Sizzle and Style

Editor’s note: This is part of a periodic series focusing on notable places in Trumbull County that no longer exist.

There was a time when going out to dinner was an occasion. Nothing defined the true meaning of splendor to the palate more than the many independently owned restaurants that were included in the eclectic patchwork that made up the U.S. Route 422 Strip stretching across Niles and Warren.

Anthony Cafaro Sr., former president of and current consultant for the Cafaro Corp., said he remembers Cherry’s Top of the Mall in its heyday. The restaurant was operated by Charles Ruffi and Phil Giuliano, he said.

“Charles Ruffi’s nickname was ‘Cherry’ Ruffi, and that is how the restaurant Cherry’s Top of the Mall got its name,” Cafaro said.

Ruffi had operated a restaurant called Cherry’s in Ravenna, but after a fire, Ruffi chose the Eastwood Mall for its new location. Cafaro also said that he believes that Cherry’s Top of the Mall opened its doors in the early 1970s, a few years after the Eastwood Mall’s ribbon-cutting in September 1969.

In the early 1970s, Valley suburbs such as Poland, Canfield and Boardman were completely dry areas. This made the 422 strip, which had liquor permits, a popular choice for restaurant-goers and patrons in Trumbull as well as Mahoning County, he said.

“The strip was made famous because of the number of quality restaurants. Cherry’s Top of The Mall was first class in every respect,” Cafaro said. ”It had excellent decor and ambiance and it was unlike any other restaurant between New York and Chicago.”

Cherry’s specialized in steaks and Italian food and was known for the variety of its menu, he said.

To complete the elegant experience, Cherry’s Top of the Mall brought in some acclaimed musical entertainment, including the popular recording artist Louis Prima.

“During the finale of his performance, crowds would form a dance line train behind him throughout the dining room,” Cafaro said.

Ralph Rich Sr. of Hubbard was the drummer in Youngstown’s acclaimed jazz outfit Ralph Lalama Quintet / The Lalama Brothers, which was the lounge band at Cherry’s Top of The Mall.

“It was a nice restaurant with a lounge, and it had a nice atmosphere,” Rich said.

Chris Wetzl of Youngstown said, “It was my first ‘upscale’ dining experience. I still remember the live stage show, the attentive waiter who never left our table, and sliced peaches floating in the wine.”

“Going to Cherry’s Top of the Mall was a special occasion,” Cafaro said. “People would really get dressed up when they went to Cherry’s Top of the Mall, especially on the weekends.”

Cafaro said the Area Agency on Aging 11 is now located in the spot where Cherry’s once was.

Ken Haidaris, co-owner of the Sunrise Inn, which has operations in Warren, Howland and Austintown, said he remembers the old restaurants on the strip, including Cherry’s and the Living Room, 4443 Youngstown Warren Road. Haidaris said that The Living Room Restaurant was his favorite place to eat.

To Haidaris, it had a unique Las Vegas-inspired style, which was quite popular in restaurants and lounges from the 1950s to the 1970s.

“The food at The Living Room Restaurant was tremendous,” Haidaris said. “They had great linguini and clam sauce, fillets and their sauteed greens were awesome. The Living Room had that Las Vegas-style, and it would be considered retro in style if it still were there today. They brought Las Vegas-inspired show bands, such as local legends Dominic Tocco and The Brotherhood.

“The V.I.P. Restaurant in Niles also had a Las Vegas style – it is where TJ Maxx in Niles is located,” Haidaris said. “It was a dance night club. In those days, it was an era where everyone got dressed up in nice sport coats and suits. These restaurants were all classy places.”

Jim McFarland of Warren recalls the splendor of the 422 Restaurant strip area.

“These restaurants were all family-owned and they were great places to eat,” he said. “People came to the strip from Cleveland and all the way from Pittsburgh because these restaurants had such a great variety. The owners of these restaurants knew half of their customers, and it was warm and friendly.”

According to an article by The Niles Historical Society, The Belvedere Club, also known as “The Bel,” was a popular restaurant and nightclub from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Belvedere Club, 5373 Youngstown-Warren Road, was owned by Carmen Scarnecchia and Marian D’Amico. D’Amico was the head cook and cooked one-of-a kind steaks using a coal range.

“I was pretty young at the time, but I remember my sister’s friends talking about The Belvedere Club,” McFarland said. “I remember it was a hot spot for the young adults.”

Back in the day, dancing defined the ultimate restaurant and nightclub experience. According to the Niles Historical Society, Scarnecchia kept The Belvedere Club’s dance floor well cleaned and shiny. During the winter months, customers stayed at the bar until their shoes were dry so that the dance floor would stay clean.

Though not on the strip, the Old Main Ale and Chowder House offered an Irish pub feel to the local restaurant scene. It was located at 40 S. Main St. in Niles, the current location of the Niles McKinley Library.

Carol Lepsesty bought the Old Main Ale and Chowder House in 1987.

“I had a lot of different walks of life coming to the restaurant, and even lawyers, councilmen and business people came to the Old Main Ale and Chowder House,” she said. “It was a restaurant and a bar, and we served meals and burgers. Our fish fries on Fridays were popular, and people came in for our fish fries all year. We had the best fish in town.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, we cooked Irish food and had bagpipers playing inside the restaurant,” she said. “We made Reuben sandwiches, Irish stew, and of course, corned beef, cabbage and carrots,” Lepsesty said.

For Lepsesty, buying the Old Main Ale & Chowder House was a wonderful opportunity.

“I moved back from California to Niles to buy the restaurant,” she said. “I loved the customers and greeting them. I miss that the most. There were headaches, but that’s a natural part of running a business.”