Antonio Francisco Rugiero, a native of San Giovanni Fiore, in the Italian region of Calabria, came to America in 1960. Like so many others, Antonio had a dream for his family: a better life in this land of opportunity. His wife, Enrica Santioni, from Gubbio, Perugia, followed three years later.
When Antonio arrived in America, he brought with him an extraordinary trait that defined his life and the lives of his entire family. This exemplary trait can be summarized with one word: respect. Eventually, he would stake his claim at starting his own restaurant business, Roman Village, in the South End neighborhood of Dearborn, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Today, his sons have established the familiar name, Antonio’s Cucina Italiana, in three locations with one more on the way and each typifies authentic Italian dining combined with Rugiero family hospitality
Antonio and Enrica began with meager funds and made do with what little they had. In 1964, his ownership in the restaurant business began with the simplicity of signing an agreement on a placemat, which is now on display at Roman Village, and a handshake with Antonio’s friend, Joe Oliverio. That agreement became the means and opportunity to fulfill this couple’s participation in the American dream.
Antonio’s new life in America did not begin easy, Mark Rugiero recalls.
“’One day’s receipts were $1.75,’ as my dad would tell the story,” Mark says. “But he and my mom were committed to a partnership in marriage and their new business.”
While Antonio minded the business, Enrica became responsible for the creation of their restaurant’s appealing Italian recipes. Her behind-the-scenes participation became the catalyst for the success of their growing business
Success was difficult, but the recipe for what would become the family business was straightforward and embodied the Italian phrases “tiriamo avanti” (“Always move forward), “con unità viene la forse” (“With unity comes strength”) and “L’occhio del proprietario ingrassa la mucca” (“The eye of the owner fattens the cow.”). Perhaps most profound is “Non importa quanto gli rendete siete quanto spendete,” which means “It doesn’t matter how much you make, it’s how much you spend.” These essential tenets are practiced to this day.
Antonio’s influence toward honor, respect and integrity shaped the family’s highly regarded reputation throughout the area. He, along with his family, continually instilled the importance of being involved in the community. Sadly, Antonio Sr. passed away in October 2008. He and Enrica had recently celebrated 43 years of marriage. Anthony Rugiero ( also known as Antonio Jr.) took on the challenge and has become increasingly active in support of numerous candidates and legislative issues, both locally and nationally, including community involvement and philanthropic causes.
Antonio’s personal legacy for his four children – Anthony, Mark, Robert and Patrick plus 12 grandchildren far transcends any business success. He and Enrica envisioned a future for their children that embodied both new- and old-world pride. Truly understanding and practicing their own fashion of dual consciousness, Antonio would say, “We live in America. You must first be good Americans but never forget your heritage.”
Today, the Rugiero children embrace both the American way – the country they love and were raised in – and the culture and heritage of their parents’ homeland. Antonio and Enrica were well aware of the warmth and pleasure that living in an Italian home could bring. This extremely close family lives on the same street next door to each another. Like most succeeding generations, the family speaks less Italian at home than in the past, but it still remains an important part of their daily lives. They travel, en masse, back to Italy frequently – not to sightsee, but to visit extended family and friends and to stay in touch with tradition. In 2013, the family – 26 in tow – traveled back to Italy to celebrate ( Enrica’s ) “Mama Rita’s” 50 years in America.
This year, the Rugiero family celebrates 50 years in business, a grand milestone accomplished by very few in the restaurant industry. The Rugiero family secret to success is not only great food, but also great service, price and atmosphere.
“The quality is in the details,” Anthony says. “People sense the family feel. There is always a family member at the restaurants overseeing the day-to-day operations, and it is their extended family, their staff, which today consists of 250 people. This is quite a leap, considering the beginning when Antonio Sr. employed four people, including himself. It’s more than the material value; it’s more than a job.”
Most importantly, LaVerne Harless, a 48-year veteran of Roman Village, and others say that the Rugieros have given them a new definition of the word “family.”
“When I came here as a waitress, it was mom and pop and the babies,” LaVerne says. “It felt comfortable; it felt like home. A family isn’t necessarily someone you live with or are related to. Look at us here. We’re eclectic because we have different cultures, but the Rugieros show us that we can still be a family without being the same religion or race. They’re good people.”
Anthony doesn’t want to say that it is only about the food – but it’s all about the food. Of Course, customer service is very important.
Angel Ballestero is going on 21 years and is now executive chef of Antonio’s Cucina Italiana.
“The people here are great,” Angel says. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. Anthony walks into any one of the restaurants and the first thing he does is say ‘hi’ to every employee. That type of courtesy is something you don’t see nowadays. There’s a reason I’ve been here for as long as I have. It’s like family.”
“You play together; you stay together,” Mama Rita Says
It’s clear to see why the Rugieros have made it this far. Food has something to do with it, yet the real gifts that primed them for success are family and faith. Together it is the heartbeat of their legacy and what they have relied on throughout.
Taking chances got them here. Huge amounts of hard work have put the Rugieros center stage as restaurateurs. Their success has led to countless awards and glowing reviews from restaurant critics, but nothing has come without a price – be it financial or personal. They have summoned their strength for sacrifices that typify American success stories.
“It’s that sense of carrying on,” Anthony says, “that we can do it like our parents did, maybe even a little better. There’s that sense you want to keep things moving for the family, that sense of pride. Here is something Mom and Dad started 50 years ago. There is a sense of accomplishment that began then and must continue on.”
Roughly 30 percent of family-owned businesses succeed the next generation, according to the Family Business Alliance. The Rugieros have been dedicated and determined to carry on the legacy by keeping with tradition.
“Growing up, the restaurant was our playground,” says Anthony, who today is the company president. “We didn’t have babysitters, so we would spend most of our time at the restaurant while Mom and Dad worked. We learned a lot from being there.”
Much had been taught by mom and dad with old-school recipes, such as soups, sauces, their famous pizza – which put them on the map – and of course their famous, freshly baked bread.
The brothers are always looking to improve the menu by adding new items. Some dishes might be new to the menu, but they’ve been part of the family table for many years.
Rabbit and tripe, for example, are found as specials and often ordered in advance for parties. Due to popularity, these items sell out quickly and some guests have become upset that they have missed out. (You would, too, if you’ve tried the rabbit – an old-school recipe that has been in the family for years. It might even become a permanent fixture on the menu.).
One advantage that the next generation of Rugieros has is that they incorporate a family-owned and operated business model, along with a modern business approach, which gives them a cutting edge over franchises today.
When you walk in the door at Roman Village, you see a nice, clean place that feels up to date. Its authentic design and smart, casual yet family-friendly atmosphere – even though it has been around for 50 years – gives it a brand-new look; everything from the back to the front of the house has been updated.
When the Rugiero’s say it’s all about the food, it’s all about how it’s made and the love that goes into preparing real, authentic Italian food. In Italy, the food always starts with simple, fresh ingredients and made from scratch to order, “fatta en casa.”
“We follow this tradition to the T,” Anthony says, which is why each location has a pasta factory located in the heart of the dining room, where the guests can see the preparation of the pasta, made fresh without additives or preservatives.
The menu is consistent at all locations, with a large selection for everyone’s palate, including vegetarian dishes such as the popular Eggplant Parmigiana or gluten-free pizzas and pasta.
Some house specialties include Gnocchi Rita – handmade, fluffy potato dumplings topped with Rita sauce, which is prepared with cream, tomatoes, fresh mushrooms and pancetta (cured Italian bacon). There’s also Chicken Antonio (boneless, skinless chicken breast smothered in a cream sauce and served with a side of fettuccini Alfredo) and Spaghetti Carbonara a la Bocelli (a recipe that Andrea Bocelli, the famous Italian tenor, songwriter and friend of the family, prepared himself at Roman Village Cucina Italiana). They have had their share of celebrities and dignitaries that have walked through their doors in search of real, authentic Italian food in Michigan; their photos line the walls of the restaurant. In 1996, it was Luciano Pavarotti. Most recently Il Volo makes their frequent visit when they are away from home, enjoying their signature dish, IL VOLO POLLO.
Of course, there are traditional dishes such as Veal Parmigiana, Chicken Marsala, Polenta, Lasagna and Baccala, a real classic. If you haven’t worked up an appetite by now, then go online and visit the website, www.antoniosrestaurants.com, to see the many options for yourself. You can also read more about the family history and visit the event page with all the promotions that take place throughout the year.
Many of the compliments the Rugieros receive are that it’s a family favorite, not just because of the great facility, great food and wonderful service, but because guests feel that they receive a real value. The restaurants’ wine selection is one example of that value; many premium wines offered at other restaurants are served at Antonio’s for a better price. On Wednesdays, those same bottled wines are served at half-price.
For the Roman Village Cucina Italiana’s 50th anniversary, the Rugieros have been offering some great promotions to express many thanks to their loyal customers for their many years of support, Including Antonio’s Cucina Italiana which is offering 50-cent cannoli’s all year long.
All the restaurants are open seven days a week, and they offer banquet facilities with a full carryout and catering menu. The Rugieros will not be getting out of the restaurant business any time soon. They are a family that is in step with one another; a classic, just like the food they serve.
Everything is made the old fashion way "Fata in Casa" (in house). Enjoy Antonio's famous signature dishes like Gnocchi Rita served with Mama Rita's special pancetta and mushroom sauce... Spaghetti Carbonara "Alla Bocelli", a recipe Andrea Bocelli prepared himself in our own kitchen. Try our Chicken Antonio, pan prepared tender breast of chicken smothered in a creamy white sauce topped with provolone cheese. And all our pastas are prepared fresh daily in our pasta factory, located in our dining room.
Learn about what is happening in the Antonio's family of Restaurants - Check out upcoming events and promotions.