by Pam Marra
Sundays weren't always football games and pizza delivery. Years ago, many afternoons were spent in grandma's kitchen where a big, bubbling pot of spaghetti sauce and some crusty homemade bread were waiting on the other side of an insistent "mañga, mañga," eat, eat!
In those very kitchens, where generations of families gathered all those Sundays ago, some of the best Italian restaurants in the area were unwittingly born.
"This was actually the Minard family home," says Tressa Minard Wolfe, president and part-owner of Minard's Spaghetti Inn, the oldest Italian restaurant in Clarksburg.
Located on a once-bustling stretch of Old Route 50, the building served as the homestead for Mike and Rose Oliverio Minard and Sam and Agnes Oliverio Minard -- two brothers who married two sisters and worked at the local steel mill to support their families.
But when the mill closed, instead of migrating to area coal mines as many others did, Mike and Sam took a risk and turned to food.
"In an Italian family, the kitchen is always the center of activity. The kids didn't sit in the living room, glued to the TV or play computer games. They stayed in the kitchen and watched. So dad and Uncle Mike just decided to take what they had learned growing up and try their hands at cooking," Wolfe explains.
Their specialty, spaghetti and meatballs, was culled from family recipes and served up to friends and neighbors. Before long, word of mouth conjured up a small business and, in 1937, Minard's Spaghetti Inn officially opened, using two rooms of the house as serving areas.
At an early age, Wolfe learned that running a restaurant wasn't an easy job.
"The work seemed non-stop. When I got up for school, mom and my aunt were already downstairs scrubbing the floors and the men were cooking. When I got home from school, they were putting uniforms on and serving people.
"Being a child, I thought it must be so fun to be an adult because when you grew up, you never had to go to sleep," she says.
It wasn't long before she learned otherwise. Everybody had a job to do and that included all the Minard children.
"We all started out washing dishes; then the girls became waitresses and hostesses and all the guys worked in the kitchen," she says.
Her cousin, Joe Minard, also a co-owner, is now a state senator from Harrison County. But he remembers standing on a wooden box at the restaurant when he was 10 so he'd be tall enough to reach the dish tub.
"I think I've done every job in the place at one time or another. I used to love to be in the kitchen and watch my dad and uncle cook. That's how we learned. It was hard work, but it was all in the family," he says.
That quality is probably the biggest secret to success, local restaurateurs agree.
"When a business is family operated, there's a special pride that comes with all the responsibility and work," says Fred Arbonaise, manager of the Greenbrier Restaurant in Clarksburg. "My wife Mary and her mother and father, Frank and Tiny Loria, started this place 35 years ago and took a lot of pride in everything they did."
Italian families stick together and that makes a big difference in how things operate, he says.
Forty years ago, "Engine" and Rose Arco opened The Red Caboose, a restaurant at the corner of Joyce and East Pike streets. Their son, Johnny, now owns the establishment but says his entire family -- mother, father, wife, and sons -- are all involved in operating it.
"Family is definitely the secret to the success of Italian restaurants. There's a togetherness, a closeness; everybody helps everybody else," says Arco, whose restaurant offers such Italian specialties as pasta fagiole, ziti and fresh, homemade bread.
Petrina Bonamico, whose parents Sonny and Shirley started Oliverio's Ristorante in Bridgeport, seconds that.
"From head chefs to part-time servers, the entire family has been involved in some part of the business," she says. Four of the six Oliverio children still work and/or manage the restaurant that opened 35 years ago.
"Italians are known for being close-knit. Here, we work together as a team," says Joe Ielapi of Bridgeport's family-owned Twin Oaks Restaurant. "From the kids, to the grandkids, to the great-grandkids, we all play a part in this restaurant in one way or another."
Michael Ielapi started the business in 1957 and was soon joined by Sammy and Joe, who left their jobs at Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. to help their brother. Before long, sisters Connie, Angela and Elizabeth were lending a hand.
Michael remembers the kitchen being so tiny, his sister had to sit on a tomato can because there wasn't even room for a chair.
"There was no machinery or equipment because we couldn't afford it, so everything was made by hand, even the hoagie buns that we introduced to the Clarksburg area all those years ago," he says.
He recalls one of the girls spending hours making raviolis for the entire restaurant using a small machine she had at home, meant only for a few orders.
As the family grew, so did the restaurant, the equipment and the customer list. But the product itself never changed.
Throughout the 44 years, according to Joe, the constant has been the food, still freshly homemade and all inspired by "Mama" Ielapi's old-world recipes.
In 1980, Connie Ielapi Shields' brother-in-law, Raymon, threw his hat in the ring and opened a catering business, using his mother's Italian dishes. Two years later, "Raymon's" opened in the old Hot Rod Shop on West Pike Street.
"We keep customers coming back because the food is wonderful, and it's all still prepared fresh daily. That has never changed," says Anthony Lehosit, manager.
If it seems that Italians and food are synonymous, it's because they are, according to Mike Veltri, president of Muriale's, another well-known area eatery.
"Whether it's with family, friends, customers, or all of the above, food has always played a major role for us. Eating is an event. What seems to be something ordinary to most people, is seen as entertainment to Italians," says Veltri, nephew of Clarksburg natives Frank and Sam Muriale.
The Muriale family indirectly spawned another well-known Italian restaurant -- Philip's in the Glen Elk section of Clarksburg.
A Muriale niece, the late Thelma Podesta, is the mother of the owner, Philip Podesta.
"My mom was a great cook. She helped my uncles get Muriale's started and that's also where I had my first job. I made pizza boxes, peeled potatoes, washed dishes and then advanced to the prep line. At one point, I was in the management part of it," says Podesta.
But cooking was in his blood.
Following a stint as a chef at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, he took a gamble and brought his talent back home, starting a small catering business with his sister, Celeste, where he carried deliveries in the back of his car. In June 1989, Philip's opened on 5th Street.
"Everyone told me I was crazy for starting a restaurant in Glen Elk. They told me I would starve. But people in this area are very supportive of Italian restaurants. I think a lot of that is because they are operated by solid Italian families who know the value of hard work and a good product," he says.
Customers also appreciate hospitality, an old Italian trait, he says.
Customers at Minard's have been eating there for years and Tressa Wolfe thinks the friendly family atmosphere has a lot to do with that.
"A lot of our customers came here when they got engaged, later when they got married or had babies. We know them all by name and they like that. Over the years, they've become our friends," she says.
One of the most important things to the restaurant owners is that their customers are treated well and feel at home, just like they would've felt years ago in grandma's kitchen.
"Come Sunday, you knew you'd be eating this huge meal with lots of family around the big kitchen table," says Podesta, who remembers invoking his grandmother's words a few years back.
"In May of 1997, I got a call at five minutes before noon that some of President Clinton's staff were coming to check us out before he came to town. I couldn't believe it! It was right in the middle of my lunch rush hour.
"At first, I got nervous, but then I just remembered what my grandma used to say to us -- 'mañga, mañga' -- which basically meant 'shut up and eat.'
"So I sat them down, put lots of food in front of them and said, 'Shut up and eat.' We must've done pretty good by them, because when it came time to leave, they could hardly walk.
"It was just like Sundays at grandma's," he says.
Staff writer Pam Marra can be reached at 626-1439 or by e-mail at email@example.com.