Tonio Mario Bertolini offers his hand. It’s big, about the size of the famous panzerotti his Dubuque restaurant serves up. His hand swallows your hand. He shakes, he grins and you’re welcomed to Mario’s Italian Restaurant.
Bertolini, his words a fast, accented blur, is a-glad to see you. And no, he jokes, waving the big coffee mug he’s always carrying around, he’s not staying out of trouble. That’s no fun.
“And how’s the wild man?” he asks a visitor whose idea of a wild time is a cappuccino after dinner.
Bertolini – who’s much better at greeting customers and cooking up “fettucini ala lumber jack” than he is at creating fancy-schmancy dining ambiance – has been in business at 13th and Main streets for more than 18 years now.
He’s still having fun on the job.
“When you’re in this business you can’t get out of it”, he said. “There are so many great people you meet. This is one of the greatest businesses in the world. It’s a pleasure to see people smile”.
And Bertolini, who grew up on a farm near Pescara, Italy, is a very happy to be doing his business in Dubuque.
“Sure”, said the 50-year-old man, “it’s a long way from home.”
And yes, it’s hardly the Queens borough of New York, where he first settled in the states with father and family, back in 1966. “And you know something”, he said, “it’s great to be out of New York.”
“Living in New York where I did, you’ll really appreciate a place like Dubuque,” he said. “You get up early in the morning here and you can breathe the air, and the people are nice over here.”
And so Bertolini, who came to town to open the restaurant with a business partner, stuck around when the partner ship fell apart and the partner returned to the big city.
“That”, he jokes, “was the best mistake of my life.”
When I moved”, he explained, “everybody told me it was a mistake.”
Well, look at him now. He’s known all over town as Mario. He has a restaurant that can seat 150 people. He has nearly 50 employees, including his daughters Lidia and Dina. He and his wife, Angelina (who grew up in Italy not far from the Bertolini farm), no longer have to work all day and all night in the kitchen.
He has the time to spend an afternoon over coffee, answering questions, explaining that “panzerotti” means “belly” in Italian and that it’s kind of a doughy pizza turnover.
And when you ask him to pose for a picture, a smile spreads all over his broad face.
“I am”, he said, “very happy.”
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