Billed as the “Oldest Restaurant in Cleveland,” Guarino’s got its start when Vincenzo Guarino arrived in 1898 from Sicily to live with relatives in Little Italy. In 1918, he ran a poolroom and tavern while his wife Mary made authentic Italian cuisine in the back dining room. Eventually, the food took over and the clientele quickly grew. The business passed from father to son, and in 1987, Guarino’s became a partnership between Vincenzo's daughter-in-law Marilyn and family friend Nancy Phillips. Today, Nancy’s son Scott Phillips serves as a co-owner, with a different last name, but a full commitment to Vincenzo and Mary’s original dream. “This place is in my blood,” says Phillips. He talks to us about tradition, longevity and more.
On Guarino’s identity: We’re not changing. We’re not doing small plates or foo-foo drinks. We’re not following the latest trend. When you walk in here, you’re walking into Old World Italy, how it was 50 years ago. If there’s a new fad for flash-fired pizzas, we’re not making them. We make pizzas in the oven because that’s the way they are done.
On staying open: The big companies have the muscle for advertising and promotions. It can be a challenge dragging in the younger generations who want to be at the place to be seen. But when they come in here, they say, “Oh my gosh, we’ve never been here!” We’re not trying to be the place to be seen. We just do our thing, and when people dine in, they love it.
On the decor: A lot of what you see has been here forever. My mom put up the wallpaper and even though I sometimes want to take it down, people love it. Customers come in all the time and try to buy our light fixtures that are from the 1920s. We’re keeping them.
On the oldest menu item: Our lasagna has been in the restaurant for more than 50 years. We had a server who had been with us for 50 years, so she was our point of reference that we have been making it the same way. We use more of a sausage base and a mixture of cheese that is just great. And it’s a healthy portion. When people get it, their eyes get wider.
On their distinctive dish: We are one of the only restaurants around here that makes braciole, the rolled steak that is an Italian delicacy. We had a customer call last year from Oregon right before Christmas and tell us that they were definitely coming in and they wanted four orders of braciole. They walked in and the kitchen had four ready for them.
On walking in each day: I immediately feel a sense of pride when I walk through the doors. You start the afternoon, you map it all out. The staff comes in and we get all set. I teach all the staff the Guarino’s experience of being focused on making everyone happier. Vincenzo would be so happy with us.
When You Go: Guarino’s, 12309 Mayfield Road, Cleveland, 216-231-3100, guarinoscleveland.com