|| Bringing a bit of Sicily to Aledo
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ALEDO -- Joe Vitale said he didn't leave Italy and come to the United States to join the "welfare force"; he came to work, to contribute and to claim ownership of the American dream.
"I left for a better opportunity," Mr. Vitale said. "I felt there was a future here. There was no future there. I was one of seven children; my father was gone, and we struggled. I learned hard work. I was hungry for success, and it wasn't going to happen there. There was nothing for me there, no future."
The owner of what now is Joe's Trattoria in Aledo was 24 years old in 1968 when he left his childhood home in Sicily to join his brother in Kewanee, who was working at their cousin's restaurant business. Six months later the men opened a pizza business in Geneseo. In 1969 Mr. Vitale struck out on his own.
"I needed to find a small town with no pizza place," he said. "I wanted to be the only one. I found Aledo and a wife."
Mr. Vitale bought a small diner and began serving American-style meals as well as offering pizza.
"Patti came in to apply for a job, and I took one look at her and thought to myself, 'I will give you a job and a husband.' She was beautiful. She still is. I look back and think I am so successful. I see all that I have gained — lovely wife, three beautiful children, seven wonderful grandchildren. That is success. Because of that I am a millionaire, rich in a lot of ways. I could not have reached the dream without them."
The people of Aledo and Mercer County also can be credited for helping the dream become a reality. Thoughts of returning to Sicily dissolved.
"If I could change anything … no, nothing," he said. "I would change nothing. I have no regrets of coming to America. I have it made."
His wife, Patti, and their family is what is most important to him, he said. The people of Aledo accepted him, took him in and made him one of their own.
"When I first came here I did not speak English," he said. "I made hand gestures. The biggest challenge was the language. I learned by repeating and writing things down. I went through a lot of paper."
Despite the language barrier, people came to eat at Joe's restaurant. Maybe it was his personality. Maybe it was his accent. Or maybe what drew people to him was his strong belief in community and family he brought with him from his homeland. He thinks it is more likely they developed a taste for his Sicilian-style pizza and the Italian dishes he added to his menu.
"I started adding Italian dishes, and business really started picking up," he said.
He said there is one golden rule to his cooking, and the rule has one word: freshness. Freshness is the key to all of his most popular dishes, but particularly his pasta primavera, served from May to October. The recipe is an original from his grandmother, passed on to his mother and then to him, he said. He grows the ingredients — the basil, parsley, garlic and tomatoes. Those same fresh ingredients go into other family recipes and the ones that are Mr. Vitale's personal creations.
"I may buy some of the ingredients, like the pasta and the meat, but the food, it is mine; it comes from here," he said, pointing to his heart. "I have taught people how cook my dishes. Running a restaurant is a lot of work; it takes a lot of time."
Mr. Vitale made time for himself and for his family six years ago when he retired. He had four years to begin what he thought would be his "fulfilling retirement years." Then two years ago he came out of retirement to open Joe's Trattoria at 602 SE 3rd St. He limits his time at the restaurant to four or five days per week.
On the rolling hills near his "Mercer County villa" he has planted grapes. He tends the Concord and Foch vines meticulously, as if it were imprinted in his DNA. His dream, he said, is to have a wine to serve at his restaurant made from his own grapes.
"I think it is boring to eat a good Italian dish without a glass of red wine," Mr. Vitale said. "That is the Sicilian way."
-- Location: Southern Europe, a peninsula extending into the central Mediterranean Sea, northeast of Tunisia.
-- Population: 61,261,254 (July 2012 estimate). No. 23 in the world.
-- Languages: Italian (official), German (parts of Trentino-Alto Adige region are predominantly German speaking), French (small French-speaking minority in Valle d'Aosta region), Slovene (Slovene-speaking minority in the Trieste-Gorizia area).
Source: CIA World Factbook.