Staying Power

Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Italia restaurant group celebrates its 25th anniversary
Photograph by Martin Vecchio

Joe Vicari flashes a wry, gentle smile today when he says, “I got into the restaurant business because I didn’t study hard enough in college.” However, he’s saying that while having lunch in the elegant yet comfortable surroundings of his Andiamo Warren restaurant, which sits next to the Andiamo Celebrity Showroom and Banquet Center — and stands as the flagship of a sprawling dining empire.

It’s enough to make any college kid consider ditching a class or two.

Celebrating its silver anniversary this year, in an industry where locations come and go faster than part-time busboys, Andiamo Italia (“Let’s go to Italy”) is one of metro Detroit’s most recognizable restaurant groups, serving around 10,000 eager eaters each week.

Not everything Vicari (Vih-CARE-ee) touches has turned to gold, however. “If I’d had a crystal ball, I probably would not have expanded to as many restaurants as I have, because the economy shrunk,” he says. “A couple of years ago we opened a concept that I have since sold, a Mexican chain called Rojo. We’ve sold or closed a couple of [Andiamo] units, so we’re at 10 … I’m feeling good where we are.”

In addition to his Warren mothership, where they are includes:

  • Andiamo Trattorias, casual eateries in Grosse Pointe Woods, Novi, and Clarkston
  • Andiamo Dearborn, an Italian twist on the classic steakhouse;
  • Italian restaurants in Royal Oak, Bloomfield Township, Livonia, and Sterling Heights;
  • Andiamo Detroit Riverfront, an upscale establishment in the Renaissance Center, and,
  • Arguably the current jewel of the chain — the revival of Joe Muer Seafood inside the RenCen, merging the panache of a legendary restaurateur with panoramic views of the Detroit River and a sumptuous dining experience.

Muer’s last downtown Detroit location closed in 1998. “Half our menu is their classic dishes, but we have a sushi bar, which they never had,” says Vicari.

Muer, now retired and living up north, says Vicari called him once a year for 10 years before convincing him to bestow his name and fame on a new endeavor. “If it weren’t for Joe I wouldn’t be there, and I praise him for it,” says Muer, dining at “his” restaurant on a recent Detroit visit.

“I mean, I’m astounded by the changes. And it’s fun. I’m not managing 110 employees,” he adds, alluding to the notoriously tough restaurant business.

And it’s even more so today. “With all the food channels and everybody being more educated about food, I think it’s important to keep stepping up our game,” Vicari says. “We’ve remodeled probably half of our restaurants in the last couple of years … and we’re constantly looking at and reviewing menus.”

The changing market led to a retrenchment for the 25th anniversary — rebranding several locations back under the “Andiamo” name.

The 57-year-old Vicari also owns or is a partner in several other ventures: Brownie’s on the Lake in St. Clair Shores, five Country Inn restaurants and, for a chaser, the Post Bar in Dearborn. In addition, he operates Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Italian Steakhouse and The D Grill inside The D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, where he also manages the hotel’s banquet and catering operations. And, with Luna Hillside LLC partner Tom Celani, Vicari reopened Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights last summer after a four-year shutdown. Rarely if ever has pasta expanded so incredibly.

Remarkable feats for a man who never dreamed of becoming a restaurateur. “My father owned a small dry cleaners and tuxedo rental,” Vicari says. “He had back surgery when I was a sophomore in high school, and I went in and ran the place. I just thought after going to college I was going to be in the dry cleaning business, maybe have a couple of locations, which I would have been fine with.”

However, after Vicari attended Central Michigan University on a football scholarship, a college buddy (Dan Curis) who owned a restaurant ventilation and hood cleaning operation approached him. “He says, ‘Joe, I’m cleaning these Ram’s Horn restaurants and it looks like they’re doing great,’ ” he recalls. Although Vicari’s father-in-law persuaded him to purchase a paper and chemical supply company (which he still owns), he accompanied Curis to inquire about a franchise.

“They said, ‘What do you know about the restaurant business?’ ” Vicari says. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything, but he’s going to work it because I have another business!’ ” Amazingly, they were granted a franchise, ultimately owning two Ram’s Horn locations. Their prosperity led to Vicari acquiring the full-service restaurant Lido on the Lake (which became the former Andiamo Lakefront Bistro) and eventually, the first Andiamo in Warren.

It’s a true family operation. Vicari’s wife, Rosalie, has managed the Sterling Heights restaurant for a decade. Daughter Theresa works in marketing for the chain, and son Dominic recently was promoted to director of operations. (Another daughter, Carmela, is food buyer for another company.)

Many employees, like Warren day manager Paula Marrs, have been with Vicari 20 years or longer. “The same ladies who were with me making the pasta when we only had [one] restaurant are still making pasta,” he says, “but now they work longer hours.” And he all but adopted his first master chef, the late, world-renowned Aldo Ottaviani, who worked for Andiamo for 19 years without requesting a paycheck and taught Vicari three things about restaurants: Always buy the best, make everything from scratch, and never cut corners.

Lessons that have served him well.