Restaurant Report: Roman Village

Old-school recipes and generations of stellar work ethic help guide Roman Village to its 60th anniversary.
On a daily basis, this machine extrudes the fresh pasta at Roman Village: linguine, fettuccine, rigatoni, mostaccioli, and more. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

How does one face the daunting task of owning and operating five different restaurants? Well, it helps to have a big family.

The Rugieros have their collective hands full 鈥 has been a mainstay in Dearborn for 60 years, and with four other restaurants in tow (each named Antonio鈥檚), it takes every last member of the family to make it work. Even the grandkids.

鈥淢y mom has 14 grandchildren,鈥 says Patrick Rugiero, who鈥檚 managing at Roman Village most days, 鈥渁nd 11 of them work in the company.鈥

The Rugiero brothers 鈥 Patrick, Anthony, Mark, and Robert 鈥 grew up folding pizza boxes and washing dishes at the restaurant after school.

鈥淚t wasn鈥檛 always fun,鈥 laughs Anthony Rugiero, the CEO and president of the restaurants. 鈥淭he restaurant was our playground. Our day care.鈥

Enrica 鈥淩ita鈥 Rugiero poses with her four sons, (from left) Robert, Anthony, Mark, and Patrick, at the 60th anniversary party in April. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Though the grandkids work in between college classes, the series of southeast Michigan Italian-American restaurants is held together by the Rugiero brothers and their mother, Enrica, better known as Rita. Antonio Rugiero, Rita鈥檚 husband, purchased Roman Village when it was Joe鈥檚 Pizzeria in 1964. He has since passed.

鈥淲e鈥檙e all a part of the same family,鈥 Anthony says of the restaurants. In addition to Roman Village, there are three Antonio鈥檚 Cucina Italiana locations (in Canton, Farmington Hills, and Dearborn Heights), plus in Livonia. 鈥淚鈥檓 very proud. I don鈥檛 like to think of us as a franchise. I look at it as one restaurant with five extensions.鈥

In a speech at Roman Village鈥檚 60th anniversary party in April, Robert, the youngest brother, said a dedicated network of family and friends and a great staff have allowed the Rugieros to experience such success. But success is also achieved through great food and affordable prices; both have continued to anchor the family business.

What makes Roman Village such a breath of fresh air is that it remains unchanged in an ever-evolving restaurant landscape. By and large, pasta has become a luxury item. Today, it鈥檚 standard practice to charge $25 for cacio e pepe (a dish that literally translates to two ingredients: cheese and pepper). Prices for fresh pasta around Detroit vary from $25 to $35, but at Roman Village, they hover reliably at $20 or less.

鈥淧rices are ridiculous,鈥 Patrick admits about a trend that鈥檚 prevalent across the country. Oftentimes, what you pay for at a restaurant is a show 鈥 pink leather couches, chandeliers, the fancy environment. As a result, restaurants often charge $10 more for homemade pasta.

The late Antonio Rugiero bought the restaurant by signing a deal written on a place mat. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

At Roman Village, though, you get it all. The environment is lively, the pasta is homemade, and the price remains a throwback. An enormous plate of spaghetti carbonara costs $21. Cavatelli Bolognese runs for $20, and a classic Italian-American fettuccine Alfredo only sets customers back $21.

Keep in mind that this is still fresh pasta 鈥 pasta that鈥檚 made daily at each of the Rugiero-owned and -operated restaurants. Dough is made with eggs and flour, then extruded through a large pasta machine imported from Italy.

Linguine and fettuccine run through the machine鈥檚 brass die, while other shapes like rigatoni and mostaccioli have their own separate attachments. Long, wavy sheets of pasta dough are cranked through to make lasagna as well as provide the foundation for stuffed pastas like ravioli and baci.

Baci, literally meaning 鈥渒isses鈥欌 in Italian, are a small, stuffed, purse-shaped pasta that hails from the Piedmont region, which borders France and Switzerland. Roman Village highlights many pasta dishes native to northern Italy, whose cuisine is known for its hearty, rich sauces.

Take Roman Village鈥檚 Bolognese, which features a mix of beef and pork, plenty of tomatoes, aromatics, and a pour of heavy cream. The Gnocchi Rita Sauce, a recipe that comes directly from the matriarch, Rita, includes pancetta, mushrooms, and smooth pillows of potato gnocchi.

At Roman Village, you get it all. The environment is lively, the pasta is homemade, and the price remains a throwback. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

The comforting menu has translated well to Detroit鈥檚 temperate climate. Though Antonio himself was from Calabria and crafted the coveted pizza recipe, Rita鈥檚 central Italian roots are responsible for the menu鈥檚 wonderful spread of robust rag霉s, stuffed pastas, and American-influenced continental classics.

For the Alfredo sauce, cream is added, unlike in the traditional Roman preparation (butter and Parmesan). A plate littered with small, prosciutto- and Grana Padano-stuffed baci is accompanied by heavy cream and peas, giving a nod to an Americanized carbonara (though a classic carbonara made with eggs and pancetta also sits on the menu).

Soothing chicken pastina soup is made with poultry broth and little bits of freshly diced pasta from the extruder. Sun-dried tomatoes, a forgotten linchpin of the 鈥90s, find their way into aglio e olio, and chicken masala, veal piccata, and linguine and clams all make special appearances.

This isn鈥檛 just a red-sauce joint in Detroit; this is the red-sauce joint in Detroit.

The food at Roman Village is saucy, and the portions are hefty. 鈥淲e鈥檙e a family restaurant,鈥 Anthony says. 鈥淎nd you can鈥檛 call yourself a family restaurant if you can鈥檛 take the whole family out to eat.鈥 Anthony says consistency across the board is important for the restaurants. This consistency has resulted in not just longevity but expansion. Roman Village has undergone many renovations since Antonio bought the small pizzeria on a handshake deal written on a place mat in the 鈥60s.

From left, clockwise: Linguine arrabiata, baci, cavatelli Bolognese, linguine al pesto, Antonio鈥檚 Special Pizza, and Gnocchi Rita Sauce. Inset: Homemade bread and a glass of wine make the meal complete. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Antonio and Enrica, both Italian immigrants who settled in Dearborn in the 鈥60s, had very different upbringings. Antonio was from southern Italy, and Enrica came from Gubbio, a small town in the central part of the country, nestled in the province of Umbria.

When asked if northern and southern Italian rivalry was a hurdle in their relationship, Patrick shoots an indignant look. 鈥淎re you kidding me?鈥 Patrick fires back. 鈥淢y mom didn鈥檛 want to tell her father where he was from.鈥

However, Antonio was quite close with his father-in-law, Anthony says. Of his parents, he says, 鈥淭hey had to put food on the table. They had a dream: come to America, open a business, and have a family. That was their dream, and they worked hard for it.鈥

Recently, Roman Village celebrated its 60th anniversary with a party at the restaurant. The event was attended by family, friends, and employees of the past. Busboys who have since become busmen were in attendance, and one of its oldest retired cooks and pasta-makers, Laverne, came to show respect. At Roman Village, even when you hit 80, that doesn鈥檛 mean you stop cooking. 鈥淪tick around 鈥 my mom will be here later,鈥 Patrick says with a laugh during a busy lunch service.

With five successful restaurants, what鈥檚 next for the Rugiero family? Perhaps a sixth location eventually, Anthony hints. Additionally, a cookbook featuring Mama Rita鈥檚 recipes is currently in the works. Keep in mind these are recipes that Patrick had to fight tooth and nail to extract. Getting treasured recipes from any Italian, even your own mother, proved to be a daunting task.

Homemade bread and a glass of wine make the meal complete. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Meanwhile, the Rugiero family continues to give back to the community in generous ways, following in the footsteps of Antonio. The Rugiero Promise Foundation, founded by Anthony, raises funds for numerous health and goodwill initiatives, as well as for the arts (the family is passionate about Italian opera).

For the 31st year in a row this past June, all five restaurants hosted Feast of St. Antonio Day, providing a free lunch buffet to all who attended and accepting pay-what-you-can donations, with proceeds going to the and . Additionally, the foundation raised over $500,000 at an annual event last year to fund diabetes research 鈥 a cause near and dear to the Rugieros: the condition took Antonio鈥檚 life in 2008.

Patrick has helped raise millions of dollars for community organizations like the . CEF provides comprehensive health care for children with developmental disabilities throughout southeast Michigan. It also offers valuable support for caregivers, helping them find the right schools and insurance and, in general, tackle whatever problems may arise. Patrick oversees the center鈥檚 Red Tie event, in addition to serving on a total of six boards in Detroit.

Mary Kosch, of (another historic family-run business), is the co-chair of the advisory council for CEF and works with Patrick directly to raise money for services not covered by insurance. 鈥淚 call him a wonderful madman,鈥 Mary says with a laugh. 鈥淗e鈥檚 so connected, he鈥檚 got a heart of gold, and he can鈥檛 say no.鈥

Joe Vicari of Andiamo fame, proprietor of the , spoke about the Rugiero family鈥檚 lasting success. Vicari named consistency, quality product, and a loyal staff as the keys to Roman Village鈥檚 success. 鈥淭heir staff is a testament to them. It鈥檚 leadership. It鈥檚 being treated fairly. They treat people fairly.鈥

From top left, clockwise: Classic tiramisu, cheesecake, cannoli, toasted almond tiramasu, and spumoni ice cream. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Anthony also boasts about his management staff. Across the five restaurants, Roman Village employs 16 managers. Among those 16, the shortest tenure is five years. The oldest manager has been with the family for 32 years. In short, people love working for the Rugieros.

鈥淭he success of the family over the last 60 years has been a lot of dedicated work,鈥 Vicari says.

鈥淣ow, they鈥檙e going to their third generation. The restaurants are going to be in good hands and will be around for another 60 years.鈥

Roman Village, a restaurant forged by familial strength and community, remains a pillar in Dearborn and an outlier in a constantly developing industry. Go to Roman Village for a show but also to support one of the city鈥檚 most influential families. The recipes at the restaurant are decades old, and each one represents a part of the family鈥檚 culture, ties, and history.

And the Rugieros are always eager to share their history with you, one bite at a time.

This story originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of 黑料网 Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of 黑料网 Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on July 8.