Seven-decade tradition

Rocco's Italian Restaurant celebrates 70th anniversary

Rocco's Italian Restaurant celebrates 70th anniversary

July 16, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

It was happenstance that Rocco's Italian Restaurant, then named Rocco's Tavern, opened July 4, 1936.

The owners had planned to open a few days later, but changed their minds and opened on Independence Day when a crowd, fresh from watching a fireworks display at the fairgrounds, showed up looking for that American pleasure - cold beer.

Since then, Rocco's has expanded from operating in a two-room basement that specialized in serving spaghetti to a full-scale restaurant with seating for 135, a balcony, a water fountain and a mural painted by Hagerstown artist Clyde Roberts that depicts Rome's famous Fountain of Trevi.

This week, Rocco's, said to be the oldest continually operated restaurant in Washington County, is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

The restaurant, at the corner of Liberty Street and Cleveland Avenue in Hagerstown's East End, was opened by Italian immigrants Rocco and Francis Zappacosta.


In 1948, the couple sold the restaurant - after adding upper floors to the basement - to Mike and Stella Young, who owned it until 1975. It then was sold to Leon and Lillian Kinsey.

The Kinseys became restaurateurs after Leon Kinsey was asked whether he would like to buy the business, recalled his daughter, Diana Hoffman, who now is the sole owner.

Kinsey discussed the proposition with his wife, an accomplished cook, and decided to retire early from National Cash Register to take on the endeavor.

The Kinseys initially bought only the business; they later purchased the real estate and added an expansion in the early 1980s.

"He was a people person. Very inquisitive," Hoffman said of her father, saying he enjoyed conversing with the restaurant's customers. His wife oversaw the kitchen.

"They saw a tradition," Hoffman said of her parents' decision to buy the restaurant. "They saw a closeness in this neighborhood."

Hoffman, who was grown when her parents bought the restaurant, worked as a server during banquets for the extra money the job provided. She began supervising in the kitchen and cooking when her mother began to care for Hoffman's sister, who was battling breast cancer and needed a stem cell transplant in 1997.

Hoffman's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1998.

A month later, Hoffman bought Rocco's from her father, who died last year.

Hoffman said she shares her mother's cooking skills, which she honed by being a mother of four and a farm wife who cooked for farmhands and canned her own vegetables.

When two of her children attended college, in Florida and North Carolina, she always made sure they left with a suitcase full of frozen, homemade Italian food.

None of her children has an interest in taking over the restaurant now, although she said a few family members pitch in as servers during busy holidays, including Valentine's Day.

A burger for 40 cents

No menu is known to exist from the restaurant's initial opening, but Hoffman has a copy of a menu believed to be from the 1950s.

At that time, a dish of Italian spaghetti with meatballs or meat sauce was $1.65, while a hamburger was 40 cents. A seafood platter with french fries and a salad was priced at $2.25.

Regular beer was 35 cents, while a premium beer would set a buyer back an additional 5 cents.

"Oysters are available when in season," reads a typed note at the bottom of the menu.

The phone number then was RE3-3724 and it remains the same, although RE has been converted to 73 and a 301 area code was added.

Some of the food hasn't changed.

"Consistency is what has kept Rocco's going," Hoffman said, saying the restaurant uses the same Southern Italian sauce as the Zappacostas did in 1936.

"Right now, I'm the only one that knows (the sauce recipe) entirely," Hoffman said, although she added that she has it written down.

Hoffman also uses the same recipe for meatballs, and the lasagna is put together just like it was 70 years ago.

"We just stick with the basics and do something well," Hoffman said.

Rather than running the restaurant like a business, Hoffman said she runs it like a family with love, respect and, when needed, discipline. On weekends, she will bring in fudge, ice cream or other specialties for the staff, and she always sends them home at the end of the day with a "Good night" and a "Thank you," she said.

Hoffman lives above the restaurant, as did prior owners.

Since July 2, the restaurant has been closed for vacation, an annual tradition. It will reopen Tuesday.

When her father closed for vacation, he would place a block ad in the newspaper notifying his customers of the impending closure. "Mother's tired" always was written at the bottom of the ads.

"Mother's rested" would read the subsequent advertisements letting people know the restaurant was back open.

In addition to closing for vacation, Rocco's is closed on Sundays and Mondays. It is open other days from 5 to 9 p.m.

Future plans might include an increase in catering, something Hoffman said she would like to do.

No major changes are planned at the restaurant itself, she said.

Anniversary specials

The restaurant has two dining rooms, with the original dining room refurbished when the addition was built. At customers' requests, a rooftop radiator was left in place, and still is used as a heat source, Hoffman said.

With walls and a ceiling that are 18 inches thick, the kitchen doubled as a fallout shelter during World War II.

An enclosed front porch added by Hoffman's parents features frame after frame of candid photographs of customers, many taken when leisure suits and feathered hairstyles were in vogue.

Tapping her finger against the glass, Hoffman can point out customers who still frequent the restaurant.

A private party for regular customers who have been coming to Rocco's for decades is planned for July 25, while others can celebrate the anniversary this week from Tuesday through Saturday.

Those invited to the private party include a couple from McConnellsburg, Pa., who come to the restaurant every Saturday night and sit at the same corner table, Hoffman said.

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