At 76, Mama Rita still checks in on the cooks to make sure the sauces are ‘being made right.’
By Susan Peck
Photography by Derrick Martinez
Peek into the kitchen of one of Antonio’s Cucina Italiana restaurants, and you may see opera star Andrea Bocelli helping prepare his favorite spaghetti carbonara, or into the dining room and you may see the Italian operatic pop trio Il Volo, enjoying their namesake chicken dish, Il Volo Pollo.
Celebrating their 55th year in business, the Rugiero family’s restaurants bring in the kind of clientele — celebrity or not — who come for the fabulous authentic Italian cuisine, and just as important, the sense of family and service they find there.
It all began with a young Antonio Francisco Rugiero’s desire to be part of the American dream. From the Italian region of Calabria, he came to America in 1960, and his future wife, Enrica (Rita) Santioni, also from Italy, came three years later. Settling in the South End neighborhood in Dearborn, he opened Roman Village restaurant in 1964 with just an agreement on a placemat with his partner Joe Oliverio, still on display at the restaurant today. The current restaurant group includes Roman Village, three Antonio’s Cucina Italiana (Dearborn Heights, Farmington Hills and Canton), and the newest location Antonio’s Piccolo Ristorante in Livonia.
Son Mark Rugiero, the company secretary, recalls his parents’ new life in America wasn’t easy at first. “At a low point, receipts for the day were just $1.75, but their sense of commitment helped eventually make them a success,” he says. “My parents always passed down to their four boys (Anthony, Mark, Robert and Patrick) the Italian mottos ‘tiriamo avanti’ and ‘con unità viene la forse.’ ” The family translates the mottos to “always move forward” and “with unity comes strength.”
Married in 1965, Antonio and Enrica became the original power couple — he minded the business, while she came aboard to prepare her coveted Italian family recipes in the kitchen. That combo was the beginning of their rise to success.
Today, their sons carry on the family business and have build it up by using what their parents taught them. “We’ve kept what works — everything in our restaurants is made the old-fashioned way ‘fata in casa’ (in house),” says CEO and President Antonio Jr., who goes by Anthony. “We have in-house pasta factories and my mother, Mama Rita’s, signature dishes like Gnocchi Rita served with her special pancetta and mushroom sauce, Chicken Antonio, soups, sauces, pastas and bread, all still prepared fresh every day under a watchful eye.”
Antonio Sr. passed away in 2008, but Mama Rita still comes into work at the restaurants daily. “I’m not retiring anytime soon if I can help it. I have to come in to taste the sauces and make sure all of my recipes are being made right,” says the feisty 76-year-old.
“Everything is done with our specific protocol,” Anthony says. “The quality is in the details and guarantees we will have consistency in our food and service.”
His daughter Adrianna Rugiero, 18, a hostess at the Canton location, says she watches how hard her dad works. “I’m here because I think it’s important to carry on what my grandparents started, and I get to spend time with my dad who is here all day long,” the college freshman says. There are 13 grandchildren of Antonio Sr. and Rita.
The Rugieros consider their staff of 300 to be an extended family, and they make it a point to always be at the restaurants overseeing the day-to-day operations. Angel Ballestero, district manager and executive chef, has prepared Mama Rita’s recipes for Antonio’s Cucina Italiana for 26 years. “There’s a reason I’ve been here for as long as I have,” he says. “The type of courtesy I get from Anthony is something you don’t see nowadays.”
While they are proud of their awards and reviews from restaurant critics, the Rugieros agree the family has made many sacrifices to achieve their success. “We missed many holidays and vacations because we worked so many long hours at the restaurants,” says Mama Rita, who is receiving an achievement award in New York from the Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance this month. “But on the other hand, we’ve had great life experiences with the people that come to eat with us.”
Giving back to the community is important to the Rugiero family. Anthony founded the Rugiero Promise Foundation that raises awareness and funds for charities, including the Anthony Rugiero Sr. Diabetes Fund at University of Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Center, in honor of their father who passed away from complications of diabetes.
The Rugiero Promise Foundation will host its ninth annual Rugiero Casino Royale on Oct. 12 at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to benefit the U-M Diabetes Center. The Las Vegas theme will include food, drinks, entertainment, professional dealers, auctions and more. Tickets can be purchased at rugieropromise.org.
The restaurants will also celebrate with specials to commemorate their 55th anniversary. “Our family would like to pay it forward to the community who has continued to support us for 55 years with awesome specials like 55-cent pizza and pasta in October,” Anthony says.
Despite their success, Mama Rita won’t let them forget the most important legacy of the Rugiero family: “Working together keeps us all together, and that is life’s biggest blessing.”