Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Sugar Bowl — a favorite hangout for over 60 years
PITTSFIELD — How many times did we have a burger, fries, a shake, coffee, breakfast or some other goodies at the Sugar Bowl at 308 North St.? How many times did we stop in when we left the Boys Club, went to a downtown dance, saw a movie at the nearby Capitol Theater or took a date out for a snack?
Hard to believe this popular hangout has been gone now for 18 years. So many of us can picture the welcoming faces of the owners, Ralph and Mary Giannone.
Ralph was no stranger to the restaurant business. He got an early exposure to eateries as a child working in a soda fountain in Middlebury, Vt., owned by his foster parents. During college summer breaks he worked at the Middlebury Inn, where he developed a true passion for the restaurant business. He had completed 3 1/2 years of college but was drafted during World War II.
After the war, Ralph used his GI Bill to buy a 19-seat cafe in Burlington, Vt., called the Corner Cottage. The eatery was near the University of Vermont and popular with students. Within five years of successful operation, he had expanded the restaurant to 100 seats before selling it.
During a vacation trip in 1957, the Giannones had stopped in the Berkshires, and while looking for a place to spend the night, they saw that the sprawling 70-room Breezy Knoll Inn on Pontoosuc Lake was for sale. Ralph fell in love with the old inn, saw its potential and had to buy and remodel it.
Ten years later the Giannones sold the Inn to the ITAM lodge, which razed it in 1973 to build its clubhouse.
At the same time they bought the Breezy Knoll, Ralph and Mary had also become caterers and acquired the Sugar Bowl. This "soda shop" began as a variety sore and was named the Sugar Bowl in the mid-1930s by the owners, the Haddad family. Of all the Giannone ventures in food and lodging, none was quite as popular and successful as the Sugar Bowl. The couple operated it with their four daughters for 43 years, until Ralph's passing in 2000 at the age of 81.
The Giannones appreciated their customers; the people that came in every day. Ralph and Mary knew the orders of regular customers even before they sat down.
Regular patrons came from the courthouse, The Berkshire Eagle, the police station, the GE and local businesses. Everyone liked Ralph and Mary as they were very active in the community and supported the Pee Wee hockey teams at the Boys Club. They catered for the YMCA and the churches.
The couple was especially good to people on holidays and would open the Sugar Bowl and provide a meal to people who had nowhere to eat. The Giannones were very compassionate.
Mary Giannone recently shared a fond memory:
"As I look back, the best part of the Sugar Bowl is knowing that we ran a place that people liked to come to. People loved Ralph, who had a wonderful sense of humor, and he loved to play practical jokes," she said. "One day he told a waitress to go look for the 'coffee stretcher.' She went downstairs to the supply room and, of course, there was no such thing. His regulars were in on the joke. The waitress took it in good stride as it was all in good fun."
The one thing that was tricky for Ralph was that he was a Yankees fan and all his customers loved the Red Sox. He had to navigate that carefully.
Sometime after his passing in 2000, the Sugar Bowl closed and became Liberty Pizza. Long gone are the "soda shops" like the Sugar Bowl run by the same family for years and known for such great service and fare.
(Many thanks to Mary and daughter Mary Talmi for sharing some of their favorite memories.)
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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