Dominick's is her heart

The history of Dominick's Italian Restaurant, at 2948 Foothill Blvd. in La Crescenta, is hanging on its walls — framed magazine reviews, certificates of commendation from public officials and scores of thank you's from local teams.

Perhaps none are more telling than a photograph of Frank and Carmela Russo standing side by side in their kitchen preparing an Italian dinner, just as they have done, sometimes 18 hours a day, for decades.

The Russos celebrate this year their 40th anniversary as owners of Dominick's, a cornerstone of the local business community.

"It's my heart," Carmela said of the restaurant. "It's in my heart, the cooking and [owning] a business."

The couple, both from Italy, met in 1954 in an English-language class in New York. Frank said he spotted Carmela from across the room, and they ended up sharing a desk. The couple married in August 1956.

The Russos opened several popular eateries in New York, with Frank manning the pizza ovens and Carmela preparing the pastas and sandwiches. In 1969, they sold their businesses and moved to La Crescenta, acquiring Dominick's shortly thereafter.

Dominick's quickly became a neighborhood favorite — pizza, lasagnaand chicken parmigiana remain the most frequently ordered meals, Carmela said.

The couple and their sons, Frankie and Anthony, also known for donating food for events at local churches. One act of generosity has become part of Dominick's lore. When a homeless man entered the restaurant, Frank prepared him a free meal and gave the man the shirt off his back.

The Russos also hosted fundraisers for community organizations at Dominick's and sponsoring dozens of youth sports teams.

"Whenever my family attended any kind of fundraiser at Dominick's, the place was packed and not just for the eat-in crowd, but a line of people waiting for their take-out orders as well," said Alexa Tuegg, a longtime neighbor of the Russos.

Dominick's also had some famous clientele: Patrick Swayze was a frequent customer, Anthony said.

Health problems and a weak economy have made the last 18 months difficult, the Russos said. In 2008, Frank broke his leg. In March 2009, Frankie, athletic director at Alverno High School and manager of Dominick's daily operations, suffered a brain aneurism and died. He was 46.

Despite the setbacks and offers to buy the restaurant (the Russo's bought the property for $150,000), Frank and Carmela said they have no intention to sell, which was welcomed news to patrons.

"[I like] the fact that it has been in the community for so long and it's family owned and run," said longtime customer Cheryl Hodge.

Anthony said his parents' success is the result of passion, hard work and a commitment to their customers.

"You should always be supporting the community because they are going to be supporting you," Anthony said. "We have a restaurant in La Crescenta, yes, it's our restaurant. But in a sense it is not our restaurant, it is the community's restaurant."

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