Omaha’s history as told by steak

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Omaha is known as a great steak city. We have five good reasons to back that up.

Omaha Culinary Tours started an Omaha Classic Steakhouse Tour, and I was fortunate enough to get to tag along. Ok, me and my two daughters.

The tour, which includes a comfy bus ride, includes Omaha’s five oldest steakhouses – Johnny’s Café, Piccolo’s, Gorat’s, Cascio’s and Anthony’s.

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Starting at Cascio’s near 10th and Pacific streets, we enjoyed a nice sample of Italian steakhouse  cuisine- mostaccioli with marinara, breadstick and a sample of delicious tenderloin brochette.

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The daughters and I mentioned how much we liked the marinara. It turns out they simmer it for seven hours each day.

Cascio’s is currently owned by third-generation family members. It opened in 1946.

 

Cascio's is a popular stop for teams and fans during the College World Series.

Cascio’s is a popular stop for teams and fans during the College World Series.

The restaurant has been in the same spot twice in its history. Huh?

A 1978 fire destroyed the building. The family rebuilt the restaurant on the same spot.

It was thought to be arson. No one was arrested until the mid-1990s, when a suspect was hauled in for setting fire to three businesses, including Cascio’s. The convicted arsonist is due to get out of prison early next year.

The restaurant as it is today is 38,000 square feet. It has seven party rooms. It’s the largest restaurant in Omaha. About 3,000 people dine there each week.

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Cascio’s serves only certified Angus beef.

The owner was kind enough to give us a tour of the facility. The tour included a view of the kitchen. You know a place does things right when it’s willing to let guests see the kitchen up close. I wanted to grab a jar of marinara for the road. Apparently, that kind of thing is frowned upon. LOL.

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Cascio’s is located in the Little Italy section of Omaha – 10th Street east to the Missouri River and north-south from Pacific to Center streets.

Little Italy is where most Italian immigrants settled in Omaha. It’s home to the start of the Santa Lucia festival – one of the oldest festivals in the Midwest.

For more information on Cascio’s, please visit the website www.casciossteakhouse.com.

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Following our mini meal, it was time to board the bus and head off to our second stop – Johnny’s Café.

Johnny’s is located in south Omaha, near the old stockyards.

The Omaha Stockyards was the world’s largest cattle yard during its heyday. I remember passing through the area as a kid. It had a definite odor with thousands of cattle in one place.

My dad would say that smell was “the smell of money.” Only an old farmer would say that about cow pies.

Appetite ruined now?

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Well, Johnny’s can get it back for you. We tried a braised short rib sample. The meat was tasty. My only “beef” with the beef (get it?) was that there are small bone flakes in the meat, so it’s not my favorite piece of the cow. Johnny’s has great food. We dined there a couple of years when our Alaska friends were in town.

Johnny’s Café is Omaha’s oldest steak house.  It opened in 1922 and is still going strong. It was originally a saloon, but with the opening the stockyard, it became a local hangout for farmers and others.

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The Kawa family, which is the third-generation owner, used to sleep in an upstairs room between business hours. The steakhouse was opened 6 a.m. – 1 a.m., since its clientele worked odd hours for delivering cattle and working the sales throughout the day.

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Johnny’s played a prominent role in the movie “About Schmidt.” The movie, which starred Jack Nicholson as a retiree with daughter issues, was directed by native Omahan Alexander Payne. It turns out that Payne’s parents have been long time customers at Johnny’s.

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Once the stockyards closed, the South Omaha area struggled economically. The area was not the best to go to for quite a few years. However, as Suzy with Omaha Culinary Tours pointed out, the area has been revitalized, thanks in part to the Hispanic community. The area has developed a Hispanic flavor in recent years, with shops and restaurants.

Our next stop was at Warren Buffett’s favorite Omaha dining establishment – Gorat’s.

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In case you have been under a rock and have no idea who Warren Buffett is, he is only the third richest man in the world – about $65.4 billion.

He loves Gorat’s. The owner says the Oracle of Omaha’s favorite dish is a T-bone steak, cooked rare with a double portion of hashbrowns and a Cherry Coke.

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Buffett has brought friends with him for dinner. Celebrities like Bill Gates, Michael Eisner (former Disney chief), Martha Stewart and U2’s Bono have dined at Gorat’s.

President Ronald Reagan ate here once.

In the old days, celebrities, such as Liberace, would visit after shows at the old AkSarBen Coliseum.

The neat thing about Omahans, Gene Dunn said, is that we tend to leave celebrities alone to dine in peace. They appreciate it, he added.

The pins on the map indicate the places customers have traveled from around the world to have dined at Gorat's.

The pins on the map indicate the places customers have traveled from around the world to have dined at Gorat’s.

Dunn bought the steak house from the Gorat family in late 2012. The restaurateur has been involved in other dining establishments, but sought out sole ownership for Gorat’s.

“I’m 55. I have a 7-year-old son,” he said. “I’m not going to retire anytime soon.”

So, he set out to run his own steakhouse.

He has kept much of the tradition, even renovating the restaurant to reflect more of the eatery’s history with pictures of Omaha history. The ceilings were redone to reflect the old time steakhouse flavor.

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Gorat’s is Omaha’s third-oldest Italian steakhouse. It opened in 1944. It celebrates its 70th birthday this year.

We enjoyed another mini meal. We had a sampling of the restaurant’s No. 1 non-steak seller – handmade to order onion rings. I am not an onion fan, but the onion rings were delicious.

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As for the steak samples, we had two – tenderloin and sirloin. The sirloin has a béarnaise sauce that was to die for!

Gorat’s has 7,000 square feet to work with, including a 1,700-square foot kitchen.

The restaurant serves Omaha Steaks. The company works with Dunn in order to provide the perfect cuts of beef for customers. They get shipments 2-3 times a week. It helps with inventory control, Dunn said.

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The Gorat family’s longevity in the steak business is marked by three bull heads outside the entrance. They represent the parents and son – Louis, Nettie and Pal – who ran the restaurant for so many years.

For more information on Gorat’s and menu choices, please visit its website at www.goratsomaha.com.

Feeling stuffed with all things good, we climbed back on the bus – led by driver, James. Next stop – Piccolo’s.

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Piccolo’s opened 80 years ago.

The restaurant is known for its “disco ball.”

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It’s actually a crystal ball that hangs above the main dining room. The first ball was used on the dance floor, near when bands would on the weekends. The restaurant currently is on its third crystal ball. The first broke during a cleaning accident. The second was retired after serving more than 25 years.

Future owner Scott Sheehan plans to bring back music when he takes over Piccolo’s next year. He will be the fourth-generation family owner.

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He’d like to have a 1940s look and feel to the restaurant, Scott said.

While wanting to go with a retro look and feel, Scott also looks forward. He wants to reach a customer base that may not be restaurant regulars.

He plans to launch a food truck this summer, which will offer food choices available at Piccolo’s as well as some other options.

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One item that will be a strong item on the food truck will be the eatery’s prime rib.

In addition, he’d like to market Piccolo’s sauces.

Speaking of the prime rib, we sampled it along with a side of tator tots. Dipping the tots in the au jus provided was delicious. I thought about drinking the au jus. Would that have been wrong? LOL.

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After finishing at Piccolo’s, we had one more stop. We waddled back to bus. People climbed the bus steps a little slower by now.

Please check out Piccolo’s website for more information and menu options at www.piccolopetesrestaurant.net.

I knew I had to suck it up and make room for more steak, because we were off to my favorite steak house in the entire world – Anthony’s.

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The Angus beef standing above the entrance gives customers a guilty look.

But, once inside the steak house, you forget about the cow outside and how full your stomach is and get ready for some good food.

The chef gave us a different spin on steak. He is excited about some upcoming menu changes.

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We tried prime steak bites with a hint of wasabi seasoning. It was nice. But, when you add the sesame sauce and the horseradish dip – OMG! I could have a dozen pieces myself (on another visit, of course).

He served a side of twice backed potato in a dish, minus the skin. Again, a delicious moment of foodness.

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Anthony’s is the youngest of the remaining original steak houses at 45 years.

For more information on Anthony’s or to check out its menu, please visit the website at www.anthonyssteakhouse.com

During the heyday of steak houses, Omaha was home to 20-30 great ones. It was common for restaurants to serve 400-500 people nightly. People dressed up in suits and nice dresses. It was an event to dine out.

As the times changed, people’s dining options changed. Classic steak houses started disappearing from the landscape.

A time existed when steak people didn’t care if one steak house went out of business, because it could mean more business for them. Now, the five remaining classic steak houses work together to remain viable.

Following the tour, Suzy and Jen from OCT handed out two cupcakes per guest – a chocolate one and a white one in a box. the chocolate cupcake wasn’t in a box, so despite everyone being stuffed with the tour food, we all found a way to scarf down the cupcake.

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I am not a chocolate fan, but Gina Sterns Pastries did a great job in making the cupcakes. The chocolate was delicious. It had gold flakes in the frosting. Later, the white cupcake proved as delicious.

Omaha Culinary Food Tours strives to work with and promote local restaurants. That’s appreciated, because cities need to have that local flair to their dining options.

I recommend you check out these steak houses with or without a tour.

But, if you are interested in sampling some of the best steak in the world, you should sign up for a steakhouse tour with OCT. It’s worth it. They do a great job of combining history with food.

For more information on Omaha Culinary Tours, please visit their website at www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Omaha Culinary Tours for the complimentary tickets. However, all opinions and views are ours.