Victor Kowachek’s Detroit tradition began 40 years ago: dinner at Roma Café in Eastern Market before catching a ballgame at Tiger Stadium.
The old ballpark is long gone — and as the 79-year-old Clinton Township resident discovered Friday, so is the eatery, which opened in 1890 and billed itself as Detroit’s oldest Italian restaurant.
As he’d been doing for years, Kowachek stopped by Roma Café before attending the Tigers game at Comerica Park against the Toronto Blue Jays. He encountered a locked door and a sign in the window.
“After 127 years of continuous service at this location, Roma Café is out-of-business and permanently CLOSED.”
“It was a shock,” Kowachek said.
Former owner Janet Sossi Belcoure, whose family has owned the restaurant for decades, said she had been thinking of calling it quits for some time.
“It’s a very emotional thing for me, but I’m ready to retire,” said Belcore, 63. “It’s just time. I’ve been running it by myself for quite a while, and it’s an exhausting business.”
From Hudson’s to Henry the Hatter, classic Detroit businesses have gone by the wayside as the city continues to change. Kowachek said he has mixed feelings about the metamorphosis.
“I think the changes in Detroit have been positive,” he said. “But I’m going to miss that place.”
The restaurant is set to re-open as Roma’s Cucina after Labor Day under the ownership of Guy Pelino, who for three years has served as Roma’s head chef. Pelino was working inside the restaurant Friday on what he said was a “minor facelift.”
“The kitchen needs work, and we’re re-doing the entrance to give it a little more flow,” said Pelino, who was chef at Mario’s Italian restaurant for 21 years, and before that owned The Grand, an American bistro-style restaurant in Trenton.
Pelino is leasing the building from real estate holding company 3401 Riopelle LLC.
“It’ll be the same ambiance as before,” Pelino said. “I want to keep the character for the loyal customers. You can’t take away the legacy this place has. I’ve been the chef for three years, so I know what this place means to people.”
The news, first reported Friday by Crain’s Detroit Business, came as a shock to longtime customers like Melissa Wolf-Litvin of Berkley.
“My first time going there was middle school,” said Wolf-Litvin, 48. “It’s no frills, old-school — and amazing food, meal after meal. We’ve never had a bad meal. They knew us, they took care of us.”
Wolf-Litvin said her family tradition involved a meal at Roma before sending her 11-year-old son Carson to camp.
“He’s going to be devastated when he finds out,” Wolf-Litvin said.
Kowachek said he will miss the fellow customers he’s gotten to know over the years, along with the staff.
“The waiters were all the friendliest people,” he said. “There was a guy named Harry who used to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to all the ladies in an opera voice. There are just so many things I’m going to miss. It was a very comfortable place. They never redecorated anything, but it was what it was.”
When told the former chef would be opening a restaurant at the same location, Kowachek said he’d give the new place a try — “but it ain’t gonna be the same,” he said.
According to the Roma website, the restaurant began as a boarding house run in the 1800s by the Marazza family. The business catered to farmers who brought their produce to the Eastern Market. A warm meal was included with the room.
“Mrs. Marazza’s reputation as a fine cook spread quickly throughout the Eastern Market area,” the website says. “At the urging of her fans, she expanded service and opened her restaurant in February of 1890, the Roma Café.”
Belcoure’s father, Italian immigrant Hector Sossi, in the 1940s began working at the restaurant for his uncle, Morris Sossi.
“My father bought the restaurant from his uncle in 1963 or 1964,” Belcoure said.
Belcoure said she’s happy Pelino is opening in the same building, which was erected in 1888.
“He is going to make it another beautiful dining spot that will still have the history and the walls, and I feel my family is inside the walls of that restaurant,” she said. “But he’ll be doing his own thing. It will be different. I want all my customers to enjoy it, even though it will be in another way. The walls are still welcoming.”
Belcoure said although she’s retiring, she’ll stay busy.
“There are so many things I’ve wanted to do, but I didn’t have the time because I was busy running the restaurant,” she said. “This city is vibrant, and there are other ways to give back. I’ve always been interested in the community kitchen, working with school kids at the garden, teaching them how to prepare vegetables.
“I’ve been active on the Eastern Market Board, and I plan to continue with that, along with the Detroit Restaurant Association. But first I’m going to take a few months for myself just to unwind,” she said.
Belcoure said she will continue visiting the restaurant that’s been part of her family — and Detroit — since before the automobile was invented.
“I won’t be a stranger to the restaurant,” she said. “I’ll still be there. I’ll still come in to see my customers, because they’re my friends.”