JACKSON, MI - It was the first place many Jackson residents ever tasted pizza.
It was a "date place," a hangout for teenagers after high school sports events, and where people went when they wanted a nice dinner of authentic, made-from-scratch Italian food.
But, to the family, Dragonetti's Restaurant and Cocktails, which operated at 1923 W. Michigan Ave. for 26 years, was a labor of love and a showcase for Beulah Dragonetti's recipes and skills in the kitchen.
"It was a treat to have pizza then, and a joy to take people there for it," said Joe Wolfe, 66, of Summit Township. "Everyone always remembered the pizza."
Dragonetti's, as it was known, was opened in 1955 by Vincent J. Dragonetti, who had immigrated alone to the U.S. in 1920 at age 16 from Tricarico, Italy.
"He had a sister in Jackson and also his brother Louis," said his daughter, Jeanette Dragonetti DeRosa, who now lives in Holt. "He got a job on the railroad at first."
Being a shoe repairman by trade, Dragonetti and his brother eventually opened a shoe repair business and built their business to five stores - three in Jackson, one in East Lansing and one in St. Johns, DeRosa said.
In 1936, Dragonetti married Beulah Comperchio, whose parents had immigrated to Jackson from a town near Naples, Italy and operated a grocery store. The couple had five children - DeRosa, Theresa Oexler, Josie Blissick, John and Vincent R.
When their father began suffering from sore hands and shoulders while repairing shoes, he decided to open a restaurant.
"My dad wanted to start the restaurant in our house but my mother wouldn't hear of it," DeRosa said.
So, Dragonetti and son John built one on an old garden spot next to their house and Dragonetti's Restaurant & Cocktails opened, said Vincent R. Dragonetti, 66, who now lives in Holt.
"The first holiday after we opened was Mother's Day, and we were swamped," said Blissick, who was 16 then. "We all learned to work in the kitchen and on the floor. We all pitched in. It was a family business."
From the start, Dragonetti's was known for its pizza.
"I think it was my mother's loving touch," said Blissick, 72, of Hanover Township. "I still hear from people that we had the best pizza, and they want the recipe."
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Within five years, Dragonetti's had outgrown its original 1,000 square feet of space. The family home was moved back off the road to make space for a 1960 addition. Eventually, the restaurant grew to 5,500 square feet.
"The menu grew after the addition and it was no longer as simple a business to run as before," Vincent R. Dragonetti said. "And they also now had a full liquor license and lounge."
Besides traditional Italian meals, including spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna, Dragonetti's also served steak, lobster, soup, sandwiches and salad. Dancing and entertainment was added in the late 1960s.
"My dad loved to be around people and I'm sure most of our customers would tell you that he was famous for going around to the diners to say 'hello' and ask about their meal and just chat," DeRosa said.
In 1977, the restaurant's former meeting room at the back of the building was remodeled to resemble a Venetian courtyard. Numerous small parties were booked there and Dragonetti's catered many off-site events.
John Dragonetti, who studied restaurant management at Michigan State University, took over the restaurant in the late 1970s.
"Like most of the local home-owned restaurants then, chain competition of any type and the overall Jackson economy took its toll and business just began to falter," Vincent R. Dragonetti said.
Dragonetti's closed in 1981. Dragonetti died in 1993 age 89, and Beulah died in 2011 at age 97.
"It was a great place to get the real Italian food in this city, not the kind that a lot of places have today," said Rosemarie Dragonetti Breining of Jackson, a family cousin. "It was a nice family restaurant and is still missed today."
Los Tres Amigos restaurant now occupies the building.
* Vincent J. Dragonetti immigrated to Philadelphia from Italy. He didn't speak English and a tag pinned to his clothes that contained his name and other information was lost, his son Vincent R. Dragonetti said. Eventually, he made it on a train that ended up in Parma and from there was united with his family in Jackson, his son said.
* Before becoming a restaurateur, Dragonetti was well known in Jackson as a shoe repairman, with one of his several shops located in the Otsego Hotel. He provided shoes for boys at the St. Joseph Orphanage in the 1930s, and slippers for U.S. Army veterans at Fort Custer in Battle Creek during World War II.
* When the family moved their house to make room for restaurant expansion, Vincent R. Dragonetti said his brother John was inside. "He was asleep as they moved it around the block," he said. "He was not supposed to be there, but he was also working a night shift in a factory. He went to sleep at one address and woke up in another."
* After Dragonetti's closed, the family maintained ownership of the building but sold the business to Charlie Wong, who operated a restaurant there featuring Cantonese, American and Polynesian food.
* Vincent R. Dragonetti opened Vito's Café and Pasta 'N' Subs 2 Go - two separate businesses - in the building in 1996, but they remained open only a short time before the family eventually sold the building.
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