Section: Features

Mazza’s, Mount Vernon’s beloved Italian restaurant, returns

Mazza’s, Mount Vernon’s beloved Italian restaurant, returns

Mike Mazza, co-owner of Mazza’s and grandson of restaurant founder Joe Mazza, is thrilled to welcome back patrons to the longtime town staple. ERYN POWELL

On June 9, 2018, Mike Mazza and his brothers Travis and Tony Mazza reopened Mazza’s restaurant at its new location on Upper Gilchrist Road in Mount Vernon after its closing 10 years ago. The patrons who knew and loved the old Mazza’s have welcomed the Italian eatery’s comeback with open arms.

In 1939, Joe Mazza opened Mazza’s Terminal Café in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Sons of Italian immigrants Salvatore and Rosa Mazza, Joe and his brothers grew up in Clarksburg, W.Va. where his family had settled in search of coal mining jobs. But Joe was determined to become a businessman instead.

It was this entrepreneurial spirit that inspired Joe to start his first venture: Mazza’s Terminal Café. The little restaurant of ten stools and four booths was connected to the bus terminal that had greeted Joe Mazza on his arrival to Mount Vernon. In 1945, Joe Mazza moved his restaurant to its second location at 214 West High Street, renaming it Mazza’s. Here it continued to provide the Mount Vernon community with Italian cuisine and a lively atmosphere for 63 more years.

The restaurant has been loved by generations of Mount Vernon families as well as national celebrities including Ronald Reagan, Carol King, Jerry Springer and John Lattner, a Notre Dame football player who won the Heisman Trophy in 1953. Mazza’s was even a favorite hangout spot for Kenyon alum Paul Newman ’49 H’61, who would come to Mazza’s and sit at the bar to talk to Mazza’s brothers, Frank and “Jo-Jo.”

Mike Mazza, Joe’s grandson and current co-owner of the new Mazza’s, took over the family business in 2003, but in 2008 the financial hardships of the the Great Recession ended the beloved Italian restaurant’s 69-year run. After the closing in 2008, Mike Mazza went on to work for 10 years at Gordon Food Service (GFS), a family-owned food service distributor that serves restaurants and other organizations in the U.S.

While working at GFS, Mike began to see a change in the restaurant business — a rise in mom-and-pop stores, diners and locally-owned restaurants. The rise of food blogging and food networks meant that local, family-owned eateries were getting more public attention. This was great news to Mike who, since Mazza’s closing in 2008, had been looking for the right time to reopen his family’s restaurant. “As business started to gravitate back to the accounts I was selling to,” he said, “I started to think to myself, ‘This could be a good opportunity for us to come back.’” He was right.

“[In 2015] I started to build a business plan of us coming back,” Mike said, “[of] us reinventing the brand … It was a little nerve-wracking taking that step, because I was in the comfort of corporate America.” Determined to bring back his family’s restaurant, he didn’t let that stop him.

The walls of the new restaurant are covered with photos, posters and various other memorabilia, chronicling Mazza’s years as a destination restaurant for countless generations of families that have loved it since it was a small café connected to the local bus terminal. Mike kept and curated these pieces. “When the original restaurant closed, it was important for me to archive it,” he said, “because I had always hoped that I’d have another opportunity down the road to reopen, and I just wanted to share the history of our restaurant on the walls.”

On a wall just inside the entrance to Mazza’s, a glittery dinner jacket hangs enclosed in a glass case. Every gentleman in the 60s who came to dine at Mazza’s was required to wear a dinner jacket. According to Mike Mazza, his uncles had this glittery jacket made so that if one of those gentlemen forgot theirs, they would “stick out” in the room. “A lot of people remember that jacket,” Mike said, “It would get the whole dining room laughing.”

For Mike, reopening Mazza’s “was really emotional because being the last generation that had to close it is not something that I’m super proud of. But that moment set me on a path where I knew if I ever wanted to do it, if I really wanted it, I’d have to go do it myself.”

The Mazza’s sign that stands inside the restaurant was the same one that hung outside the restaurant’s second location at 214 West High Street. The sign is 800 pounds, and it took 11 people to bring it into the restaurant and install it between two brick columns made from the same brick as the old West High Street location. “That’s when it became real for me,” Mike said, “that it was actually going to happen.”

The history of Mazza’s restaurant and the Mazza family represents a story of hard work, family, and determination. “I just love the story,” Mike said. “I just think it’s a good old-fashioned American story.”

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