Michael Passalacqua is a longtime Washington County restaurateur who is plugged into the dining scene throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. Owners and operators there are a closely knit fraternity, and Passalacqua is well aware that Pittsburgh Restaurant Week will kick off Jan. 9, without two culinary giants — one he knew well, the other through his large local reputation.
“Call them icons. They are known by everybody, and they’ve been role models for people coming up,” Passalacqua said of Rod Ambrogi and Nick Atria, longtime operators of Al’s Cafe and Atria’s Restaurant, respectively, in the South Hills. The two entrepreneurs died within the past three months — Ambrogi on Sept. 29, Atria on Dec. 16 — leaving a void in the industry locally.
More than 50 businesses are participating in the “Winter 2023 Pittsburgh Restaurant Week: 7 Days of Dining,” which will run through Jan. 15. The restaurants do not have to be in the city, or even in close proximity, to participate in this week-long celebration of food.
Those that have committed to the event have posted menus and special menus at www.pittsburghrestaurantweek.com, where a business can register for the week.
Restaurant Week, according to the website, was instituted in 2012 as “a celebration of restaurants and dining in the Steel City.” There is a winter event in January and a summer week in August. Participating restaurants are “expected to create a limited-time small menu” for dine-in guests, along with their regular menus.
A number of South Hills dining destinations are on board. Two well-regarded restaurant leaders, however, will not be.
Atria and Ambrogi were reputed to be common men with a lot in common. Both served in the Army before they began serving meals, for decades, at locations a mere seven miles apart. Both were selfless community servants known for fostering a familial atmosphere within their workplace. Both embraced their business.
Passalacqua, owner of Angelo’s Restaurant in North Franklin Township, had lofty praise for Ambrogi, a Charleroi resident who died at 75.
“The guy cared about his employees and customers more than anything,” he said of Ambrogi, an Army sergeant during the Vietnam war.
Ambrogi also cared deeply about his profession, protesting restrictions Gov. Tom Wolf placed on restaurants during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ambrogi organized a gathering of restaurant and bar owners seeking relief from their limitations at a July 2020 rally, which attracted an estimated 200 people outside his Bethel Park restaurant. Months later, during another COVID surge, Wolf again shut down indoor dining in late December 2020 through early January 2021, but Ambrogi kept Al’s Cafe open. The Christmas/New Year’s season usually is a bountiful time for restaurants.
Passalacqua, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Assn., said he and Ambrogi consulted with one another often. The owner of Angelo’s said he never met Atria, but had heard a lot about him and his popular Mt. Lebanon restaurant.
Atria, who died at 82, returned from the service decades ago to take over his parents’ bar-restaurant along Beverly Road. He was a mainstay there, working behind the bar overseeing the kitchen and fostering neighborhood goodwill. In addition to reaching out to the Mt. Lebanon community, volunteering at his church and devotion to Lil, his wife of 57 years Atria organized rafting tours to Ohiopyle and bus trips to Steelers game.
Oh, and he worked in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds office.
“Nick was a true entrepreneur.” said Pat McDonnell, founder and CEO of Restaurant Holding Services LP, which bought Atria’s in 1997. “To him, this was a family business, and he ran it like that. He was always behind the bar, very involved with his guests. Nick was a legacy in Mt. Lebanon, and that’s why I wanted to keep the name (of the business). This was not just selling a business but selling a name that was a landmark.”
Pittsburgh-based Restaurant Holdings owns five Atria’s locations (Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township, O’Hara, Murrysville and Pleasant Hills) and four Juniper Grill restaurants (Peters, Cranberry, Murrysville and Charlotte, N.C.
McDonnell said he likes the Restaurant Week concept.
“I think it’s good for the city and the restaurants,” he said.