- Our Story -
It all began in 1969 with a dream.
As director of operations for Mancuso's Restaurants Inc., Grayhawk's Fran Mancuso keeps her family's dining heritage intact.
When Fran Mancuso's father, Frank, told his 12-year-old daughter in 1964 that the family was moving to Phoenix from Auburn N.Y., she had no idea where they were heading but she was determined not to go. Despite her objections, Fran relocated to the Valley. More than 45 years later, she is gratefully entrenched here and upholding the family's reputation as successful owners of several Italian restaurants.
When the Mancusos landed in Phoenix, they had no restaurant experience - her father worked for General Electric at the time - but mother Agnes' dream was to open a dessert parlor. In 1969, the family debuted Fran's Italian Fruit Ices on Seventh Avenue just north of Missouri. "We borrowed $1,000 from my mom's parents and opened with a few bar stools and tables and 10 different flavors," says its namesake.
Fran's parents did the cooking while 14-year-old Fran was the sole waitress of the tiny operation, which was the first of its kind in the city. "I did my homework in between table," she says.
After suggestions from customers, mostly Camelback car salesmen, the Mancusos expanded their menu to include subs and pasta. Space constraints forced a move in 1971 to Seventh Avenue and Pierson, where they opened a full-fledged restaurant called Fran's Italian Gourmet Dining. The Mancusos then moved their concept to Seventh Avenue and Coolidge in 1974, opening a restaurant that was an homage to the Old World, complete with white pillars, and blue and gold decor. "You should have seen it," says Fran. "It was so ornate."
The family kept their downtown location for more than a decade, changing its name a few times and opening up other restaurants in the Valley and California throughout the '80s, including the award-winning Mancuso's at the Borgata (pictured above) in 1982, which received several Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence for Best Italian Food.
In April 2005, the doors closed on the family's longest-running restaurant, Mancuso's at the Borgata, as well as the adjacent Frankie's Patio Cafe, due to the Borgata's renovation plan that involved tearing down certain parts of the center to create more open spaces for shoppers. Mancuso's at the Borgata, a castle-like banquet hall complete with ornate chandeliers was, according to Fran, the family centerpiece.
Fran's younger brother Bob, who is Bobby's namesake, is president of the company and handles the financial side, as well as hiring and developing menus for their mini-empire. "This isn't a huge corporation, but Bob and I take 110 percent responsibility for it," Fran says. The Mancuso siblings, as well as other family members, whose family-owned operation is rare in the corporate dining industry, have two good reasons to protect their dynasty.
"We scraped by," says Agnes, 81, at the writing of this article. "My husband and I worked hard and didn't give up. We're the American dream. We've been able to leave a legacy to our children, and they're doing a beautiful job."
Chef Michael DeMaria, chef and co-owner of Michael's at the Citadel, attributes the Mancuso's success to their business savvy and longevity. "The Mancuso name is certainly one you recognize in the Valley. It's a tough city to service due to the ebb and flow of the industry. There aren't many you can list who've been in the business for even 10 years. The list gets even smaller in the 20-and-30-year range," says DeMaria. "You have to know how to survive and redesign and reinvent yourself. The Mancusos have done that. They are restaurant people."
Peter Maland of Sun City met the Mancusos years ago in New York and has witnessed the family's progression from simple dessert-shop owners to sophisticated restauranteurs. "It's phenomenal what they've done," Maland says. "I've never seen a couple work harder than Frank and Agnes. Usually, a restaurant hires people to make it successful, but in the earlier years, the Mancusos did it on their own."
Although the Mancusos can take credit for helping to shape the Valley restaurant scene, no one in the family rests on their laurels. "Years ago, we had no competition, but today, we welcome it. Even though we're confident in our category, the restaurant growth in the Valley keeps you on your toes." says Fran, who is guided by her father's voice as she manages her tasks in the business. "He never leaves my mind," she says of Frank, who passed away in 1993, followed by Agnes is 2010. "He always said: 'People don't have to eat at our restaurant.'"
Customers, though, have chosen to return to Mancuso's hospitality time and time again. Bob estimates that millions have dined at their restaurants, which Fran describes as happy, bright and inviting. "We have longevity because we played by the rules, had faith and work hard every single day," she says.
Diners also seek out Mancuso's flair for serving great northern Italian food, still mostly based on Agnes' recipes, including her sauces. Bob calls her the queen of the taste buds.
Growing up in the restaurant business has been a struggle at times, but she wouldn't trade her upbringing. "It's second nature. I can't imagine doing anything else," says Fran. "I still laugh every day. Thank God my parents had the gumption to get into the business. I'm proud of the Mancuso name."