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My Kitchen, Our Living Room

How a chance soccer accident put Rosanna Bongiorno into the kitchen of her husband’s restaurant—and created the beginnings of a homey downtown Albany landmark

by Sarah Sherman on January 10, 2013

More than 30 years ago, before Rosanna Bongiorno became one of Albany’s best-kept dining secrets, she was a mother of two focused on her job at a local newspaper and raising her family. She never had any intention of working in the restaurant business.

But her husband Felix had a different idea: He always knew he wanted to open a restaurant. He had worked all over Europe in the food-service industry, from Germany to France to Switzerland, gaining experience as a bartender, maître d’, and cook. Rosanna, on the other hand, was content with her job as a computer operator at the Times Union and planned to remain on the sidelines of her husband’s endeavor, which she managed to do for about six years after he opened Bongiorno’s on Albany’s Dove Street in 1978.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, Felix was playing soccer and tangled legs with an opponent. He tripped and tore several ligaments in his knee. He still showed up to the restaurant that evening, but struggled to work through his pain trying to keep the restaurant afloat through the busy Saturday night. He sat on a stool in the kitchen, his knee swollen like a balloon, and moved as fast as he could, while Rosanna watched his every move.

On Sunday, Felix was admitted to the hospital, with surgery following on Monday. Rosanna arrived at the hospital on Sunday, notepad and pen in hand, and demanded recipes. She called her job and asked for six months off. It was going to be a long process of doctors’ appointments and physical therapy; the restaurant needed her, and Felix knew no one else could fill the role. So from his hospital bed, Felix told his wife everything she needed to know.

Asked if he was patient with her while she was demanding the recipes, Rosanna says, “Well, he’d better be. It was his fault. He wasn’t working when he got hurt, he was playing soccer.”

Fortunately for her, Rosanna had grown up in a traditional Italian home, surrounded by family and food. Her grandfather was a chef and her mother a talented cook, so she had potential—it was in her blood. Holidays were always 20 to 30 people: grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. They helped her understand what a dish should look and taste like, but getting it to that point was the challenge. Once she entered the kitchen at Bongiorno’s, it didn’t take long before she realized she loved to cook—and that she was good at it.

“Instant gratification,” Rosanna says. “You cook something, you give it to people, and they love it. It’s a high.”

Rosanna and Felix Bongiorno met in New York City in 1967, not long after each of them had arrived from Italy. Rosanna was working at her uncle’s import store, which was next to a coffee shop. Felix went looking for espresso and found Rosanna. They were married two years later, and soon moved to Albany to start a family, and, eventually, a restaurant.

After Felix recovered from his soccer injury and was ready to get back to work, Rosanna had already changed the menu and formed meaningful relationships with regulars, many of whom still come to see her today. She attempted to go back to her job at the TU, but lasted only two weeks. She knew Bongiorno’s was where she was meant to be, and quickly decided to run the kitchen herself. She kicked him out of it, and together they decided that Felix would become the businessman, the face person; it was now Rosanna’s kitchen.

Before they knew it, they were laying the foundation for what would become a unique landmark in downtown Albany. Bongiorno’s became a place you go when you need to escape your home, but still want to feel like you’re in the comfort of someone else’s.

Felix welcomed his new role, mainly in the dining room. He enjoyed talking with guests, making sure everyone was happy.

“I talk to the customers at the table before, during, and after the dinner, he says. “We are pleasant with the people. We ask questions, we talk, and I tell jokes occasionally.”

Ever since Rosanna came on board with running Bongiorno’s kitchen, she and Felix always have had the same vision for the restaurant. It was going to be a small, quaint, family-style Italian restaurant with a friendly demeanor. “If you try to make it bigger you lose the personal touch,” Rosanna says, noting that regular customers appreciate that when they walk in, the Bongiornos know their names—and sometimes, even their orders.

“What we do, it’s not just food,” Rosanna explains. “Bongiorno’s is the experience. We go in the dining room, we talk to people, we make them little Italian flags” [an after-dinner blend of liqueurs making the colors of Italy’s flag]. “Sometimes Felix makes Grappa for home use. Sometimes he brings a bottle, shares it with some of the customers.

“People aren’t getting exactly what they came here for if I’m not here, even if the food is just as good,” she continues. “This is not a place where you come to just get a lasagna or a Marsala. It’s the experience. It’s knowing someone is going to come to your table and say, ‘Did you like everything?’”

And while it’s not just about getting fed and getting out, Felix will tell you, “People come over here because the food is genuine, it is super delicious and we do nothing wrong.” Rosanna is a little more modest: She admits that when she goes to a table and asks if everyone is happy with the meal, the answer is not always yes.

She continues, “We will give you the menu, let you order something different. I don’t care whose fault it is. It might be our fault . . . but it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. When there is a mistake made it doesn’t matter—waiter, me, customer. We go way beyond to make it right.”

And when a busy night gets a little crazy, Rosanna says, she thrives on it. “When it’s chaotic, it’s fun,” she says. “ ‘OK, let’s go,’ I always tell the waiters. Now I’m in my robot stage. I just think food. Can’t think of anything else. This is my zone time.”

When orders are flying in and Rosanna is in the zone, in her kitchen she stays. But she’ll be out to see you soon, to make sure you feel at home.

“You should see a Saturday night,” she says. “Sometimes there’s only one conversation in the dining room because it’s so small and everybody is taking part of the same conversation. How many restaurants can you go to and say that everyone is in tune with each other?”

And after all these years, are Rosanna and Felix Bongiorno still in tune?

“We have an easy relationship,” Rosanna says. “We don’t have to work on it all the time.”