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
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.
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.