MERCEDES — Fifty years never tasted so good.
Such is the sentiment of two generations of the Cortino family, who will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cortino’s Italian Restaurant on Sunday.
The milestone lands on Father’s Day, five decades to the day when John and Mary Cortino of Chicago opened the restaurant on Business 83 in Weslaco.
The circumstances came about when John was visiting South Padre Island for a construction job and took a liking to the Rio Grande Valley. Moving and opening the restaurant seemed like a good idea at the time, one that ended up paying off.
It was 1966 then, and although much has since changed, including a recent annexation and territorial boundary dispute being settled between Weslaco and Mercedes that has now landed the eatery in the latter, the family atmosphere and authentic Italian food that have kept customers returning for decades remains.
Together with his wife Maria Anna, Joseph Cortino — John and Mary Cortino’s son — has taken great lengths to see to as much since taking over the restaurant in the early 1970s.
In fact, Joseph and Maria Anna have been so involved in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations that they continue to lend a hand in the kitchen even after more than 40 years. It’s a sense of work ethic that Joseph’s parents instilled in their children early on, more notably upon their move to the Rio Grande Valley in 1946.
“We use our own recipes for Italian cream cake and a variety of cheese cakes,” said Maria Anna, 64, of their efforts to provide delectable menu items.
Joseph, 71, added, “We also make our own Black Forest cake and tiramisu. One of our very popular desserts is the Italian bread pudding.”
According to Paul Cortino, the bread pudding has been in such demand that they’re currently out of ingredients to make it until after the summer.
Paul, nephew to Joseph and Maria Anna, also works at the restaurant along with his sister Joanna and the owners’ children, John and Patricia Cortino. Together, they represent the third generation of restaurateurs.
“Part of the appeal is the family atmosphere here and how we know customers on a personal basis — so much that they don’t even have to give us their order anymore because we know them so well we just give them their usual,” Paul said. “That’s a major selling point for a lot of people.
Maria Anna reminded that when Cortino’s first opened, all that was served were pizza, lasagna, spaghetti and steaks.
“It was later on that my husband started adding more things,” Maria Anna said. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that everything on the menu is homemade upon ordering.
“Even our Alfredo sauce is made when you come in and fresh,” Paul said. “It all comes down to simplicity. We’re not looking at perfecting 20 ingredients, but four or five to make as well-rounded a dish as possible. It’s also because of the sheer number of times we’ve made something that we’ve gotten it down to a science. That’s important, because I think our customers do expect consistency in our meals.”
Such efforts help produce what many call an authentic Italian dining experience. Patricia agrees with the sentiment and points to Cortino’s grilled chicken fettuccine as an example.
“It’s by far one of our most popular items on the menu,” Patricia said, noting that other customer favorites include their pizza and chicken Marsala. “We’ve had a school bring in a group of students and their whole staff, which was about 90-something people, and when we asked them to pick what they wanted off the menu, two-thirds picked chicken fettuccine.”