The night began in typical fashion for Tony Angello's Ristorante.

Manager Dale Messina stood hunched over the reservations book, peering between the handwritten lines, looking for space for one more table and mostly shaking his head.

It was a weeknight and, as usual, the regulars started coming in early. Soon the restaurant was filled with families, young couples and old friends. Many more were waiting at the bar, catching up with the people they always see at Tony Angello’s, and the ones they only see at Tony Angello’s.

Just beyond the bar, a dark corridor framed the frenetic bustle of waiters hoisting trays of small plates — stuffed shrimp, stuffed shells, cannelloni — all portioned out by the dozen or so for big group tables.

But when the tables were cleared, it was obvious this was not a typical night at Tony Angello’s. Nobody wanted to leave, and certainly no one left in a hurry. They walked around the dining rooms snapping photos. They tracked down their favorite waiters and managers to say goodbye, jostling their leftovers to grab that last hug. Some wiped away tears.

Tony Angello’s will permanently close after dinner on Christmas Eve. The restaurant’s founder and namesake died in 2015 at age 88, and his family decided earlier this year to shutter the business.

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Advocate staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER - Tony Angello's Ristorante closed Dec. 24, 2016. The Lakeview restaurant is comprised of a series of dining rooms and filled with many stories of local families and New Orleans life.

Since word started getting around, the restaurant's second family — a vast, extended network of patrons and friends who have considered Tony Angello's home — started pouring in for their last suppers. 

“When places like this close, it’s more than losing a restaurant or another place to eat,” said Leslie Rankins-Latino, as she waited with her family for a table. “In New Orleans, we’re attuned to our restaurants, our people, our places, and when we lose them we really feel it.”

Merging personal, commercial

In the case of Tony Angello’s, that feeling cuts deep. Angello founded the restaurant in a quiet corner of Lakeview in 1972, setting up shop in a brick house that looks more like the surrounding suburban-style homes than a business.

Its roots went back to an earlier restaurant and lounge that Angello first ran in Gentilly, and many of those dining at Tony Angello’s this week remembered that chapter as well.

But it's not the longevity that matters to them so much as the way the experience of this restaurant veered from the commercial to the personal, and the way its stories merged with their own.

For successive generations of New Orleans Italian families in particular, there was little distinction between the family table at home and the restaurant table at Tony Angello’s.

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Monette Morreale and Jennifer Keller-Cochran have been coming to Tony Angello's Ristorante all their lives, and paid a final visit this week. The longtime New Orleans restaurant officially closes Dec. 24.

"You walk into this restaurant that looks like your grandmother's house, and you're eating this food like your grandmother would cook, so all that just made it feel like home," said Chad Vinturella.

Like others who have held Tony Angello's close, he did not take the news of its closing lightly. Just last week he celebrated his 40th birthday there with a table of 20. A few days later he and his wife Jessica Vinturella were back, trying to get a table just one more time.

Monette Morreale and Jennifer Keller-Cochran can relate. They're best friends who grew up together, and both say they feel like they grew up at Tony Angello’s.

"Every time you walked in, you felt like you were a kid again,” said Morreale.

Through the years the two marked milestone birthdays under its roof in the Tony Angello’s way. Instead of cake, the kitchen would send out a whole, raw eggplant stuck with lit sparklers, and Tony Angello himself would often sing "Happy Birthday" at their table, in Italian of course.

“He said it was only for the pretty girls, and you know he never sang for my dad," Keller-Cochran said.

This week, the two friends had their final visit and did one more walk-through, even touring the kitchen, holding hands as they looked around at familiar faces and inhaled the aroma of red gravy.

"There's no replacement. There will never be another Tony Angello's,” Morreale said.

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Advocate staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER - Tony Angello's Ristorante closed Dec. 24, 2016. The Lakeview restaurant is comprised of a series of dining rooms and filled with many stories of local families and New Orleans life.

An extension of home

Other old-school New Orleans restaurants can tell a similar story of loyal customers and family ties, though the particular attachment to Tony Angello’s is hard to understand without an appreciation for the personality of its founder.

Angello was born in Pueblo, Colorado, but spent most of his life in New Orleans, growing up in Lakeview when the neighborhood itself was still young. As he found success in the restaurant business, he also became the embodiment of his restaurant, cooking enormous Italian dinners and hosting his guests. He had the ability to make each one feel like the most important person in the room, even when that room was packed. 

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Justin Paige has been tending bar for 27 years at Tony Angello's Ristorante, where long serving staff is just one of the traditions. The longtime New Orleans restaurant officially closes Dec. 24.

“When you think about Tony Angello’s, it’s Tony,” said Gene Zeller, who has been dining at Angello’s restaurants since the Gentilly days. “It’s him coming out of his kitchen in a white T-shirt, joining you at the table, cooking whatever you wanted.”

Vincent Signorelli knew Angello all his life, dating back to the 1940s, when Angello worked as a carhop at his father’s eatery, the Rockery Inn, a long-gone emblem of old Lakeview. Later, Signorelli worked at Tony Angello’s as a waiter, as did his son and two grandsons.

“When I’d break in new waiters here, I’d tell them, 'Look, the food’s good, the price is right, but there has to be something else.' You need something to make people feel special here, and that was Tony,” he said.

The sense of welcome and the familiarity made Tony Angello’s a natural destination to mark life events, from christenings to school graduations, weddings and even the passing of loved ones.

It was a place for everyday celebrations too. Standing weekly reservations were so much a normal part of business that regulars who skipped a night would sometimes get a phone call from the restaurant, checking to make sure they were OK.

For Janet Genusa and her family, though, the standing reservation came to mean something different during the hardest experience of their lives.

Her son Timothy died in a car crash in 1997, at age 31. For her and her husband Anthony, the grief was immobilizing. But their favorite restaurant became their sanctuary. Tony Angello always made sure they had a table in a small private nook in the back, whenever they wanted it.

“We needed support, but we just couldn't take the attention. We couldn't talk to people,” she said, as tears flowed at the memory, almost 20 years ago. “He supported us until we could stand on our own. That’s why I say Tony Angello saved our life; he pulled us through.”

Chef, host, friend

Behind Tony Angello’s homey brick façade was a series of large and small dining rooms, and as final meals unfurled here this week each was filled with stories of Tony Angello the chef, host and friend.

Many patrons shared stories of him bringing favorite dishes to their homes during a family illness, and even to their hospital beds. It was part of his wholehearted embrace of his role as restaurateur, one that transcended a job title to become his calling and identity.

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Chef Frank Catalanotto started working at his uncle Tony Angello's restaurant as a waiter and was executive chef for years before Tony Angello's Ristorante closed in late 2016.

"It's such a demanding business, but he loved it,” said his daughter Angela Angello Riviere, a longtime manager at the restaurant. “He was always here. The only meal we had together as a family was Sunday, when he was off. If we wanted to see him, we had to come here. Every holiday it was, 'Well, Daddy needs to go back to the restaurant.' But it was his life."

Tony Angello’s family was always part of the business, including his sisters Tina Catalanotto and Frances Sparacio. While his daughter managed the business end, his nephew Frank Catalanotto gradually took greater responsibility for the kitchen and spent the last decade as executive chef.

Other staff were there so long they were sometimes mistaken for family. Messina, for instance, started in 1973, when the restaurant was just a few months old and he wasn’t quite 13. He never left.

“It was supposed to be a summer job,” he said. “It's been 43 summers.”

Others who had briefer tenures on the staff still feel tied to Tony Angello’s, and many paid their respects during its final days.

“It was the kind of place that stayed with you,” said Marshall Perkins, who worked as a busboy there as a teenager and was back as a customer last week. “It was always here, and you always expected it to be here, especially after it came back from Katrina.”

The final 'feed me'

During Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant was flooded up to the roofline, like the rest of the neighborhood, due to a breach in the 17th Street Canal floodwall just a few blocks away.

Angello was 79 at the time, but Riviere said her father never spoke of retiring. Instead, he vowed early on that he would rebuild. When the restaurant returned in 2007, Tony Angello’s became a beacon of resilience.

“It was like the Superdome reopening,” remembered Jessica Vinturella. “They built it back exactly the same. It was like getting part of your home back.”

Building back meant reassembling an entire operation cut from its own cloth, with a business model no school would teach and no instruction manual could ever pass on. Over the years, the restaurant had simply developed its own ways. For instance, there was no schedule for busboys, but rather a daily roundup of mostly high school and college students looking for work.

"The weekend before prom, 47 of them would show up. The weekend after, I got nobody," Messina said. "Endymion weekend? Forget it."

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Tony Angello's Ristorante is comprised of a series of dining rooms and filled with many stories of local families and New Orleans life. The restaurant is slated to close Dec. 24.

By the final week of service, menus had become scarce as customers took them home as keepsakes. It hardly mattered. While the restaurant served dishes a la carte, the classic meal has always been the “feed me,” a progression of small dishes that could number 10, 12 or more depending on what was on the stove.

Out it came, first one dish at a time — the lobster cup and pasta with crab gravy and eggplant Tina (a baked stack of panneed eggplant) — and then as family-style platters to share around the table. The format lent the feeling of a feast even to everyday meals.

“As everyone in this town knows, food and drink brings you together as family and friends,” said Zeller, who was partaking in his final “feed me” last week. “Why else do we live in New Orleans? Tony Angello’s was one of those reasons.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.