Reno Vitale can hardly walk into the restaurant without offering some bit of advice for making things better.
His daughter, Antonia Vitale-Sgro, said she’s come to expect it.
Vitale-Sgro and her husband, John Sgro, are the owners and operators of Antonella’s Ristorante & Pizzeria at 112 W. 3rd St., Davenport.
Antonella’s has been in Davenport since 2001, the past six years at the downtown location, Vitale-Sgro said. The lunch and dinner menus include original Sicilian pizza, homemade pastas, paninis, soups and salads.
Vitale-Sgro said the homey atmosphere adds to the restaurant’s charm and makes customers feel right at home.
“Several people have to have the same booth when they come in,” she said. “We have had people get engaged here.”
Their motto is “the best kept secret in town.” But she admits the motto is obsolete after President Barack Obama made a surprise stop for lunch last month after a campaign rally at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport. The following Friday night, waitress Judith Mickel said, diners were lined up on the sidewalk waiting to get in.
The wooden chair that the president sat in has been painted red, white and blue to commemorate the occasion, Vitale-Sgro said.
The family patriarch is Reno Vitale, 76, who grew up in Sicily. He has spent the past 41 years, mostly in the United States, crafting made-from-scratch pizza and other original Sicilian meals in restaurants he has operated since 1971.
Today, he still helps at Salvatore’s restaurant in Muscatine, operated by his son, Claudio, and Claudio’s family. Although Vitale says he is “kind of retired,” he makes the pizza dough each day.
Reno Vitale has traveled the world in his 71 years. When he was 17, he left Sicily for Venezuela to join several of his brothers who had moved there after World War II to find work.
He eventually got married and had three children. In 1971, he moved his family to Carlinville, Ill., where he opened his first restaurant.
“I came to this country with one suitcase,” he said. “Now, I got more than one suitcase. America do lots for me.”
In the province of Palermo in Sicily, the sfincione (or sfinciuni in Sicilian) is a common variety of pizza. It is typically square, with an abundance of dough and sauce. Vitale said today, it is known more as a deep dish pizza. He grew up eating sfincione and has used family recipes in his restaurants.
“I used the recipe from my grandmother and mother,” Vitale said. “I learned from my family.”
Vitale-Sgro said the family returned to Sicily for seven years when she was 15, but later moved back to the Quad-City area. She said it was home to her and she wanted to come home. “This is what we knew growing up,” she said.
She and John were married in 1988. He began his career in the restaurant business when they moved to Muscatine that year.
Vitale-Sgro said the couple opened their own restaurant in 1989 in Cambridge, Ill. and then opened another in downtown Bettendorf in 1993. But after those places closed, she and John joined the family business in Muscatine.
Over the years, she said many people from the Quad-Cities asked them to open a restaurant here. In 2001, the Sgros opened a restaurant at the former Dudley’s on East Kimberly Road in Davenport.
That is when they met Judith Mickel, who has worked for them ever since. Mickel, 69, lives in Maquoketa, Iowa, and drives 80 miles round trip to Davenport on the days she works.
“I love being a server. I have been around it all my life,” Mickel said. “I take a lot of pride in my work.”
Her first table-waiting job was in 1957 when she was 14, at the Green Mill Cafe in Maquoketa.
“I did that for 35 years until (that cafe) closed,” said the soft-spoken Mickel.
Back then, things were different.
“I made 65 cents an hour in the first place and some days, I would make $1.40 in tips,” Mickel said.
Vitale-Sgro praises Mickel for training many younger servers. Among them is Vitale’s daughter, Samanta, 20, a waitress, and her twin brother, Giovanni, who works in the kitchen.
“She is a mother and grandmother to my children,” Vitale-Sgro said of Mickel.
Mickel feels the same way.
“This is my family,” she said. “I feel like it is my restaurant.”
Another longtime employee, Rich Pugh, has been cooking for the family for 23 years, starting at some of the restaurants Reno Vitale operated.