This article was first published in the Orlando Sentinel on Sept. 3, 2004.
If you were to believe everything you saw on HBO or read in a Mario Puzo novel, you might think that an Italian family in the same business would be interested only in making you an offer you couldn’t refuse. But for an extended Central Florida family, the focus is making you a pizza you can’t resist.
It’s a family of husbands, wives, cousins and sisters, and their story might make a pretty good miniseries on its own, with all the conflicts of a real-life drama. But you’ll definitely need a program to know who’s who.
You may want to write this down.
There’s Michael and Maria Liguori; there’s Louie and Maria Palo (she’s Michael’s sister); and Michael and Theresa Tardugno (cousin of Michael and Maria Palo, nee Liguori); and Vincenzo and Teresa Savino (Michael and Maria’s sister); and Louie and Susan Lonetti (Maria Liguori’s sister). There’s also Carmine Liguori, who incidentally is married to Louie Palo’s sister, Susan.
You may not recognize the names but you probably know the restaurants: Amalfi, Peppino’s, Louie & Maria’s, Galleria, Papa Tony’s and Pizzeria Valdiano. It all began on Sept. 5, 1981, when Michael Liguori opened Michael’s on State Road 50 in east Orlando.
The restaurant had 40 seats in the beginning, and two years later, with business going well, Liguori built a new structure next to the original and expanded the capacity to 90 seats. After a year, Liguori’s cousin Michael Tardugno moved to Florida and joined the Liguoris at Michael’s.
The two families worked together, and over the next several years the Savinos moved from New York to Orlando and the Palos came down from New Haven. All worked to some degree at the little restaurant on East Colonial Drive.
Louie Palo, who until that time had been an auto mechanic, found himself working in the kitchen and learning how to cook. His wife helped out in the dining room, waiting tables one day a week.
You’re probably wondering how all those people — all those relatives — got along together working in a small business side by side.
“There were complications after a while,” says Maria Liguori. Michael Liguori says “family are great,” but “it’s hard to give them orders, and because they’re family they think they’re more free” not to follow those orders.
Mimi Hull, a corporate psychologist who consults for family businesses, says there are plusses and minuses when families work together. One problem can occur if there is a chain of command difference between work and home. If the father is head of the house but the mother is head of the restaurant, there can be a relationship conflict.
But Hull says as employees, you often get loyalty you can’t buy with strangers. Plus there is the advantage of being able to continue to work on the business at home.
“Of course, the downside is that you take the business home with you,” says Hull.
Tardugno says he strives to keep work and personal life separate. “When we leave, it’s a different world,” he says. But he admits he and his cousin had a “misunderstanding,” which centered on dealing with employees, that caused the initial break-up, and it would be “two or three years” before the two Michaels made up.
Maria Palo acknowledges there were difficult times.
“I think every time you see someone breaking away” to start a new restaurant, “that’s the result of a problem,” Maria Palo says.
But even new ventures often involved other members of this sizable family. Over the years, the Palos opened Amalfi with Michael Liguori. Liguori left, and the Savinos came in. Then the Savinos left. The Liguoris opened Peppino’s, which means “little Joe,” a reference to their son, Joseph.
The Liguoris were doing well with Peppino’s, but Michael grew weary of the demands of owning a restaurant. “I started to get tired of working close to 80 hours a week,” he says. Enter Maria Liguori’s sister and brother-in-law, Susan and Luigi Lonetti, whose son, Nato, had been working at the restaurant. The Lonettis bought Peppino’s.
Shortly after selling Peppino’s, Liguori was approached by Bill Marcello, who, astonishingly, is not related to anyone else in this story.
At least not officially. Marcello began working with Liguori in New Haven, then followed him to Orlando and Michael’s. After 26 years of working with Liguoris, Tardugnos and Palos he says, “you become part of the family. The Italians are like that.”
Still, he says there were times when he felt more like an employee than a member of the family. But that, he says, is just business, and he understands that. When Marcello opened Galleria restaurant in Lake Mary, he hired his daughter to serve as hostess. When a guest complained about the “girl at the front desk” who ignored him when he came in, Marcello fired his daughter.
“It’s a livelihood,” says Marcello, “and the family doesn’t see it as that.”
Michael Liguori opened Galleria with Marcello, but his heart wasn’t in it. Over the years, Liguori would go in and out of the food-service business, and the Palos would move their business to Colonial Drive and sell Amalfi.
Now, remember Joseph Liguori, Michael and Maria’s son for whom Peppino’s was named? By now he’s all grown up, has graduated from college with a business degree and has a nice, steady job. But Joe grew up in the restaurant business. He worked the pizza line at his namesake restaurant when he was only 14, and always thought Peppino’s would one day be his.
“It broke my heart when they sold it,” he says.
So he starts talking to his father about the restaurant business.
“I said, ‘Joe, you have a good job, what do you need restaurants for?’ ” says his father. But Joe was insistent. So Liguori said, “OK, if you really want it, let’s find a good place and open something simpler.”
With a college friend as a partner, Joe Liguori opened Pizzeria Valdiano in Winter Park Village in 2002. His father works for him part time, but Joe is in charge.
Joe says he wants to avoid the pitfalls that come from family in proximity, so his won’t be a family operation.
“I see where they’ve done things right and they’ve done things wrong,” says the younger Liguori, “and they relied on family too much.
“It gets personal.”
As for the rest of the family, the Palo’s restaurant is very much a family operation. Their son, Alphonse, is learning how to cook from his father, and daughter Diana serves as hostess. Honorary family member Bill Marcello also works with them.
The Lonettis still own Peppino’s. Michael and Theresa Tardugno, along with their children, son Dominick, daughter Maria (another Maria!) and her husband, Herbie Wold, continue to serve at Michael’s. Teresa Savino is still with the Palos at Louie & Maria’s. And Maria Liguori helps out whenever she’s called upon.
That’s what family is for.