Why DeGidio’s Italian Restaurant and Bar is my home away from home

This St. Paul institution has all the elements to keep customers coming back.

Earlier this week, I introduced the makings of a “home away from home” restaurant. It’s a perfect intersection of value, service, comfort, consistency, and dependability. Ideally, it’s also right down the street from where you live.

The establishment that I call home when nothing variable is acceptable is DeGidio’s Italian Restaurant and Bar on West 7th Street in St. Paul. (Here are 5 local spots with "regular" potential.)

No place of this caliber just appears. A restaurant that garners a regular following has to be born, cultivated, and raised up like a baby.

Why do I love them? Let me count the ways:

Because they say “Let me see what I can do”

Here’s a true, illustrative story. At the height of The Sopranos fever, DeGidio’s co-owner Jason Tschida fielded a call from a man who wanted to recreate a restaurant scene from the HBO show. They wanted to be “Tony, Carmella, and A.J.” – if just for one night.

Jason turned to his bartender Jeremy. “You’re going to be Artie Bucco.”

Jeremy said, “I can’t do it.”

“You’re doing it.”

“I’m going to need a shot.”

“I don’t care. Have a whole bottle if you want.”

The family was seated at a quiet back table as close to the kitchen as possible. Jason told Jeremy to smear some extra red sauce on his apron, and they acted out Sopranos scenes with the full participation of the kitchen – for one night only.

Or so they thought. The family called back. They enjoyed themselves so thoroughly, they wanted to do it again – this time with “Meadow” in tow.

The DeGidio’s crew repeated the entire performance.

The story illustrates the utter welcome, the robust game-ness, and the pure family atmosphere of DeGidio’s.

It isn’t that Jason, his wife Joanne Tschida, and her brother Tony, the current third owner, didn’t think this was an odd request. They did.

But they know they’re in the “yes” business. On my last visit, two sweaty teenagers entered, basketball in hand, asking for water. Instead of shooing them away, the bartender politely and promptly obliged, filling up a tall, icy to-go cup of water for each boy.

Because it’s nice, but not too nice

Joe DeGidio, Joanne and Tony’s grandfather, opened the space as a bowling alley and bar in 1933. In the ‘80s, Joe's son John turned it into a restaurant, after trying his hand at bocce for several years.

Equally appropriate for a dusty beer after a softball game, an elegant third date or a funeral luncheon, the space is timeless. Picture lots of dark wood, low light, and discreetly placed television screens. It’s also impeccably clean – professional cleaners do it daily.

A banquet space reminds you where you are – a place where weddings and funerals and 50th anniversaries play out through the ages.

The food is great, the portions are big, and the prices are fair

Red sauce Italian is comfort food, pure and simple. At DeGidio’s, the food is so straightforward, it’s almost prototypical. Spaghetti and meatballs means a platter large enough for three, with fist-sized meatballs drenched in marinara fit for eating with a spoon. Lasagne means a layer’s brick, six inches tall, in an I-dare-you-to-finish portion, except that you do.

These, plus burgers, Dagos, and other reassuring American and Italian-American dishes almost always fall under $20 and usually under $15.

With baskets of hot bread and cups of butter arriving endlessly, I heard a fellow diner recently mutter: “Nobody does it like this anymore, you know?”

Because the people treat you like... people

On my many visits, the staff of 50-plus has always been prompt, cheerful, and genuine. The secret? “We just treat people nicely and pay them really well,” according to Jason.

No big deal.

Everybody has “the code” to comp a drink or a meal if need be and the answer to “What should I do?” is always “Use your best judgement.”

So, these staff are treated well, paid handsomely, and are empowered and trusted. As a result, they don't have turnover issues, and many stay throughout the decades.

Because the experience is consistent

At least two people have died while tucking into their plates of spaghetti and meatballs at DeGidio’s. These were old guys, in their ’90s, surrounded by friends and family. And no, I can’t resist the urge to say “At least they died happy.”

A restaurant that regularly gets written into funeral luncheons (including for the two guys above) cannot be hit or miss. What you get needs to be precisely how you remembered it. And how you remembered it is how you got it yesterday and two months ago and two years ago.

How do they accomplish this at DeGidio’s? Hold onto the right people. DeGidio’s, at its core, is not in the food business at all. It’s in the people business through and through. Not too many do it like that anymore.

The people at DeGidio’s may not know my name, but they know I’m getting a large spaghetti and meatballs every time. And my 100th spaghetti and meatballs was exactly the same as my first.

If I should daub my final spot of red sauce at DeGidio’s, I shall surely die happy.

Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities-based food writer. She has an upcoming podcast called Snax Everywhere. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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