Once a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the humble storefront of Guarino's (12309 Mayfield Rd., 216-231-3100, guarinoscleveland.com) in Little Italy opens to a lush interior, its Victorian decor a reminder that you've arrived at one of Cleveland's oldest dining institutions. Inside, next to the grand piano in the front window, Suzy Pacifico sits on a velvety loveseat positioned beneath a chandelier and surrounded by Guarino family photos. For nearly half of the restaurant's 97 years in business, diners have expected to see Pacifico greeting their tables, taking their orders and serving up plenty of good-natured sass.
After all, that's what families do, and after 50 years, the venerable server's regulars span generations.
"Last week, a couple came in on their anniversary," she recounts, sitting toward the edge of her seat so her feet touch the ground. "I waited on them when they got engaged 20 years ago. They brought all the kids and the kids' families."
At 18, Pacifico married an American man working at Case Western Reserve University, leaving her hometown of Ponza, Italy, for the first time to move to the States. Knowing little English but determined not to let a language barrier get in the way of her new life, Pacifico walked from her new Little Italy home up the street to Guarino's. Three days later she was on the floor.
"She's feisty," says manager Nancy Phillips, who's worked with her since her earliest days at the restaurant. "She always looks like she's so quiet, but she's strong. We couldn't run this restaurant without her."
Pacifico worked under Guarino's original owners, Vincenzo Guarino and his wife "Mama" Guarino, gleaning the family recipes along with the family secrets, like illegally slipping liquor in coffee cups during the dry decades that preceded her. Tight-lipped, she conceals most stories under lock and key, but doesn't hesitate to reminisce on Mama's most invaluable role: keeping order in the restaurant.
"Ms. Guarino was an old-fashioned lady," Pacifico remembers. "She'd see someone kiss and go right up to them and say, 'This is a family place.' She would not let anyone talk bad to you. She was like the captain of the ship."
Guarino's was, after all, a crown jewel of chic nights on the town. The code for attire might be more casual these days, but Pacifico looks back fondly on the glory years of elegant diners regularly streaming through the doors in their Sunday best.
"When I started working, people came in dress coats, always ties and suits," she recalls. "We got a lot of people from the opera and famous people like Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine."
Tony Bennett was sophisticated and charming, she reports. But ever the Clevelander, native Tim Conway remains her favorite notable. Pointing to a corner table, she says, "He used to sit right over there and make jokes and tease everyone. He's as funny in person as he was on TV."
As anyone who's stepped out for an evening in Little Italy can attest, the neighborhood's old-school charm remains against the backdrop of bustling modern bistros. Working in the heart of it all, Pacifico has seen the district through its evolution.
"When I started working here, it was strictly Italian; there were no art galleries," she says. "Now it's all mixed. It's a big change. You gotta go with the times. Change is good."
Some things, however, will never go out of style, like Guarino's enduring sauce. Pacifico, who knows her own way around the kitchen, echoes that it's the key to her Italian cuisine.
"A perfect sauce is everything," she says with a smile.
Between her regular four shifts per week plus a Saturday double, Pacifico finds time to cook in the authentic style learned all those years ago in Ponza. And she has no intentions of slowing down.
"When I come here I feel like home," she says. "It's like being part of a family."