time Pellegrino opened the Grotto in 1959, he had already established a reputation for his work ethic, entrepreneurial skill, and for getting noticed.

After all, it was Pellegrino who arrived at Ellis Island as a 17-year-old immigrant in 1922, started a shoeshine business followed by a Coney Island custard stand, and got his start in the pasta business when he married the daughter of the owner of New York’s Roman Macaroni Company.

By 1941, Pellegrino and his family members were majority shareholders of Prince.

By 1950, Pellegrino and a friend had coined what has become, arguably, Lowell’s best-known and best-loved marketing slogan: “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day.”

With a resume like that, it’s easy to see why the Prince Grotto opened to early and fast success.

The Prince Grotto’s Start as a Lunchroom

But, the Prince Grotto had other advantages too. The restaurant was supported by the pasta factory, which made enough pasta to give a one-pound box to every American by the 1980s. Plus, the Prince Grotto opened with more than a decade of experience.

The restaurant started off as the pasta plant’s executive lunchroom. Soon, though, word spread throughout Lowell of the chef’s creations. Other companies, their executives, and their families started seeking out meals from Prince Macaroni’s executive lunchroom.

In the late 1950s, Pellegrino capitalized on his idea. He would turn the lunchroom into an upscale, fine-dining experience in Lowell’s Sacred Heart neighborhood.

Creating Old Italy in Lowell

Prince
A Prince Grotto ad from 1963

In Pellegrino’s vision, the restaurant’s presentation was just as important as its food. Pellegrino took pains to create Old Italy in the city’s Sacred Heart neighborhood. He even hired a full-time gardener from Switzerland and brought him to the US as he prepared to open the restaurant in 1958.

Walter Wilhelm, a landscaper by trade, added gardens, waterfalls and intricate brick- and marble-work to complement the statues that Pellegrino hand-picked and imported from Italy. Through his skill, time, and effort, Wilhelm brought Pellegrino’s vision for the Prince Grotto to life.

For decades, Wilhelm worked for Prince, building an Old Italy oasis right off Gorham Street. Over the years, he added fountains, stone walls, and a brick and wrought iron gate on the Newhall Street side of the property.

Pellegrino Built It and They Came

Lowell came to know the Prince Grotto for dishes like Shrimp Scampi, Eggplant Parmigiana, Lobster-Stuffed Chicken Breast, Veal Scallopine a la Marsala, and its Prime Rib. Many in Lowell sipped their first cappuccino at the Prince Grotto as they took in the carefully constructed ambiance inside the restaurant and its well-tended gardens outside.

For nearly 30 years, the Prince Grotto called South Lowell home. But, the end came for the Prince Grotto when Pellegrino sold the restaurant along with the factory to Borden in 1987.

Even under Borden, Prince continued operations at the South Lowell plant for another decade, but the Prince Grotto was one of the acquisition’s first tragedies, closing soon after Borden took over.

The Prince Grotto: Gone, Not Forgotten

Today, most maps include the old Prince Pasta area off Moore Street within the city’s Sacred Heart neighborhood, named after the Catholic church and school that closed in 2009 after more than 100 years in the area. The city’s Spaghettiville signs crumble and rust on their South Lowell railroad bridges.

Lowell's Prince Spaghettiville Bridge on Lawrence Street
A sign announcing the entrance to Lowell’s Spaghettiville neighborhood (Photo by Author)

It’s hard to find any trace of the Prince Grotto.

But, many still remember Prince Macaroni and the Prince Grotto as an integral part of this South Lowell neighborhood. Even today, people remember Prince as a good employer and corporate citizen.

Today, the Prince Grotto, like Sacred Heart and Spaghettiville, might be gone, but if you look hard enough, you can still see the memories etched into South Lowell’s landscape, history, and culture.

9 thoughts on “The Prince Grotto and Its Place in Lowell Restaurant History

  1. Thank you for the article about Prince Grotto Restaurant and the old Sacred Heart neighborhood. I remember what a special treat it was to visit the Prince Grotto. The gardens were lovely. It was like visiting Italy if only for an evening.

    1. I saw the box opener and thought I had one in an old box. Sure enough I do. I was born and raised in Lowell but left for the Air Force during Vietnam in 72. Did 20 years and retire into another career. Now I’m retired, retired with a Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day box opener. I live in California about 40 miles East of San Francisco and 40 miles West of the Capital City of Sacramento. Wow what a find, well I knew I had it but didn’t associated the memory until I read the story and saw the pictures. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the memories. I remember taking a date to the Grotto in the late ’60’s. It was very high class as I recall.

  3. Chef Leo was a good friend of mine and I chummed with his two sons Angie and John back when they lived in the row house beside the school when we were kids. Took my girlfriend there as a special date night and later in life we married. Good memories there and later when Chef Leo started his own restaurant in Haverhill after leaving the Grotto !

  4. I worked for the Prince company for over 25 years. Great memories of the Price Grotto, fortunate enough to have had many great meals there.
    Fond memories of the Pellegrino family. I emigrated from Cuba in 1962. Prince was my first employer. I worked at the Packaging division, known as Prince Packaging and continued to work for the new owners, Americraft Carton, until my retirement in 2007
    Thanks for the memories!!!!
    Miguel A. Cuesta

  5. What wonderful memories this article brought back. The Prince Grotto was our “show-off’ place to take out of town visitors…they always left impressed. Wonderful service. Wonderful food. Thanks for posting.

  6. Alas, I just missed enjoying the Grotto as I flew out to USC from Keith in the Fall of ’58. My Sis recalls hoofing it to the plant from LHS after school. She was most impressed when it gave out a “suitcase” full of products at Christmas time to all the workers.
    Surely, everyone remembers Anthony Martignetti!? Yo, he was the Dude in one of TV’s longest running commercials…13(?) years… https://tinyurl.com/46duduce
    I don’t know if this is true or not…altho if ya can’t trust the reporting of the BBC, who can ya trust…. but when the plant couldn’t meet demands for spaghetti, it imported some “real stuff”…are ya ready for this…from Switzerland https://tinyurl.com/kp5hunvm
    “Chow!” as we non-Italians are wont to say!

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