LAKE FOREST/WINNETKA — Seeing and hearing the embodiment of the American dream is as easy as a conversation with Piero D’Ascenzi, a North Shore resident and owner of Ferentino’s two Lake Forest restaurants and Marco Roma in Winnetka.
Getting some of the gritty details behind that dream requires a conversation with Aurelio D’Ascenzi, Piero D’Ascenzi’s grown son and general manager of the family business.
Today Ferentino’s and Marco Roma comprise a restaurant chain serving pizza, pasta, sandwiches, a variety of salads and even a burger supporting a North Shore lifestyle for three families.
“This was my dream,” said Piero D’Ascenzi. “I was following my dream. I cooked and did everything from front to back. There’s an old saying if you work hard there will be opportunities. It’s harder to start a business today.”
The story of the young man who wanted to own his own restaurant began when Piero D’Ascenzi was a 20-year-old waiter at a restaurant in his native Rome in 1974. It was spurred along by falling in love and a lot of hard work.
Rita D’Ascenzi was also born in Italy and immigrated to the Chicago area in 1967 with her family, according to Aurelio D’Ascenzi. He said she made a return trip which put the gears of his family’s story into motion.
“My mother Rita (D’Ascenzi) went back for a wedding, met my father and they both came here,” said Aurelio D’Ascenzi.
To hear Piero D’Ascenzi tell the story he said he worked hard—the two-word answer he gives for his success—at a restaurant in Skokie, opened his own there—Villa Rita—three years later and in 1989 opened Lake Forest’s first Italian restaurant.
Aurelio D’Ascenzi adds some details.
“He got up in the morning to work construction,” said Aurelio D’Ascenzi. “He got done and worked in a pizza place learning how to do that. That’s how he got the money to start Villa Rita.”
Deep dish pizza was already well established in Chicago when Piero D’Ascenzi decided he was going to open a restaurant featuring that dish. Aurelio D’Ascenzi said his father knew none of the well known Chicago pizzerias were going to give away their recipes so he found another way to do product research.
“My father and uncle literally went dumpster diving in Chicago to see what ingredients they used,” said Aurelio D’Ascenzi. “He said, ‘I want to be better than that.’”
After operating Villa Rita for 13 years, Piero said he felt the North Shore was the right place to own a restaurant. He opened the original Ferentino’s on Western Avenue in Lake Forest in 1989 followed by a smaller location on Waukegan Road seven years later.
“There was no Italian restaurant in Lake Forest when we opened,” said Piero D’Ascenzi when asked why he chose Lake Forest. “So I decided to open one.”
Bringing all the things he learned and then some, Piero D’Ascenzi said the key to making a pizza which keeps people coming back are the fresh ingredients and doing nothing “half baked.”
“We don’t start anything until the customer is ready to order,” said Piero D’Ascenzi.
Along with the pizza, Ferentino’s offers 10 kinds of pasta with a choice of seven different sauces. When a customer orders spaghetti, mostaccioli, rigatoni, fettuccini, gnocchi, cheese or meat ravioli, baked mostaccioli, baked rigatoni or lasagna they can choose from pomodoro, Bolognese, tomato and basil, vodka and Alfredo along with either red or white clam sauce.
In 1995 Piero D’Ascenzi started baking a focaccia roll for sandwiches including a hamburger. He said it is made fresh daily. Specialty salads were also introduced around that time. Piero D’Ascenzi said the romaine lettuce arrives fresh every day.
“We really expanded our menu then,” said Aurelio D’Ascenzi.
The menus at the two Ferentino’s and Marco Roma are the same, according to Piero D’Ascenzi.
Aurelio D’Ascenzi said he started working in the family business answering phones when he was to. His brother, Marco D’Ascenzi, is part of it too now. Aurelio D’Ascenzi explanation of his job description has a familiar ring.
“I’m the general manager but I’m a hands on general manager,” said Aurelio D’Ascenzi. “If dishes need to be washed I wash dishes. Where help is needed help will be given.”