Sunday, July 02, 2000

A family restaurant, in every sense of the word

Schiavone's Casa Mia made over for the next generation

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer Contributor

        Yolanda Schiavone's family recipes helped Schiavone's Casa Mia restaurant become a Middletown culinary staple.

(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Over the years, her special touch with food created a demand for the restaurant's specialties, from antipasto to tiramisu.

        But the most successful recipe of all was one that combined faith, family loyalty and hard work, earning the restaurant a special place in the hearts of many Butler County residents.

        The engaging manner of Frank and Yolanda Schiavone and their sons Frank Jr., Dennis, David and Michael added to the restaurant's appeal.

        That appeal was missing for about a year. In the spring of 1999, the family closed the restaurant for minor improvements, which turned into a major renovation.

        “After 30 years of business, there had been a lot of wear and tear,” David explained.

        Minor repairs revealed the need for major repairs in the adjoining houses near downtown Middletown where the Schiavone family has dished out the pasta since 1971. And as the Schiavones repaired, they also remodeled, expanding the kitchen and adding a banquet room and bistro along with a new upscale look.

        On May 27 they celebrated their reopening with a party for their customers.

        “We expected 300 people, and we had 900, easy,” Dennis said.

        Folks who dropped in for the big night exclaimed at what they saw.

        “I can't believe it's the same place,” said Judi Dowden of Middletown. Mrs. Dowden, who attended the party with husband Tom and daughter Emily, has been a Schiavone customer for years.

        “It looks awesome,” agreed Emily Koenig, another longtime customer. “There's nothing like this particular place. Schiavone's is a tradition.”

        The tradition was born in 1970, when the family sat down to supper in their home at 1907 Tytus Ave.

        “We ran a collection agency, and I was getting bored,” Mrs. Schiavone said. “We were sitting around the table in the kitchen when all of a sudden I said, "Why don't we open up a restaurant?' My husband said, "Where?' and I said, "Right here.'”

        According to Mrs. Schiavone, her husband responded, “I'm putting $800 in the bank. When the money is gone, we'll close up.”

        He gave the venture 30 days.

        “I never touched a penny,” Mrs. Schiavone said.

        The family converted their living and dining rooms into eating areas, living in cramped quarters upstairs. Mrs. Schiavone did the cooking, Frank Jr., Dennis and David waited tables, and Michael washed dishes. He later did much of the cooking.

        Frank Sr. was the front man, chatting with customers at their tables, telling stories and amusing children with his aquarium.

        “He had a walking catfish, and would let the catfish walk through the dining rooms,” Dennis said. “He used to feed it pieces of sausage.”

        Frank Sr.'s hope that the restaurant could attract 150 customers a week was realized. Soon Schiavone's was serving more than 150 on a busy night.

        As business increased, the family bought the house next door and moved into it, converting the space above the restaurant into additional dining facilities. But the restaurant never crowded out family time.

        “Before we opened each day I would make a special dinner just for them, so we'd have a family life,” Mrs. Schiavone said. “That's when we talked about school, and what had happened that day.”

        Although the boys eventually pursued other careers, they and their wives continued to help out with the restaurant. And as their children grew old enough, they joined the family business.

        In 1991, Frank Sr. died.

        “There were too many memories here, so my mom stepped back,” Dennis said. The family pulled together. Michael, the youngest son, took over in the kitchen. The decision to remodel signalled the Schiavones' commitment to the future of their enterprise.

        But that decision was closely followed by the discovery that Mrs. Schiavone had cancer. As she began treatment and it became apparent the restaurant would need to be gutted, she offered her sons $500,000 for the project — her life savings.

        “I want to see that restaurant back open if you all support it,” she told them.

        When they agreed, Mrs. Schiavone sold her condominium and moved next door to the restaurant.

        “It took 14 months to complete her cancer treatment and 14 months to complete our remodeling,” Dennis said.

        When she wasn't undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, Mrs. Schiavone was in the restaurant, supervising the workers. Now she's back in the kitchen, proving her family recipes — and recipes for family — have withstood the test of time.


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