Walk into Geraci's (2266 Warrensville Ctr. Rd., 216-371-5643) and it might feel like time stands still. The old school cash-only register, the dimly lit dining room, the Old World Italian décor. As it celebrates its 60th anniversary this month, little has changed, including the generations of both the family running the show and the families that pass through the doors.
Food, and a bit of fate, brought together the son and daughter of two Sicilian natives, planting the seed for what would become one of the most beloved Italian restaurants in town. Michael Geraci's family owned a produce business at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, while the family of his future wife Frances owned stands at the West Side Market. The late couple's crossing was inevitable.
Michael had always been fascinated by the pizza business. Frances, her aunts and uncles helped develop the recipes for Geraci's when it opened in a small shopping center on Cedar near Green. They moved to their current University Heights location half a decade later
Frances was elegant, a hostess by all means, remembers her daughter and current owner, Francesca Geraci, who was two when her parents opened the restaurant. She remembers Michael as a hard worker who went down to the market for fresh produce every morning until he was in his late 70s.
"They were complete opposites," says Francesca. "He was just a fireball and she was reserved. But it worked."
Guests are greeted with balls of fresh dough, large deck ovens and the aroma of Italian cooking. It's no surprise that Michael's love of pizza led to the pies that Geraci's would become famous for. The eatery continues to churn out pies topped with perfectly crisped imported pepperoni with just the kick of spice needed to balance the sweet, homemade tomato sauce.
"I can't tell," Francesca responds slyly when pressed for the secret to their recipe. She's quick to note that their recipes, many passed down through the family, have seldom changed.
But more than just the pies, people come to Geraci's for the atmosphere. If ever there was a place to share a slice, it's the narrow room of communal dining tables that make up the majority of the restaurant.
"It's a gathering place," notes Francesca. "People sit next to complete strangers and all of the sudden they're having dinner together. They consider this a place to reunite and remember the past."
The menu grew alongside Frances' passion for cooking, and the restaurant eventually began offering chicken, veal and seafood dishes alongside traditional pastas. But while lines formed out the doors—especially after big Cain Park shows—and crowds swelled until closing time.
Today, the legacy lives on through daughters, grandchildren, grandnieces and nephews, all who have worked in the restaurant.
"It's always been a family affair," says Francesca. "I've watched young adults become parents and then become grandparents and now great grandparents, and they continue to be faithful customers. My favorite memory will always be families sharing our own family's experience. It's like eating at someone's house."
Francesca has watched as many of Geraci's earliest customers aged and moved east to the suburbs. But now she is seeing that play out in reverse, with children moving back to the old neighborhoods. To her, they're recreating the Geraci legacy all over again.
"I think my parents planned on just opening a little pizzeria," Francesca says. "And then it just got bigger and bigger."