For some creatives, their self-expression is mainly visual. For others, their art is auditory. And for brothers Joe and Tom Alagna, their creativity is culinary…manifesting in the kitchen. Now celebrating their 35th anniversary in business, these fratelli (“brothers” in Italian) have served fresh-made meats, sauces, and desserts to thousands of Missouri patrons who have come to depend on the high quality and warm atmosphere the restaurant–aptly named “Fratelli’s”–offers.
While the restaurant, or “ristorante” is currently located in St. Charles, that wasn’t always the case. The men’s first place was in Dellwood, which was a natural fit, since they were raised in nearby Jennings. When they first opened in 1983, the building was just a small, ten-table pizzeria. Over the next thirteen years, however, the restaurant, the menu, and the clientele grew, necessitating three remodels/expansions during this period. After a while, though, a move to St. Charles was discussed, and eventually, enacted. It was the second fastest growing county in the nation, and the time was right to move their business westward.
When they moved, in 1996, they said it felt like starting the business all over again. Acquiring new equipment, new supplies, and learning the tastes of a new clientele were part of the learning curve they faced. For example, people in Dellwood tended to like more meat dishes than people in St. Charles, who preferred more pasta and salads.
However, this didn’t faze them. Undaunted, the brothers rose to the occasion to once again create a unique family dining experience for their new clientele. While we have probably all heard horror stories of families who go into business together and end up with a major falling out, such is not the case with the Alagnas. Joe says that he and Tom have been successful at co-owning a business because they share the same goals and duties, and because they are flexible when it comes to meeting the needs of the business. Besides having each other as a business partner, other family members have also had a positive influence on the men’s success.
Their mom and dad are two of those people. After immigrating from Sicily to pursue the American Dream, for several decades, Tommaso and Francesca Alagna also owned and operated a restaurant in Ferguson, called Tomasso’s, for many years. This is part of what inspired the boys to open their own place, and since they had grown up working in the family restaurant, they were clearly well-suited to the role. Additionally, their dad maintains a low-key presence in the day-to-day aspects of the business. At 100 years old, Tommaso often comes to visit his sons’ restaurant, watching the customers flow in and out, and sometimes offering pointers. It must be quite satisfying for him to see some of the family recipes from his homeland, and from his own restaurant, being used to make food for another generation of patrons in the twenty-first century.
While some aspects of the business remain timeless, such as their inclusion of family recipes, Joe and Tom have crafted some of their own recipes to reflect the desires of a changing culinary landscape. Other aspects of the culture have also changed since 1983, and the impacts on the gastronomic industry could be felt. For example, when Fratelli’s first opened, the internet was a vague concept relegated to government applications, and print media such as newspapers and magazines were more utilized as far as information on restaurant reviews was concerned. If you had a noteworthy restaurant experience, good or bad, it would take a while for the general population to know, should you ever decide to share. Only a select few people were true restaurant critics, making their rounds to the various establishments, and they had some degree of fame for this.
Nowadays, however, the landscape has vastly and obviously changed. They cited the rise of the internet, and sites like Yelp, for example, as one of the biggest ways his industry has changed over the years. While in the past, restaurant staff would recognize a critic, and “step up their game” when he or she entered the house. In recent years, “everyone with a smartphone is a restaurant critic,” according to Joe. Someone could, conceivably, write an Internet post that “goes viral” within minutes of their posting, and they wouldn’t even have to wait to go home to post it. The person wouldn’t necessarily need to have fame or a following to be heard, and the “critic’s” integrity wouldn’t be as valued as it once was. Even so, the brothers don’t seem to mind the added pressure; they have faith in their staff and business and know that Fratelli’s will continue to stand the test of time.
In addition to the expansion of the information highway, another trend to impact the industry in recent years has been the health-food movement. Health conscious patrons are often looking for organics, gluten-free, and non-GMO options. While it’s impossible for any restaurant to chase every single trend and whim of the market, Fratelli’s core values of making their food fresh will always be in style, and they believe that this practice “sets them apart” from other places. (Fratelli’s does offer gluten-free items.) While many other restaurants buy food pre-made, and simply heat it and assemble it, it has always been important to Joe and Tom to avoid this. They make their sauces (about 50 gallons a week) from scratch. They bread the meat and make the meatballs themselves. They grind their cheese in-house, and they make fresh pizza dough every day. Additionally, their foods are made with fresh ingredients, and all this keeps customers young and old coming back regularly–sometimes more than once a day.
Imagine all that foot traffic! After nearly two dozen years of customers coming in and out, thousands upon thousands of footsteps must surely have been taken there over the years. And like an older, hard-working person in the prime of life, the building was ready for a facelift. While fresh paint is a normal and expected part of a remodel, the updates didn’t stop there. The layout was modified to allow for more efficiency and more natural flow of movement. The waiting area was enlarged, and the hostess desk was moved closer so guests know whom to approach.
While guests are waiting, they can watch a flat screen TV with a ten-minute loop that talks about the family history, displays the menu, and discusses desserts. (The tiramisu and cannoli are signature desserts which are made in house!) Inside the dining area, tables have been arranged to offer a more seating than before, and the lighting has been updated as well. Fans of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ “Fixer Upper” show will notice the shiplap that has been used as well. Overall, it was designed to have a better flow of traffic, more clear direction in the waiting room, and an updated look throughout.
Even with the updates in place, some things will never need remodeling. The friendly faces of Joe and Tom are still there, and the food is always made with care and with fresh ingredients. And, if you want Fratelli’s food brought to your home, business or event, contact them about catering. Straight from the shores of Sicily, to our own St. Charles…you can count on Fratelli’s for fresh, friendly, authentic Italian food!