What makes the perfect dish of pasta? The sum of all the ingredients combined. Each individual ingredient must be carefully prepared so the combination results in an unforgettable dining experience. How the flour is milled for the pasta, how the tomatoes are grown before they go into the sauce, even the timing of when the salt is added to the boiling water affects the outcome of the dish. Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group knows how to create unforgettable dining experiences because they, like their many perfected recipes, are the sum of many individual experiences that when combined, create the perfect recipe for success.
Carmelo Rago didn’t set out to be a restaurateur. He was a social studies teacher when he went for pizza in Castle Downs with his uncle and his father-in-law, Maurizio Saccomanno. The pizza restaurant was going to close and the family smelled more than delicious pies. They smelled an opportunity. In 1979 when interest rates were rising and the economy was falling, Rago, who didn’t know the first thing about restaurant management, fell in love with the business and decided to continue the course when the other partners wanted to sell. The family thought he was making a huge mistake. They kept asking, “Are you sure about this? You’re just a teacher!” Rago said yes, so his father-in-law, Maurizio said, “Okay, I’ll help you.”
“It was one of those moments when you look back; I had no business making that decision,” reflects Rago of founding what would later become the powerful Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group (SRG) alongside his father-in-law. “But I was intrigued by it. I was so naïve. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t do such a thing!”
Unlike the Hollywood version of success (have a dream and success falls into your lap), Rago’s decision had far reaching personal and professional outcomes.
“The concern from the people that loved me was that I was shy and a teacher. Why get involved in the restaurant business?” Rago remembers their apprehension. “When I got involved I become so obsessed. I spent all my time in the restaurant, which resulted at the price of my family. Yet I needed that passion, otherwise I would have no chance in making it. It gave me a chance to get involved with people, talk to my guests and learn the business. In the end, my lack of knowledge worked for me because it forced me to talk directly to the guests, suppliers and staff.” His training as a teacher was beneficial. “As a teacher I taught teenagers. In the restaurant I try to apply the same teaching techniques with my co-workers. Not much difference,” smiles Rago.
But one person saw a very big difference. “I married a guy that was supposed to be home at 3pm, not 3am,” his wife, Stella told him as she tired of his long hours away and constantly waiting on him to come home to attend weddings and other events.
“We were late for a lot of weddings,” Rago smiles sheepishly of those early days. But that work ethic, which Rago didn’t even know he had, had long roots. His father, Pasquale, owned a flour mill in Italy and he remembers his father sleeping at the mill to accommodate the out-of-town farmers that would come in at 2am to buy flour. In 1953 his father went to Canada to visit his brother for three months. Those three months stretched into six. Those six months stretched into 12. His father planned to bring the family to Canada, then changed his mind. Months, then years dragged on. Rago didn’t see his father for eight years.
“It sounds bad, but you have to look at the whole story,” shrugs Rago. “Why did he stay so long in Canada working at Fabric Care Cleaners when he was a well-respected mill owner in Italy? Freedom. My grandfather was very dominant. Whatever my dad did, even as a married man, he had to talk to grandpa first. In Canada he saw freedom for himself and opportunity for his family.” The rest of the family joined senior Rago in Canada in 1961. Rago was 11 at the time.
Fast forward several years and Rago is lying in the snow with pizzas spilled around him. As the sauce bleeds into the white landscape, he looks up at the heavens and wonders what on earth he got himself into. His driver didn’t show up so he’s delivering the pizzas. After going to several wrong addresses, he sees the house he needs to be at across the street, but he trips and the pizzas go flying. It’s not a success story. At least, not yet.
“I said to myself, ‘What am I doing? That’s it. Tomorrow I will go and talk to my father-in-law’,” remembers Rago. But he didn’t. In the morning he got up and went right back to work. “We were brought up not to give up and not to disappoint people.”
Success was hard won, but it wasn’t elusive. Growth was slow but steady. Then it took off. With his father-in-law Rago continued to open locations and expand the brand. Today, the Restaurant Group has cooked up over 17 prestigious awards, has four restaurant brands and is expanding beyond the city. His four boys, Maurizio, Carmelo Jr., Pasquale and Antonio, are all involved in the business as is his wife Stella, who in a twist of fate, now keeps him waiting as she passionately enjoys her career.
Things came full circle in the 90s. Again, a driver didn’t show up, so the company owner delivered the pizzas. This time Rago did it in a Jaguar – a car he saw when he was 18 and told himself he would buy when he was successful.
However, to Rago success isn’t fancy cars and multiple restaurants. It’s seeing his family make sacrifices to survive those tough early years together. It’s being able to find the courage and strength to carry on after the untimely death of his beloved father-in-law and business partner, Maurizio in 1991. It’s having his brother-in-laws step up to help fill the void Maurizio left, in particular Frank, who is now the controller of SRG. It’s having his sons happily enter the business. It’s being able to sponsor Sorrentino’s Compassion House (a home built for women with breast cancer visiting Edmonton while undergoing diagnosis and treatment) and giving back generously to the community. It’s the talent and loyalty of his team members, some who have been with SRG for over 20 years. It’s the friendships that develop by meeting so many wonderful people. It’s the smiles on the faces of the diners that come to the restaurants day after day for high-quality, mouth-watering meals.
So you see, the story behind Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group isn’t an easy, or sometimes even happy one; but just like how you must mill flour to get the best result, those experiences made the end result far richer. You cannot have pasta unless you boil it. Likewise, the Group had to make some hard decisions and go through some hot waters to get to where they are today. This year Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group celebrates their 35th anniversary. Is there a plan in place to ring in this milestone? “Not really. Not yet,” smiles the ever-humble Rago who credits his team, family, suppliers and patrons for the Group’s success. For Rago, 35 years later he is content to do what he has passionately done for over three decades. Supply Edmonton and area with that perfect dish of pasta. Perfect because of the sum of the ingredients combined.
Written by Nerissa McNaugton