Manzella's marks 50 years of keeping food in family

Manzella's marks 50 years of keeping food in family

CHAMPAIGN – The kids have been dropped off at their schools, the pizza dough is rising in the kitchen and there are three hours yet before customers start coming through the doors.

As it does for many, the Manzellas' day begins over cups of hot coffee.

Joe and Nickie Manzella, John and Cindy Manzella, Mary Manzella, and sometimes Frank and his wife, Ellen, gather around the tables or booths of their Italian restaurant.

"This is what we do: sit around, drink coffee and talk," joked Cindy Manzella, holding a tall mug of coffee.

(Not to mention, discuss lunch and dinner specials for the day, review the food they have in stock, consider the wait staff schedule and roll out the pizza dough.)

The family restaurant business, with its perks of no holidays off, long hours and the rare family vacation, has managed to lure all of Frank's children: his sons, Joe and John, their wives, and his daughter, Mary, not to mention a few grandchildren on evenings and weekends.

On a given night in the restaurant, four generations of Manzellas might be there. The Manzellas have served Italian beef, spaghetti, pizza and glasses of wine for half a century now, the last 44 of those in their storefront restaurant at 115 S. First St. This month, they're celebrating the restaurant's 50th anniversary in Champaign.

The story began in 1955, when a 27-year-old Francesco Manzella immigrated to the U.S. from Casteldaccia, Sicily. After arriving in Philadelphia, he and some friends hailed a cab.

"He knew no English whatsoever, but he knew to say, 'Chicago,' to the cab driver," said his daughter, Mary.

The fare was about $200.

Frank learned how to throw pizza pies at Rose and Bill's, an Italian restaurant on Armitage Avenue in Chicago. Eventually he and Ellen moved to Champaign, where Frank's aunt lived. Frank's Patio opened in 1960 at 219 S. Locust St. In 1966, he moved the restaurant to First Street, where it has been ever since.

"I told (Joe, John and Mary), 'You stay with us, you will be owners with me someday,'" Frank Manzella said in the restaurant's kitchen recently, his sleeves rolled up and his hands dusty with flour.

Now 80, Frank and Ellen are officially retired from Manzella's Italian Patio, but he still visits the restaurant for the morning coffee sessions and to help make pizza on Tuesdays. Joe and Nickie and John and Cindy are owners, and Mary manages the restaurant.

"It's a simple recipe really," John Manzella said of their pizza dough. "It's more in the process of how you make it," he said, sprinkling cornmeal on the bottom of cardboard circles where the dough will be placed.

The Manzellas roll out the dough using rolling pins, instead of automatic dough rollers other restaurants may use.

"We do it the old-fashioned way. We like to make muscles," Frank said with a grin.

Added Cindy: "We bake it with love."

When Frank started in the restaurant business in Champaign, there were few other places in town where you could order a pizza. Demand was something else, especially from University of Illinois students. In the '70s, they'd make about 800 to 1,000 pizzas a week. He once piled 120 pizzas in the back of a station wagon to deliver to the dorms. For a short time, around 1969, he opened a second restaurant, "Patio #2," on Green Street.

All the Manzellas have had a hand at making pizza alongside Frank through the years, but they also help shred lettuce, spread garlic on bread, stir sauces, serve customers, pay bills, organize schedules, wipe tables.

"Everyone's cross-trained," Cindy said. "I like all the paperwork."

"I like being out front," Mary said.

"I like to cook and make specials," Nickie said. "I've also been accused of chatting too much with the customers."

She and Cindy are more than happy to hold a baby while the parents enjoy their dish.

"We are very family friendly. And we know how it feels to not finish dinners," she said.

Through the years, they've seen couples become engaged, seen those couples have children, and watched those children grow up. The Manzella children themselves grew up in the restaurant and started working there in their teens.

"When I was a kid, this was the place to hang out," John said.

Her father gave her a two-day notice, Mary said, of when she would start working at the restaurant. She was 15 years old, "it was a Saturday night, he told me to go to the store and get a black skirt and red shirt, and that I would need to come in on Monday."

John started, he recalled, when his father realized he was spending too much time running around with other teens.

"He said, 'You're coming to work for me,'" John said.

"It's like I'm coming to a second home. It doesn't feel like I'm working," Mary said recently, taking a break from preparing salads for the lunch crowd.

"Can you tell she's my daughter?" Frank said, putting his arm around Mary.

"I inherited the short gene," she smiled.

If the Manzella name rings a bell, it's probably because you may have eaten in one of their restaurants or their relatives' restaurants.

"It seems like everybody has passed through here," Joe said.

Frank's sister and brother-in-law, Antonio and Fina Liga, who were involved in the restaurant in the '60s and early '70s, moved to Tuscola and ran Liga's Steak & Pasta.

Before he started his own Manzella's restaurants in Urbana, Joe Manzella, Frank's brother, also put in time at Frank's restaurant.

The Manzellas are also related to the Minneci family, which ran Minneci's restaurant in Champaign from the 1980s through 2008, when it was sold to new owners. And they're related to the Buttitta family, which ran Dom's restaurant in Champaign for about 40 years.

"These kind of Italian restaurants are dwindling," John said, as Italian immigration to the U.S. has declined in the years since Frank came to the U.S.

The Manzellas have endured.

Taking a cue from their father, who put in long days at the restaurant, and their mother, who also helped prepare food there, the Manzellas said they've inherited their work ethic.

The schedule always, inevitably, varies. On a recent weeknight, Joe had planned to be off, but he ended up coming in because the restaurant became so busy with customers.

Cindy, who worked an "8 to 5, Monday through Friday, off-all-major-holidays corporate job" before joining the restaurant, remembers thinking, "What do you mean I've got to work New Year's Eve?"

When they were younger, Frank and Ellen would close the restaurant for two weeks and they would all vacation as a family in Florida. Last year, for the first time, all the siblings and their families vacationed together in Italy.

They grew up together, they work alongside one another on weekdays and weekends and they vacation together.

"We all get along," John said.

Really. They do.

"If there's something to be said, we just say it," Nickie said.

"The loudest wins," John said.

Conversations carry on, take different directions and pick up where they left off. They'll often get sidetracked, Cindy said. Because the family members have worked together for so long, they can also pick up a job in the kitchen or out front if someone else has to leave or attend to other business.

After they finish their morning coffees, they each start to move, one person checking inventory, another reviewing the dining room to make sure it's ready for the guests, and another to start making the sauces or fillings, which are all made from scratch, Frank said.

"We all understand the need to get everything hot and going. Because as soon as those doors are open, it's show time," Mary said.

"I'm a very proud mother," Ellen said, looking around the kitchen and at her children.

To celebrate their anniversary, the Manzellas are offering spaghetti dinners for $3.50 through the end of the month. They're also holding drawings for cash prizes and gift certificates.

The restaurant is open for lunch 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.


Established: 1960 by Frank Manzella.
Now owned by:
Joe and Nickie Manzella and John and Cindy Manzella.
Managed by:
Mary Manzella.

The family's favorite dishes

Frank: Franco beef (Italian beef).
Chicken capperi.
Pizza bianco.
Spaghetinni and meatballs.
Rigatoni siciliana.
Baked mostacolli.