Nearly six months ago, Nino Riccio took a leap of faith and invested in the combination of his two New Castle restaurants. On Nov. 1, the chef and business owner plans to hold a soft opening for the II Tomato doors at its newer, larger location at 2409 Wilmington Road. The restaurant will then be open to the public Monday, Nov. 3.
Riccio, who lives in Ellwood City, wanted to free himself up from the constant ten-minute drive between II Tomato, a fine dining establishment on East Long Avenue, and III Tomato, a sandwich shop and pizzeria on Wilmington Road. He seized the opportunity to centralize his businesses when the owner of the property that housed Hoss’s Steak and Sea House decided to sell.
“I pass by here everyday,” Nino said. “It’s just a great location that will be a combination of two [businesses]. You’ll get the restaurant with steaks and chops with the white table cloth on one side, and the pressed sandwich and wood fire pizza on the other side. We’re going to have two bars…one outside. Something for everyone.”
With a bigger location and solid reputation, Nino plans to let the food and environment do all of the advertising in lieu of creating a large production for the business’s opening.
“We are gonna open real soft,” Nino added. “It’s all about the food. Everything is fresh and homemade from quality ingredients, made from scratch. No advertising. I want to open quietly and sort of ease in.”
A quiet opening seems easier said than done, though, as most people in Lawrence County know what to expect from a Riccio-owned restaurant…delectable food in a family environment.
The Riccio family is synonymous with delicious Italian cuisine. In 1967, Nino’s mother, Aurora, began her own genuine Italian catering service – Aurora’s Catering – out of Ellwood City on Hillside Avenue. She specialized in weddings and other events for nearly 50 years, and became the premier caterer in Ellwood City.
“My mother started it all with the catering business,” Nino said. “She did events for everyone in town. It’s still going strong today with my sisters (Pina Riccio and Elena Punzell) running it.”
Also, his father, Antonio Riccio, opened a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. called Riccio’s Fireside Continental in 1974. And, his brother Vinny owns and operates Vinny’s Pizza and Restaurant on Beaver Avenue. So, not surprisingly, the II Tomato name directly relates to a family tradition.
“It’s a nod to my father,” Nino explained. “He used to sit with his grandchildren, my children. He would say ‘one tomato, two tomato, three tomato, four.’ So, Vinny’s restaurant is ‘One Tomato’, and then I have ‘Two Tomato’ and ‘Three Tomato’.”
Nino paid his dues in the restaurant business in the late 1970s when he worked at the Red Bull Inn in Beaver Falls. After high school, he went to culinary school in Denver, Co., before coming back to Pennsylvania to open his first business, Nino’s Trattoria, on Main Street in Zelienople. Nino’s wife, Robin, noted that his schedule, as it is today, was hectic.
“We opened the first Pizzeria in 1986,” Robin said. “Our daughters were really young. My oldest, Gab, was one, and I was pregnant with Leandra. Nino worked all the time. I was home for 17 months with the kids, then, I went and worked with him.”
The hard work paid off, as Nino and Robin sold what became a very successful pizzeria, and went to New Castle to open an elegant sit-down restaurant, II Tomato, in September 2004. Nino went back to a pizzeria and sandwich shop format a few years later with the opening of III Tomato at the opposite end of town. The long days continue for Nino, though, as his workload increased significantly since obtaining the new location earlier this year.
“I’ve been putting in 12, 16 and even 18-hour days,” Nino said. “It’s a lot of work, but it is worth it to get rid of that drive between restaurants. It’s only ten minutes, but going back and forth all the time really starts to wear on you after a while.
Gabrielle and Leandra, as their father, uncle, and aunts did before them, joined their parents in the restaurant business. Each daughter secured a job in the restaurant by age twelve. The girls learned the ins-and-outs of restaurant operation, and eventually earned management positions that they continue to hold today.
“All four of us – me, Robin, Gab, and Leandra – are part of this,” Nino said. “Basically, the girls went off to do their own thing for a while, then came back here. When I went to Colorado and did my thing, I thought ‘I should have never come back,’ but, you know, things are always better at home.”
As for all of the employees, they will be staying “home” as well.
“All of the employees are coming with us,” Robin added. “They are great people.”
Although the extended drive will affect some patrons who frequented the previous locations, the familiar staff and engaging atmosphere should continue to bring them to II Tomato for years to come.
“A lot of people don’t want us to leave,” Robin said. “We’ve been doing this for 28 years now. We’ve met a lot of great people, and all of the relationships we’ve made…they’re amazing. [We] will definitely miss it here.”