Photo by Sue Suchyta
Anthony Rugiero (left), Enrica “Rita” Santioni Rugiero and Robert Rugiero celebrate 50 years of their family restaurant, Roman Village, 9924 Dix in Dearborn. Above them is a photo of patriarch Antonio Rugiero (third from left) surrounded by his fours sons, Marco (left), Patrick, Anthony and Robert.
By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – For 50 years, the success of Roman Village Cucina Italiana and its successive branches has relied on a not-so-secret key ingredient: the dedication of the Rugiero family.
Anthony Rugiero, the second son of the late founder, Antonio Rugiero and his wife, Enrica “Rita” Santioni Rugiero, said the restaurant business really takes up a good portion one’s life.
“Mom and dad were always in the business working, and we spent most of our time here with them,” Anthony Rugiero said. “So when you grow up with it, it became part of your life, what you do.
“Either you love this business, and you stay with it, or you find something else to do really fast and you go to college and you move on. I went to school but I love this business. If you don’t enjoy the restaurant business you can’t be successful at it.”
Antonio Rugiero, originally from Calibria, Italy, bought what was then Joe’s Pizzeria on April 6, 1964, when the two original owners no longer wanted to run the business together. A paper placemat bears the original contract, which the family displays in the restaurant
Rita, originally from Umbria Perugia in central Italy, started working at Joe’s Pizzeria in 1963, a year before Antonio bought it. The couple met 50 years ago when he bought the restaurant.
The late Frank Stella, a family friend in the restaurant supply business, helped the two come up with the Roman Village name in 1967 when the couple decided to remodel the business.
Antonio and Rita Rugiero had four sons, Patrick, Anthony, Marco and Robert, all of whom are part of the family business. They operate four restaurants, with Antonio’s Cucina Italiana in Dearborn Heights (which opened 20 years ago), Farmington Hills and Canton, and with a fifth restaurant soon to open in Livonia.
There are 12 grandchildren, from age 15 years to nine months old. The families live on the same block in Dearborn Heights.
Anthony said that while some of the teenage grandchildren have been in the restaurants to help bus tables, it is different from when he and his brothers were growing up.
“It’s not like it was in the old days,” Anthony Rugiero said. “We were making (pizza) boxes at age 9 and dishwashing.”
Rita Rugiero said her sons would stand on a wooden Coca-Cola box so they could reach the counter to help make a pizza.
Anthony Rugiero said his daughter Adrianna, 12, loves to cook, and son Antonio, 10, has been in the restaurant a couple of times to help do food preparation.
“You have to have the love,” Anthony said. “If you love to be in the kitchen and to create, that is the first thing. It’s all about common sense in the kitchen and to love to cook, because the product comes out better that way.”
He said the grandchildren love to cook with their “nonna” or grandmother at her house, and they will occasionally go to the restaurant and learn to help prep for a dish like lasagna.
“Mom’s cooking at home is the best,” he said. “Wherever you go, no matter what ethnic food it is, you are always comparing it to mom’s.
“What is nice is we have been here so long, Mama Rita’s been doing it, so for customers, it becomes their marker. They judge (other food) by our restaurants. They are always telling us when they come back in, when they travel elsewhere, ‘It was good, but not as good as yours.’”
He and his wife Sabrina, whom he met when she began working at the Dearborn Heights restaurant, also have Vanessa, 8, and Attilio, 6.
Anthony Rugiero said many interesting people have come through their doors as customers.
“You meet a lot of great people,” he said. “The restaurant becomes their favorite place to eat, and we hear that often.”
Rita Rugiero said customer reminiscing makes her feel so good.
When engagements happen at the restaurant, the couple gets a free bottle of champagne when they come back on their anniversary, Anthony Rugiero said. He added that some customers even stipulate in their wills that their wakes will be at the restaurant.
Rita Rugiero said customers recognize her on trains, planes and even out of state.
They have had celebrity customers as well, including Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and the Italian operatic pop trio Il Volo. As supporters of opera, the family has offered discount vouchers to the Michigan Opera Theatre to customers, and sponsor opera days where they donate a portion of their proceeds to the MOT.
Through the Rugiero Promise Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, they have supported local cultural and charitable organizations, from the MOT, the Detroit Italian Film Festival, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, breast cancer awareness through “Breast Friends Forever” at St. Joseph’s Mercy Health System, the Veterans Outreach Project of Southeast Michigan and the Wayne County Goodfellows.
Anthony Rugiero said the Promise Foundation also sponsors an annual Rugiero Casino Royale themed party to benefit diabetes research with the University of Michigan in memory of patriarch Antonio Rugiero, who died of the disease.
The foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the communities it serves. For more information, go to antoniosrestaurants.com.
Robert Rugiero said Roman Village is a tradition for his family and for Dearborn. He said while they worry about the impact of the economy, they never worry about their business plan.
“You tighten the belt a bit when the economy’s bad, and you offer some good deals and specials, and you get through the hard time,” he said, “and when the economy’s robust again (you get) back to normal.”
He said he loves seeing people come in with their children whom he remembers coming in 20 years earlier when they were dating in high school.
“It’s generation after generation after generation,” Robert Rugiero said.
Rita Rugiero said when she is tired and she hears customer praise and testimonials it energizes her.
Anthony Rugiero said his father offered him advice he still follows.
“My father would tell me, ‘You see that table? (If) there is nobody sitting there, you make zero, son. You put people in the seats. Even at a discount you are still going to be making some money,’” he said. “‘And the other thing is, they are not eating any place else, only in your place.’”
He said when the economy is tough you just have to get more creative while maintaining your quality.
For Rita Rugiero, the family’s restaurants are her life.
“That’s what I love the most,” she said, “my family, my business and my church. I believe in God. If you do good, and in everything if you do good, you receive good, and that is what I have gotten all my life. I always receive (what is) good.”
She said she will never retire, and going to the different restaurants is how she keeps in touch with her sons.
“It is everything,” she said. “I will never retire, and I enjoy seeing my kids do such a great job.”