In the ever-changing Twin Cities food scene, most independent restaurants are considered lucky to see their fourth anniversary, let alone their eighty-fourth. But the Italian-American mainstay DeGidio’s, located not far from the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood, has not only survived but thrived as a community gathering place and favorite date-night spot for generations of loyal customers.
While the restaurant remains true to tradition—the signature red sauce recipe hasn’t changed in 50 years—DeGidio’s has stayed fresh by embracing new technology and responding to changing tastes, making it one of those rare establishments that manages to offer something for longtime devotees and first-time diners alike.
“For fifteen years, we didn’t have a sign outside; we didn’t need one,” says John DeGidio, the son of DeGidio’s founder. “People knew by word-of-mouth where the best Italian in the city was located.”
In 1933, after a successful stint as a bootlegger during Prohibition, Joe “Kid Bullets” DeGidio opened DeGidio’s Royal Bar, a working-class saloon that, according to local legend, was once the favorite watering hole of Saint Paul’s most notorious mobsters. Joe and his wife, Marie Antoinette “Tootsie” DeGidio, eventually shed the gangster ties when they converted the space into a bowling alley/bar in 1945.
John and his brothers grew up working in the family business and, in the early 1980s, he bought out his father and three brothers, tore out the bowling alley and reopened as a full-service restaurant serving big portions of pasta and hearty sandwiches at reasonable prices.
“This was originally an Italian neighborhood, and in the early days, half our customers walked here,” John says. Some of the most popular items on the current menu, including the old-fashioned hot dago, a sandwich featuring spicy Italian sausage and baked mozzarella smothered in that classic red sauce and served on sliced Vienna bread, debuted in the 1950s on the Royal Bar’s small menu.
Now 80, John is technically retired, though he still stops in nearly every day. The busy restaurant’s front-of-house operations are run by his daughter, Joanne Tschida, and her husband, Jason, while Joanne’s brother Tony DeGidio oversees the kitchen.
For the past 30 years, Tony has arrived at the restaurant every day at 5 a.m. to begin making the famous red sauce from scratch. Based on his grandmother’s recipe, the tangy tomato sauce accompanies nearly half the dishes on the menu.
“The seasonings are not only local and fresh, but we’ve had the same supplier for the last 50 years,” says Tony. “I have a copy of the original recipe, and the same brands are listed there as the ones we use today.”
In a 60-gallon stainless steel kettle, Tony heats up an olive oil blend before adding nine cases of tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, crushed red pepper and a couple of secret ingredients. The recipe simmers for three to four hours before the restaurant opens and the sauce continues to reduce throughout the day. On a busy weekend, DeGidio’s will go through 60 to 80 gallons of sauce per day.
The sauce has proven so popular that a few years ago the DeGidios looked in to partnering with a manufacturer to try packaging it for retail, but they couldn’t get the flavor just right. However, it is available for purchase at the restaurant—a real steal at $7.50 a quart.
In addition to the tried and true, new items are added to the menu somewhat regularly, and innovative specials are available daily during lunch and dinner.
“The specials are more experimental but in the same spirit as the rest of the menu,” says head chef Jeff Philips, who came to DeGidio’s eight years ago after stints at the Target Center and Wild Onion. “We make almost everything, from our alfredo sauce to salad dressings, from scratch,” he notes.
Beyond the dining room and bar, the restaurant includes a banquet room that accommodates 40 to 160 guests and offers off-site catering and convenient online ordering through its website.
“We have all kinds of reunions, holiday parties, retirements, and receptions for weddings and funerals,” says John. Local schools like Cretin-Derham Hall and Johnson High School have been holding banquets at DeGidio’s for years; such events are often people’s first time visiting DeGidio’s, but rarely their last.
“The banquet room introduces a lot of people to us; we’re not big on advertising, so we still rely on word-of-mouth,” adds Tony.
That old-school philosophy extends to their hiring practices; most of DeGidio’s staff have been with the restaurant for years, if not decades.
“We have no turnover,” says John. “The average tenure is 10 to 15 years. We have one server who started here when she was 18 and now she’s 55.”
Many of the new recruits are siblings, cousins or friends of friends of current staff members, taking the term “family-run” to a new level.
“At one point, we had three sets of sisters working here,” says John. “Once, we were down a dishwasher and one of the guys says ‘I’ll get my mom!’; she’s still here.”
Employing family members and treating employees like family ensures that “new employees work out 99 percent of the time,” says Phillips. “It’s just the perfect job. They’re the best people I’ve ever worked for.”
Jeremy Krogseng, a bartender who has been at DeGidio’s for 12 years after starting as a busser at age 19, says that the “family-like atmosphere” attracts not only long-term employees but also devoted regular customers.
“We see a lot of the same customers every week, people who used to come in with their grandparents and now come in with their wife and family,” he says. “I’ve worked at least five or six weddings for couples who had their first date here.”
With an updated craft cocktail selection and tap list that includes beer from Bad Weather Brewing across the street, DeGidio’s has managed to remain a neighborhood fixture by “keeping what never fails and making changes where we need to,” says Krogseng.
The original horseshoe bar is located just off the main dining room. Six small gold placards engraved with the names of regulars who for years could be seen having lunch every day at the same stools are reminders of what matters most at DeGidio’s: food, family and friends.
“After 80-plus years, I’m not worried about not having a job next week,” says Krogseng. “There will never come a day when people don’t want a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”
(Photo by A Frame Forward Photography)