Antonio Ruggeri opened a tiny restaurant on
Edwards Avenue just before the start of the 1904 World’s Fair. It was
colorful and bright, with red and white checkered table clothes and
the latest in gas lights. When he died in 1927, his son Henry
carried on the high standards and traditions set by his father,
building Ruggeri’s into an iconic restaurant that flourished for
almost 80 years.
Henry Ruggeri and his wife Erminia lived above the restaurant at 2300 Edwards on the Hill.
Henry (the Chief) ran the floor and Erminia (Mama Minnie) did the
kitchen. Minnie's mission in life was to see the waiters – her
"kids" – married off. Mama Minnie cooked for her kids on Sunday and
the Chief took the waiters, busboys and their dates to the Chase or
to Sportsman's Park. Many of the waiters started as bus boys and remained at the restaurant for over 25
years, including Joe Garagiola's older brother Mickey and Yogi Berra's
older brother John. Mickey started out as a busboy and dishwasher in
1936, moved up to waiter in 1940 and came back after the service
until the restaurant closed. At Henry's urging, Yogi took an
off-season job as "greeter" in 1949. He even wore a tux!
The Chief knew all of the policemen and doormen around town; he fed most of the police department. By "taking care" of the doormen at the hotels, he built his business.
Ruggeri's was known for their charcoal broiled steaks, their seafood and their authentic Italian dishes. They were also renown for their toasted ravioli.
Mickey Garagiola was sitting at the bar at Oldani's restaurant in the early 1940s the night toasted ravioli was invented. "After our shift at Ruggeri's, the waiters would go to Oldani's place because he stayed open late. The cook Fritz accidentally dropped a couple of boiled raviolis into the deep fryer. He was so mad he dumped the whole pot into the hot oil. He sent the 'toasted' ravioli to the bar as complimentary appetizers. The rest is history. Ruggeri's added the melted butter and Angelo's started the meat sauce."
Celebrities came to Ruggeri's. Mickey relates, "The Chief usually locked the doors around 11. Frank Sinatra was playing the Arena with Tommy Dorsey. 'Peanuts,' a friend who followed the big bands, came banging at Ruggeri's about 11:30 and told the Chief, 'Hey, I got Frank Sinatra with me and we want something to eat.' The Chief said, 'Frank Sinatra? He's nothing. Go down to Slay's, he's open late.'"
Anybody who played St. Louis knew Ruggeri's: Rosemary Clooney, Robert Young, the Cisco Kid, Rocky Marciano. Broadcasters (Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Vin Scully) and ballplayers ate at Ruggeri's. Most of them stayed at the Chase in those days. Hack, the maitre d' at the Tenderloin Room, would send them over. KMOX personality Jack Carney was a house favorite. He would order a bottle of wine and never drink a glass; he'd offer the wine to the waiters on the floor. The next day on the air, Carney would crack jokes about the waiters at Ruggeri's drinking the customers' wine.
In 1955, Henry Ruggeri doubled the size of his
restaurant, adding new kitchen and dining facilities.
Capacity was increased to 650 diners.
On December 29,
1956 Stan Kann debuted at Ruggeri's playing the organ. Kann had purchased a huge pipe
organ that had been at the Loew's State Theater since
1924. The organ was compacted into two 25 foot square
basement rooms of the restaurant, with the 16 foot pipes
curved to fit under the eight foot ceiling. An organ
company in Granite City spent a year rebuilding the
instrument for the basement location and it took four
months to install it. Kann purchased the organ for
$12,000. Stan Kann and his organ were
fixtures in the Ruggeri's dining room for over 20 years.
Henry Ruggeri, Sr. died on February 17, 1961 at the age of 65. Henry Ruggeri, Jr., who had taken over the restaurant's operation from his father, died on April 20, 1975 at the age of 44 after a long illness. Frank Ruggeri, the restaurant's maitre d' for 40 years, died on September 19, 1976 at the age of 64. He had retired two years earlier.
The leadership drain was too much for the restaurant. Rumors began to circulate that Ruggeri's was for sale. On May 11, 1980 a "for sale" ad appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But there were no buyers for the historic restaurant on the Hill. On Saturday, June 8, 1982 Ruggeri's closed its doors for good.
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