VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
LOWELLVILLE -- Retired Old Men Eating Out -- Lowellville's ROMEOs, as they jokingly refer to themselves, love everything about Geno's Restaurant -- good food, good service, good friends.
The restaurant, nestled between the railroad tracks and Water Street, is the official meeting place for friends and neighbors looking for a good meal, hot coffee, a friendly smile and the latest news.
Tuesdays are especially busy. Women gather around a table in the back after praying the novena at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church. The regular ROMEOs, many of whom meet for breakfast Tuesday through Sunday -- Geno's is closed Mondays -- gather around tables and in booths near the front, busily planning their next golf outing, the day's activities or bantering jokes back and forth among tables.
"It's a small little town, everybody knows everybody -- and their business," said Al Stefano. "Half of these people are my neighbors."
Stefano "is going to be 80 pretty soon," he said, and has lived in Lowellville all his life.
Not only do he and his buddies know just about everyone in the restaurant, they know their family histories, what they do for a living, what they do to have fun, and, perhaps most importantly, when to show up to meet their pals for breakfast.
There is no set meeting time for the morning regulars. The early birds start arriving around 9 a.m.; others don't come in until 9:30 or 10.
"Whoever gets here, we sit together," Stefano said.
"There's always somebody you know," said John Moretti, one of Stefano's tablemates. Moretti is 74 and has lived in Lowellville "about 60 years."
Before he could ask for a refill, a waitress poured more coffee into his cup.
"That's one thing I like about this place; your cup never goes dry," Moretti said.
"The food is always delicious," Stefano added.
"I love the fish," said Pat Iudiciani, another of Stefano's tablemates.
Iudiciani, 74, served as police chief of Lowellville in the 1980s.
"I was his sidekick when we were on the police force," Stefano said.
Claim to fame
Fred Dilullo, also at the table, served on the police force too. He worked there 20 years. Dilullo, 92, also worked at Sharon Steel Hoop, but neither his job there nor his career as a law enforcement officer is his claim to fame.
"My grandson's wife had five babies -- all at the same time," he said. "They were born on my 90th birthday."
Of course, all the regulars already knew that.
Dilullo's grandson and his family live near Dayton.
More regulars straggle in. And similar to the greeting Norm received each time he entered the bar on the 1980s sitcom "Cheers," each is warmly greeted by name.
They fill in empty seats around occupied tables, and when no empty chairs remain, slide into booths waiting to see who will show up next.
Iudiciani's younger brother, Felix, 69, slides into a nearby booth.
Dan Ciccone, 71, slides in next to him. Mike Yaksic, 66, and Frank DiRusso, 74, slide in across the table.
All of the men are originally from Lowellville; Yaksic moved to Youngstown in 1962, Ciccone moved to Struthers in 1964.
"I moved to Struthers because I couldn't find a house for sale in Lowellville," Ciccone explained.
He and his tablemates have been eating at Geno's "ever since they opened. We've always got a group in here," Ciccone said.
Their favorite meals vary.
"I get the same breakfast every morning," shouted one of the regulars.
"The spaghetti sauce is very good," said another.
"We sell a lot of things that the people like," said Celia Vance, who worked at the original Geno's until it burned down in 1991. Last October, after working as an inspector at Insulated Glass for 10 years, Vance and her husband, Police Chief Bill Vance, bought the restaurant.
A fish special draws a crowd Fridays, Vance said. "We have a spaghetti special Thursday."
A lot of people like the homemade chicken dumpling soup; some like the nine varieties of wings; others like the burgers, she said.
Geno's burger isn't just grilled ground beef, notes Corky Cuevas, who's cooked at the restaurant since it reopened three years ago. It's made similar to the way meatballs are made, with all of the extras -- peppers, onions and spices -- mixed in.
Cuevas and waitress Cindy Hynes are happy to spoil their customers.
They routinely cut sausage into bite-size pieces and put butter and jelly on toast for one customer who suffered a stroke. They put each item on a different plate for another who doesn't like all of his food piled on one plate, and Cuevas makes pancakes of varying sizes, according to customer preferences. Some customers like a plateful of tiny pancakes, others like one pancake that covers the plate.
"It's real down-home cooking, just like at home," Cuevas said. "At home it's, 'Mom, I want this,' and Mom cooks." Usually, Cuevas said, she knows who's in the dining room by what they order.
One of the ladies, Giorgin Bongiagzio, 81, likes the scrambled eggs. She also enjoys visiting Geno's because the restaurant "is beautiful."
Vance is in the process of renovating the building; a new banquet room will open in June.
Bongiagzio and her neighbors, Martha Perotta, 78, Josephine McGuire, 82, and Anne Sepic have been visiting Geno's "ever since it opened way back when," Perotta said.
Two gentlemen at a table near the ladies, Vic Leone of Poland and Frank Basista of Struthers have been dining at Geno's "for years before the fire," Leone said.
Motioning to the ladies, Leone joked, "You've got everything here, red heads, brunettes, white heads."
"Mostly white heads," Sepic replied with a smile.
It's the people
They all agree that it is Geno's friendly atmosphere and the camaraderie they find there that keeps them coming back for more.
"We don't have anything like this in Poland -- or Boardman either, for that matter," Leone said.
Geno's is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Of course, there are exceptions, Vance said. In a small town, business owners just know when customers will be scarce. First Holy Communion services are the first Sunday in May, she said. So, the restaurant will be closed. Most of the customers, she reasoned, will be eating at parties.