By Adrienne McGee Sterrett
Frank Guagenti has been training all his life.
He learned how to prepare classic Italian food from his father and grandfather, who learned from their forefathers.
“The heart and soul of it is the way we were taught,” he said.
Guagenti, owner of Milano Café, explained the basics don’t change at his restaurant. The marinara sauce is the marinara sauce.
“I’ve never looked up a recipe and said, ‘Let’s try this,’” he explained.
He’s inspired by dishes eaten at other places — inspired to get to his kitchen and put his own spin on it.
“Everything we do is from our minds and our souls and our creativity,” he said.
The family has been centered around food for a very long time. They come from Caccamo, Italy, which is near Sicily. Family legend says an ancestor had a restaurant there. (There are still relatives in the village; Guagenti has traveled back once, so far.)
His grandfather, also named Frank, came to Lima via Chicago with his brother, Joe. They opened a “little place” on Wayne Street in 1931. Soon after, they moved the restaurant to Main Street.
“They pretty much introduced Italian food to Lima back then,” he said. “It’s just a restaurant family.”
His father, Joe, went into the military and did some college work before Grandpa Frank called him home to help with the restaurant.
In 1960, they opened the Milano Club at Market and McDonel. The ornate décor and dinner club atmosphere is still talked about in town today, although it burned in 1996.
“It was really something for Lima,” Guagenti said, explaining it was the place to impress a guest or take a client for a business dinner.
Guagenti started working in restaurants when he was 13 or 14 years old, brought in by his father. Guagenti is the oldest of the third generation of the family to operate Lima restaurants. He earned a business degree and got right back to work, joining full time in 1980.
In 1984, the family bought Tudor’s, where Milano Café is currently located. Guagenti ran Tudor’s – an American steakhouse – while others in the family ran the Milano Club. The fire changed things, as the family decided not to rebuild and instead focus on Tudor’s. Under Guagenti’s direction, it became Milano Café in about 2000.
“My heart was always in the Italian food,” he said.
About three years ago, Guagenti’s son — Joe — joined his father at the restaurant.
“It’s a tradition,” Joe Guagenti said. “Not only in our family but in the Lima community.”
“I can’t imagine there’s too many fourth-generation restaurants,” Frank Guagenti said.
The fact they have remained independent and are not part of a chain or franchise is a point of pride.
“I put the quality of our Italian food up against anybody,” Frank Guagenti said.
Serves 6 people.
4 to 5 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
3/4 large yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup fresh coarse basil, chopped or torn by hand
1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup heavy cream
1 14-ounce can California vine ripened ground tomatoes
1 28-ounce can Hunts tomato sauce
2 ounces grated Romano cheese
1 1/4 ounces vodka or brandy, your choice
Red pepper flakes
1 pound of pasta, your choice (Nicolina sauce goes well with all pastas — great with angel hair, fettuccine, seashells, rigatoni, penne. Choose your pasta and closely follow cooking instructions; do not overcook.)
In a 2-quart sauce pan, heat 1/4 butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. When warm, add chopped onions and sauté them for two minutes, then add all garlic and mushrooms, along with a third of the coarse basil and chopped parsley. Sauté ingredients for approximately three minutes until mushrooms soften.
When done, add the canned tomatoes and sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.
Bring to a simmer for 15 minutes. Adjust heat as needed. Then add cream and liquor. Add another third of basil and parsley and 1/4 stick of butter. Stir ingredients in sauce and simmer for five more minutes. The sauce is now done.
Cook pasta according to package directions, as all pastas have different cooking times. Strain; shake off all excess water.
In a large bowl, ladle the bottom of the bowl with sauce, add your hot pasta, ladle sauce over pasta, add Romano cheese and remaining basil and parsley along with a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional). Toss the pasta so the sauce mixes throughout, then ladle sauce over the top and serve family style. Keep some extra sauce on the side.
ADRIENNE MCGEE STERRETT
Adrienne is the lifestyle/special sections editor for The Lima News. She believes everyone has a life story worth sharing. Reach her at 567-242-0510 or email@example.com.