Walkabout: Losing Minutello's feels like departure of favored relative

Sunday is last day for Italian restaurant that's lasted half a century in Pittsburgh's East End

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In these days of fast casual, there's still a place for the 5,000-square-foot, full-service restaurant, but after dinner next Sunday, 226 Shady Ave. won't be one of them.

Lou Minutello is ending the long chapter that began in 1960, when his father Lou and uncle Al opened Minutello's Meadow Grill in Larimer. The brothers moved to Shadyside a few years later and prospered enough to open two more restaurants, in Mt. Lebanon and Ross, and a fast-food place in Murrysville. The younger Lou was washing dishes and busing tables by age 12.

Over the years, the suburban restaurants closed while the flagship plugged along with regulars who took their grown children and grandchildren there. For decades, the Italian restaurant -- where the most expensive entree is still under $20 -- swirled with weddings, homecomings and bar mitzvah parties.

It was a long run "and it could have continued to pay the bills," Mr. Minutello said. "But I wanted something more."

At 54, an age when many people have stopped thinking about new chapters, he has one lined up.

Working with several investors, he will be opening a new prototype Italian Oven in the Orchard Park Plaza in Richland, possibly as early as March 15.

The Italian Oven started in the Pittsburgh area and has 120 locations nationwide. In recent years, its executives have been taking the chain in the direction of fast casual.

"This is where the industry is going," Mr. Minutello said, citing Chipotle and Panera as examples of restaurants that do not need as many employees as traditional, white napkin-on-the-lap dining. "We will have fast, fresh artisanal pizza, salad and pasta for less than $10."

For "a long time, I didn't want to leave because my name's on the door," he said. "I've been afraid to leave; I've had anxiety attacks. But I'm looking forward to what I think has tremendous potential."

He said he expects to continue Minutello's catering business from the new restaurant.

You can't spend 30 years serving people well without having a long line of sad regulars when you decide to stop doing it. Mr. Minutello said he expects to go through a lot of tissues by the end of the week. He has already said a lot of goodbyes to regulars such as Greg Dufour, a North Sider.

"Lou and his family have become woven into the East End," said Mr. Dufour, whose memories include sharing the dining room with a ladies mahjong group. "I think they had the best pizza and they had a sauce I've never tasted anywhere else. Rosa's chicken Romano cannot be duplicated anywhere in the Eastern United States. They had wonderful ladies who cooked and spoke Italian, and if you were a regular, they'd come out and talk to you. It was like going to the family's [home] for Sunday dinner."

Rich Talarico, a deputy mayor years ago under Richard Caliguiri, began eating at Minutello's as a kid.

"I went there with my parents, and when my wife and I were married 38 years ago, we started going. They had a great antipasto and some of the best pizza in Pittsburgh.

"I'm really going to miss it because of the relationships I had with Lou and his father and uncle."

Not long before his own father died, Mr. Talarico took him there for his favorite dish: greens and beans.

"After he died [in November], we rented the whole restaurant and had the wake for him there." The closing of the restaurant "is like losing another family member."

Mr. Minutello's efforts to sell the business have come up empty. A lot of people inquired but didn't have the money. The restaurant's equipment will be auctioned Feb. 24.

During his youth, he worked in the family restaurants with cousins and siblings who eventually went on to other jobs.

"I was the only knucklehead," Mr. Minutello said, laughing. "You have to love this business. You work day and night. But I've enjoyed it. I really enjoyed working with my dad."

After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in restaurant management, he returned to work with his father, who died soon afterward. In 2000, he and his wife, Theresa, bought the business from his mother, Rae, and aunt Eve.

"I've been here 30 years and I have 20 employees" he said. "That's the hardest part of this: my employees. I'll try to help them find other jobs.

"I'm a little sad to see this place go, but I'm excited about the future."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk


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