Having gone from slinging pizza to selling peanuts, Joe Romano, who owned DeLand’s iconic Mano’s Italian Restaurant — back before eateries were delightfully ubiquitous here — really does plan to retire this time.
Romano’s last day was June 6 at the boiled-peanut stand he opened across from the Amtrak station on Old New York Avenue after his first retirement.
Romano, described by friend Bill “Frogger” Henry as “a rather unsocial duck,” is beloved by longtime DeLandites.
“Imagine the impact he has had on so many lives, especially the Stetson students he hired over the years,” Henry wrote in an email to The Beacon.
Many DeLandites jumped at the opportunity to reminisce via social media about the popular family-style restaurant Romano operated 1962-96 on East Ohio Avenue in Downtown DeLand.
His daughter, Tracy Romano Anderson, noted that Mano’s was situated on the north side of what is now the Stetson Commons apartment complex.
Anderson said her father started Mano’s in Van Nuys, California, in 1958; its first home in DeLand was on South Woodland Boulevard, where Taco Bell is now. In the 1980s, Romano opened Mano’s on Enterprise Road in Orange City.
“He thought parents and their children should eat together, as a family, and that’s why he started ‘kids eat free’ night,” Anderson said.
That night is a special memory for many in DeLand.
“Mano’s Monday nights when kids ate free and we could order whatever we wanted,” recalled Robyn Harrington Schmidt of DeLand. “We could watch pizzas being made. We weren’t a rich family, and this was such a treat! My dad called Joe, ‘Generous Joe.’ He certainly made us feel special.”
Daughter Anderson said Joe Romano wasn’t always an entrepreneur.
“Joe was a musician back in the 1940s, 1950s — before being drafted and joining the Marines — singing and playing the accordion with a group called The 3 Jays back in Gary, Indiana, recording many records many years ago,” she said.
And, even in retirement, he’s still a businessman.
“He now sells his famous Mano’s baked-roast-beef sub seasoning all over the U.S., and locally,” Anderson said.
The restaurant was a family affair, she said.
“Joe’s wife, Dee, was his partner in business and life. She helped develop the recipes that everyone so enjoyed. He says he owes everything to Dee. All the success he had was because of having Dee by his side. And she baked the best cheesecakes,” their daughter recalled.
She said her father, 88, is very modest, and would prefer not to be interviewed for this story.
Fond memories of Joe Romano come from his former employees.
“I worked for Joe for a couple of years in high school, and maybe a year after high school. I was a foster kid living on my own. He and his wife mentored me as far as staying in school, being on time; they kept me in the straight and narrow, not just at work but as a young man,” said Steve Maples of Sunbury, Ohio, a retired Army colonel.
He credits Romano for much of his success.
“I have a retirement in the military, have my own business. I think that [guidance] was crucial in molding me, putting me in the right direction. He was kind of a father figure. You couldn’t ask for a better person,” Maples said.
David Solar of DeLand recalled Romano’s generosity to many youths.
“I worked for Joe from 1974 to 1977 as a cook, cashier, waiter and emergency dishwasher. He helped literally hundreds of kids, maybe more, who worked for him. He fed us. I never would have made it through [college] without him. He probably fed 1,000 kids, working for him, on scholarships. He never sought any kind of attention, recognition, or anything,” Solar said.
“He would be sort of a sponsor, and baseball players would eat lunch and dinner at Mano’s seven days a week. He may have done the same thing with basketball players. For probably 30 [or more] years, he did that. Also for any public-service people … all received discounts because he appreciated their service,” Solar said.
Later, the Mano’s circle of generosity widened to include health care workers.
“His wife Dee was very, very ill and in the hospital in DeLand. They saved her life. About once a week, Joe would send 10-15 pizzas to the hospital, religiously,” Solar recalled, adding, “Joe was a very hands-on owner, always. He was a hard, hard working guy. I’m so fortunate to have Joe as a friend. He’s never changed.”
Robert Hennessy of DeLand also recalled many meals courtesy of Mano’s when he worked there during high school and college.
“He expected us to work, but gave everybody a lot of leeway. He was very thoughtful; he understood a lot. He was very tolerant and very accepting,” Hennessy said, adding, “I remember a vagrant was hanging around the back door, and everyone tried to shoo him away. Joe said to keep him there, and made him a ham sandwich. What a big heart. … It was a good family deal all the way around.”