Over 80 years have passed since a team of horses dug the foundation for the Deluxe Restaurant & Grill in the northern part of the small city of Geneva. The area at the corner of north Genesee Street and Gates Avenue was primarily farmland in 1933, when two Italian immigrants, Nicholas Acquilano and his wife Carrie Raphael, planned their new business. Hailing from the Abruzzia and Reggio de Calabria regions of Italy, the two wanted a solid and rooted business, and solid it is, the footers are 2 feet thick poured concerete, with masonry block covered in stucco, sitting on 12-inch beams.
Today, the restaurant remains a favorite among local families who have enjoyed its hospitality and good food for generations. The Deluxe feels as familiar as your mother’s dining table, whether you’re of Italian descent or not.
When millions of immigrants streamed into the U.S. during the 19th century, Irish, Italian, German and Syrian immigrants found their way to Geneva. They settled there alongside citizens of mainly English descent, in numbers large enough to help shape the city’s future.
The Wright, Rose, Burrall, Sherrill and Torrey families owned large farms on the town’s perimeter. Samuel H. Torrey, whose family had settled primarily in New England and New York following the Revolutionary War, owned a 175-acre farm on Geneva’s north side. He fell ill in 1879, and eventually had to relinquish the farm. The Torrey Park Land Company was established in 1891 to allocate some of the original acreage for sale as residential building lots, and some for business and commercial development, railroad land requirements, and continued farming. The Deluxe was built on one of those lots.
Sixty years before that, Raymond Del Papa arrived in Geneva. He became a labor agent who enlisted newly arrived immigrants to construct the canal system, local infrastructure and the railroad. Using the “padrone system,” as it was called, Del Papa arranged housing and passage from Italy for immigrant families looking for work, and served as workforce boss.
That same year, the Lehigh Valley Railroad line built an extension from Buffalo through the northern part of Geneva. The growing Italian and Irish population supplied the labor. When the Italian workers settled north of the station, the neighborhood became known as Little Italy, and Del Papa “the King of Little Italy.” In 1897, when Geneva’s mayor suggested naming a street after him, Del Papa refused, and said he’d prefer to name it Umberto Street, after Italy’s king at the time.
Today “Humbert” Street, just around the block from the Deluxe, remains a neighborhood hub. Nearby is Club 86, a restaurant that has been owned by the Legott family for generations. It began as a bar serving the Italian immigrant railroad workers at the end of a long day, then became a popular supper club in the ’40s and ’50s and featured famous bands and singers. Today, Club 86 is a banquet hall and caterer for special events and wedding receptions. The Torrey Park Grill (formerly Pronti’s Restaurant) and Uncle Joe’s Pizzeria complete the much loved and frequented eateries that remain in Geneva’s “Little Italy.”
The Deluxe was built with three apartments above the restaurant for family members. Janet Khoury, granddaughter of its founders, lived there with her parents Angelo Tiballi and Mary Acquilano until she was 13. Her childhood memories were formed by the sights and sounds of the busy daily routine of the restaurant, and the aromas of classic Italian dishes.
Janet vividly remembers when chickens were delivered from the nearby farm of John and Viola Yates. Her Uncle Tony would put out the word the day before, and the next day Janet’s Aunt Rosie (Rosalie Acquilano), Michelina Evangilista, Angie DeFazio, Mary Bruno, and Janet’s mother Mary would assemble in the basement by a large wooden table, ready to work. Crates of live chickens would be unloaded from a truck and slid down to them on a wide plank by the basement stairway.
They formed an assembly line. Snap the neck, hand it to the next person, cut off the feet, then gut the bird, pluck it and finally singe the feathers off by an open flame. Chicken just doesn’t get any fresher than that!
“Many times my mother ended up with this last job in line, whether she wanted it or not,” remembers Janet. Above the sounds was chatter about who was getting married or having a baby, and other local gossip of the day.
Janet’s grandmother Carrie, the matriarch of the family, was known as “The Boss.” She was in charge of the day-to-day operation of the restaurant and creating the restaurant’s signature sauce. Janet’s aunts Caroline (Sheehy), Kate (Gordon) and Anne (Knuuti) were the bakers. Uncle Joe, who looked like Jackie Gleason, was a great bartender; and Uncle Dominick (Teddy) had the barbershop across the street. Today, there’s no one there to cut your hair, but the building still stands. Janet’s mother Mary, and uncles Nicholas Junior and Tony (“Tut”) rounded out the family.
The closing of the restaurant on Christmas Eve for the large family celebration is a particularly precious memory. Tables covered in white tablecloths would be pushed against the north wall, and then filled from end to end with several courses. In addition to pasta, there were seven fish dishes including clams, fried smelt, shrimp, “baccala” (dried cod), haddock, sardines and baked halibut in sauce. The antipastos featured Greek olives, figs, muscatel grapes and oranges. Under the careful eye of Carrie, who had very high standards, the event was carried out with perfection. Afterwards, the family would go across the street to the grandparents’ house to open presents. The men would move into the kitchen to play cards and smoke cigars.
New owners and new friends
In 1988, Nicholas Junior and Tut sold the restaurant to Louise and Paul Whittaker. One of the caveats, at the insistence of the Acquilano family, was that nothing change. They wanted to preserve the old traditions of hard work, simple good food and dedication to family and friends. The family believed that those values helped to hold up the restaurant’s sturdy walls.
Today, the Deluxe is owned by Louise’s son Charles “Charlie” Lee and his wife Linda. It’s a true family business that includes their sons Daniel, 19, and Patrick, 15.
Charlie’s mentor was Paul Helstrom, who owned and operated the Franklin Hotel in Waterloo in the 1970s. The two began working together in 1985 at the Crow’s Nest Restaurant on Seneca Lake. Being of Italian descent himself, Paul understood what the Acquilanos wanted to protect, and Charlie quickly understood why.
At the Deluxe, you can still feel the energy, joy and love of the family who built it. It’s in the walls that have absorbed the laughter and conversations of thousands of people who have celebrated special events and shared simple meals together.
Dave and Terry Grifa of Waterloo and Rick and Debbie Wagner of Lyons are among them. Both couples, strangers to each other, went to the Deluxe for dinner 20 or so years ago. It was a busy Friday night, and there were not enough tables to accommodate both parties. “We asked them if they minded sitting together,” Charlie explained. The couples became friends who today share weekly dinners, vacations and milestone family events.
“You come in as a customer but you leave as a friend,” Charlie stated. And no matter how long or short a time you’ve lived in Geneva, and even if you’re just passing through, you will always be welcomed like part of the family.
A longer version of this article is currently available at the 1829 Prouty-Chew House, which is home to the Geneva History Museum and is owned and operated by the Geneva Historical Society. It’s located at 543 S. Main St. in Geneva. See more information at genevahistoricalsociety.com.
by Marguerite Abbott