A Bit of Italy
From the mountains of Calabria to the Appalachian hills, Oliverio’s Ristorante has been bringing old-world cuisine to West Virginia for over 40 years.
Photographed by Rebecca Devono Photography
(page 1 of 2)
In 1966, Shirley and the late Sonny Oliverio of Bridgeport were young, married, and raising their three small children in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when an opportunity arose back in Bridgeport. Sonny’s uncle and his business partner were selling their small block building on U.S. Route 50, which they had operated as a Dairy King. Longing to come back home, the Oliverios took a chance, bought the property, and opened Sonny’s Restaurant. Little did they know their big dreams would turn into an even bigger family-operated culinary empire, inspiring a bakery and encompassing three restaurants, a banquet facility, and a martini bar.
Since the confectionary equipment was already in place, Sonny and Shirley started out small, selling soft serve ice cream along with simple items like hot dogs, hamburgers, and steak hoagies. With only four restaurants in the area, Sonny’s soon became the place to be, with the parking lot packed on Friday nights after high school football games—sometimes until 1 a.m. “Sonny’s dad would stand around like a sergeant,” says Shirley of her father-in-law policing the rowdy kids.
But in 1988, a kitchen fire changed everything—literally. Faced with the harsh reality of renovating the structure and growing competition from chain establishments, the family made the decision to take Sonny’s to the next level. Coincidentally, during these rebuilding years, several family members, including Sonny, Shirley, and their children, made more than one trip to San Giovanni, a small mountain town in Calabria, Italy, where the Oliverios had traced their roots. From their relatives abroad, they drew inspiration. “I think those trips helped us to be more authentic,” says Sonny and Shirley’s daughter Petrina. “Americans cook Italian food with too many ingredients, but when you’re in Italy, the food is basic—it’s simple—but divine.”
Now, the menu includes items that loyal customers love, like homemade breadsticks, hand-rolled each day by long-time employee Jackie Stevens, prepared-to-order, fresh skillet pasta dishes, like The Mediterranean, Penne Olio, and Venetian Chicken, appetizers like deep-fried Angel Hair Crab Balls served with tangy honey mustard dipping sauce, and all-you-can-eat salad with their secret house dressing.
“After we reopened, we put an ad on a billboard in Clarksburg, and it was like we were a whole new restaurant,” says Shirley. But the boom didn’t stop there. A banquet facility nearby was the logical next step for the family business. “We just had to open Via Veneto,” says Petrina. “We were getting so many calls for catering that we had to turn people away—there was a real need for that here.”
Expanding the restaurant to Morgantown also proved to be a key ingredient to the revitalization of the Wharf District on Don Knotts Boulevard. Eldest son and architect, Pete, now deceased, played a vital role in selecting the location. “We looked at other buildings that were previously restaurants, but Pete was pushing for the Wharf—that was really his vision,” says Shirley. “You should have seen that place when we first walked in— there was a ramp and it smelled like motor oil. It was a bare warehouse.” Now, Morgantown diners feel transported in the loft-style dining room, with outdoor seating overlooking the Monongahela River also available. Take-out business at both locations became such a hit that in 2008, another concept restaurant, Oliverio’s Marketplace, was added in Morgantown’s Suncrest area, making it convenient for the local workforce to grab a quick lunch with the Oliverio flavors they crave. “Our takeout business is huge,” says Petrina. “People are busy and they want to be able to pick up a hot, fresh meal they can share with their family.”
Though business is good, any successes the restaurant enjoys are directly linked to the family’s dedication. In fact, every Oliverio offspring has worked, at one point or another, for the business. Even the grandkids get involved, spreading the sauce and sprinkling the cheese on the famous Sonny’s Original Pizzas during the annual West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival in September. But this well-oiled machine doesn’t run itself. Petrina says, “I tell everyone I hire that every single link in the chain is important.” So in addition to the family, the many long-time employees keep the dishes clanging and the dining rooms humming.
Oliverio’s Ristorante, 507 East Main Street, Bridgeport, WV 26330, 304.842.7388; 52 Clay Street, Morgantown, WV 26501, 304.296.2565; Oliverio’s Marketplace, 1111 Van Voorhis Road, Morgantown, WV 26505, 304.225.8646; oliveriosristorante.com