EAST LIVERPOOL - According to Lou Volino, Casa de Emanuel is a family business in the truest sense of the term. From the name of the restaurant, chosen in honor of Lou's father, Emanuel Volino, to the families who dine together there and members of the Volino family who have worked there, it's a recurring theme of the establishment.
Casa de Emanuel celebrates its 15th anniversary on Monday, but the building that houses the restaurant at 460 Mulberry St. on the city's East End dates back much further and has been the site of family businesses from the start.
The first establishment in what is now Casa de Emanuel was Mackey's Bar, which opened in 1920. It was a mill bar, Volino says, serving a clientele consisting mainly of workers from the industry that once thrived in the area.
Lou Volino, co-owner of Casa de Emanuel with his wife Michelle Volino, stands behind the hardwood Brunswick bar that has been fixture of the building since 1920, when it first opened as Mackey’s Bar. (Photo by Richard Sberna)
It remained so until being sold in 1966 to Jim and Mary Fiorello, who re-opened the business as an Italian restaurant, Fiorello's, later that year. That too was a family business, with members of Jim's extended family and Mary's family, the Yannis, pitching in. Twenty years later, the restaurant was sold to Richard and Michelle Hunsicker, who kept it going until 1999.
It was then that Lou and Michelle Volino were able to make it a family business of their own.
"We took over and opened up as Casa de Emanuel on Feb. 17, 1999," Volino said. He mainly works in the restaurant itself while Michelle tends to the books in the office. Their children, Angie and Louie, are now adults, but both worked in the restaurant for many years.
During those early days 15 years ago, Volino also worked as a health and physical education teacher, first at Westgate Elementary School, then at St. Aloysius, before retiring in 2009 after a 30-year career. This was in addition to he and Michelle raising young children and opening a second business in Chester.
When asked where they found the time, Volino says, "Honestly, I don't know. It was just a matter of keeping at it."
Even with the children now grown, the family connection continues. Volino's father-in-law, Mike Chan, cooks all the sauce served in the restaurant every day. The open-air patio added five years ago, which overlooks a fenced-in garden and rock waterfall, was landscaped by David Kyle, Volino's brother-in-law.
An old building means lots of history, such as the original Brunswick hardwood bar dating back to 1920 that remains in the lounge, a reminder of the countless patrons served here over the generations.
It also means lots of maintenance, and Casa de Emanuel is no exception. Recent upgrades include a refurbished kitchen and infrastructure issues like replacement of the building's old electrical wiring and sewer system. Volino says customers can expect the dining room to get some attention too in the coming months.
Volino admits that the history of Casa de Emanuel has included some troubling times when he and Michelle weren't sure they were going to make it. He says the business faced serious financial problems, mostly related to a former business partner. Those troubles now behind them, Volino is able to take a sanguine view of the experience.
"It was very much an adventure," he said.
Volino says those trials have served to make he and his family even more thankful for Casa de Emanuel's loyal customers, who were instrumental in the restaurant's survival during that period. "They've kept us going, and we appreciate them very much," he said.
Equally generous thanks is offered to the staff of Casa de Emanuel whom Volino, not surprisingly, says he also thinks of as family. "We try to make an atmosphere where not only are we working for our customers, but we're trying to help each other," he said. "Every day, we try to better ourselves so we can better serve our customers."