Sign from Tillie's Restaurant, McKeesport, PA

History: The Beginnings
by Angelo Teti
current owner
Tillie's Restaurant
McKeesport, PA

Tillie's was opened over 43 years ago on March 1, 1962. Everyone knew my Mom, whose real name is Matilda, as "Tillie" from when she and my dad, Guerino, had a small bar and cafe style restaurant called "Teti's Cafe" at 2217 Walnut Street.

The rear of the building has a concrete block attachment (the kitchen) much of which my dad built with his own hands. The building was vacated in the 90's and was leveled by the city in 2005.  I will always have fond memories of  my life there from 5 years old until I was drafted into the service at 21.

Photo circa 1975 of the old Teti Cafe on Walnut Street in McKeesport
A view of the old Teti Cafe on Walnut Street circa 1975. The building stands there today and it still has the rusted old Coca Cola sign advertising "Spaghetti Dinners." I spent many a day as a young boy throwing rocks up at that sign just to make it "gong."


Tillie in the kitchen at Teti's Cafe.
That's Mom caught in the act preparing something good. I surprised mom while she was cooking. This was taken around 1950 in our first kitchen at Teti's Cafe on Walnut Street. The original kitchen (shown in this picture taken by me around in the early 50's) was only about 8 by 10 feet.

"Tillie" would get up 7 AM every morning to prepare for the frequent lunch crowd from the offices of the Christy Park Works of US Steel which was across the street from the restaurant. Each day there was a special luncheon menu all homemade from scratch by Mom alone.
My favorites were Tuesday's Stuffing Topped Pork Chops and Wednesday's Hot Roast Beef with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy. I would walk home from the 11th Ward School for lunch and get so full from the double helpings that I would barely stay awake during the afternoon school sessions!
Meanwhile, my dad worked as a laborer for the Equitable Gas Company and went off to work at 7 a.m. each morning while Mom ran the Cafe. My sisters, Rose and Joan, would help out when they were not in school, but most days, Mom spent running the place by herself with the exception of a bartender named Francis "Ancy" Ruggier who was like a big brother to me.

Photo of Guerino (Bill) Teti, circa 1949
  My dad Guerino
  "Bill" Teti, circa 1949
If for some reason Ancy didn't show up for work, Mom would have to cook, wash dishes, wait tables, and tend bar until Dad came home at 5 PM. Dad would then tend bar, or one of my many uncles would pitch in at the bar if it was Dad's bowling night. Mom would remain working in the kitchen and dining room until 1 AM closing.

The author at age 6 Angelo (me) at 6 years old in front of Teti Cafe in the Summer of 1948. The Coca Cola sign advertises 5 cent cokes!
Throughout all of this Mom would have dinner prepared for us promptly around 5:30 and we usually ate our meals in the cafe dining room with Mom often getting up during the meal to prepare food for any customers who entered or wanted a take out meal. We ate in the restaurant at a table right outside the kitchen door..and later when the new kitchen was built...we sat around the end of the long kitchen prep table.
Again, Mom was up and down getting orders prepared...Dad was running to the bar to serve a patron...so it never was a peaceful family meal, but it was at least something of a family experience.
Angelo's sister Rose studying circa 1949
My sister Rose studies at a table outside the doorway of the tiny kitchen at Teti Cafe at Christmas of 1949. It sure was not fancy!
Ooriginally, the evening fare at the Cafe was mostly drinks and sandwiches. Mom started serving homemade spaghetti one night a month, at the suggestion of "Uncle" Nick Tate's mother, Anna.

Mom sits for the camera. Behind Mom on the window it says "Teti Cafe Specializing in Italian Spaghetti".

Anna would come in an show Mom how to make the pasta. "Uncle" Nick (who was actually my cousin but called Uncle out of respect  for his age) would drive his mom Anna to the restaurant every Saturday to make pasta with Mom. Then Pizza was made one night a week....then it was made two nights a week...they added gnocchi, then raviolis one night etc. Before long it was a nightly dinner menu of our now famous Italian pastas and pizza. People came in for it even though it wasn't formally advertised (just as today)...they knew just by word of mouth. In fact, when people came to dine, we had no menu printed, we would recite what we had and most people already knew what they wanted anyway.
The Cafe flourished until Mom and Dad split up in 1960. Dad and I lived at the Cafe while Mom went off to live with my sister Rose. Dad hired a daytime cook and a bartender and I would fill in at the bar if he failed to show! Meanwhile, Mom pondered her fate.

(I was drafted into the military in 1964 and Dad just could not maintain a full time job with Equitable Gas and operate a restaurant at the same time on his own. He sold the business and later retired from the gas company. Not to take away from Dad's efforts, but many of the customers that were "old friends" of "Tillie," discovered her new venture, "Tillie's Restaurant," less than a mile away.)

In late 1961, Mom had decided that she had to make a living doing what she knew best, so she put money down on this old truck stop called Portner's Restaurant on 36th Street. She was scared to death that she was not going to make it.  Mom and I took a train trip to Oregon to visit my sister Joan, then we traveled to Los Angeles to visit relatives there.  On the train ride back, somewhere in the midwest, I recall Mom staring out the window with tears running down her cheeks.  I asked her what was wrong and she expressed her fear that she was not going to be able to make a success of the restaurant.  I told her that she would do fine and I offered to help any way I could. So, with a lot of encouragement from family and friends, she continued and took the longest — and I must say greatest — step of her life.

My Uncle "Braille" (William DeMarino) built shelves and repaired walls and plumbing etc. I painted some walls. Mom cleaned and planned and decorated.

Mom drew upon all she knew about running a business and then brought together some talented people to help her begin the place we now know as Tillie's. She hired friends and relatives from the Italian community (Mary DeMartino was one of them, and worked with us for forty years until her retirement in November of 2004.

The restaurant took on a personality of its own and rapidly became successful. Mom's fear of not succeeding subsided with each successful day of operation. It was just a luncheon counter with a few stools and five booths....but more than that, it was a beginning.

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