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 — Roman Village Cucina Italiana has been a mainstay in Dearborn for 60 years, and with four other restaurants in tow (each named Antonio’s), it takes every last member of the family to make it work. Even the grandkids.

“My mom has 14 grandchildren,” says Patrick Rugiero, who’s managing at Roman Village most days, “and 11 of them work in the company.”

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

“It wasn’t always fun,” laughs Anthony Rugiero, the CEO and president of the restaurants. “The restaurant was our playground. Our day care.”

Enrica “Rita” 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’s husband, purchased Roman Village when it was Joe’s Pizzeria in 1964. He has since passed.

“We’re all a part of the same family,” Anthony says of the restaurants. In addition to Roman Village, there are three Antonio’s Cucina Italiana locations (in Canton, Farmington Hills, and Dearborn Heights), plus Antonio’s Piccolo Ristorante in Livonia. “I’m very proud. I don’t like to think of us as a franchise. I look at it as one restaurant with five extensions.”

In a speech at Roman Village’s 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’s 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.

“Prices are ridiculous,” Patrick admits about a trend that’s prevalent across the country. Oftentimes, what you pay for at a restaurant is a show — 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 — pasta that’s 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’s 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 “kisses’’ 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’s 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’s temperate climate. Though Antonio himself was from Calabria and crafted the coveted pizza recipe, Rita’s central Italian roots are responsible for the menu’s wonderful spread of robust ragùs, 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 ’90s, find their way into aglio e olio, and chicken masala, veal piccata, and linguine and clams all make special appearances.

This isn’t 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. “We’re a family restaurant,” Anthony says. “And you can’t call yourself a family restaurant if you can’t take the whole family out to eat.” 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 ’60s.

From left, clockwise: Linguine arrabiata, baci, cavatelli Bolognese, linguine al pesto, Antonio’s 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 ’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. “Are you kidding me?” Patrick fires back. “My mom didn’t want to tell her father where he was from.”

However, Antonio was quite close with his father-in-law, Anthony says. Of his parents, he says, “They 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.”

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’t mean you stop cooking. “Stick around — my mom will be here later,” Patrick says with a laugh during a busy lunch service.

With five successful restaurants, what’s next for the Rugiero family? Perhaps a sixth location eventually, Anthony hints. Additionally, a cookbook featuring Mama Rita’s 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 Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Gleaners Community Food Bank. Additionally, the foundation raised over $500,000 at an annual event last year to fund diabetes research — a cause near and dear to the Rugieros: the condition took Antonio’s life in 2008.

Patrick has helped raise millions of dollars for community organizations like the Center for Exceptional Families. 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’s Red Tie event, in addition to serving on a total of six boards in Detroit.

Mary Kosch, of Dearborn Brand meats (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. “I call him a wonderful madman,” Mary says with a laugh. “He’s so connected, he’s got a heart of gold, and he can’t say no.”

Joe Vicari of Andiamo fame, proprietor of the Vicari Restaurant Group, spoke about the Rugiero family’s lasting success. Vicari named consistency, quality product, and a loyal staff as the keys to Roman Village’s success. “Their staff is a testament to them. It’s leadership. It’s being treated fairly. They treat people fairly.”

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.

“The success of the family over the last 60 years has been a lot of dedicated work,” Vicari says.

“Now, they’re going to their third generation. The restaurants are going to be in good hands and will be around for another 60 years.”

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’s most influential families. The recipes at the restaurant are decades old, and each one represents a part of the family’s 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 Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on July 8.