Business Traditions: Maucieri's Italian Bistro home to 49 years of family restauranteering
Dawn Maucieri and her brother Tony Maucieri Jr. run Maucieri's Italian Bistro in Crosslake
CROSSLAKE — Tony Maucieri was chasing a dream when he moved his family — including his daughter, Dawn, who was 8 at the time — from Chicago to Crosslake in January 1974 to buy Echo Ridge, a small resort with a supper club that was located where Zorbaz is now.
“He always wanted to own a restaurant,” Dawn Maucieri, 56, said. “So they came up and looked at it, and that’s kind of how it all started.”
Tony Maucieri died in 2018, but 49 years after the family first moved, Dawn Maucieri and her brother, Tony Maucieri Jr., are still carrying on his legacy as owners of Maucieri’s Italian Bistro.
“How crazy for them to move up here in the middle of January in 1974,” Dawn Maucieri said. “I mean, the rest of the family thought we were crazy.”
Dawn Maucieri was the fourth generation of her family to live in Chicago after her great-grandparents immigrated from Italy. The family had stayed in the Windy City until her dad was in the military.
During his service, Tony Maucieri was stationed at Camp Ripley in Little Falls. He returned to Chicago, and it was there he saw the advertisement for the sale of Echo Ridge, just an hour drive from Camp Ripley, posted in the Chicago Times.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Dawn Maucieri said. “And that’s where he saw it, so I guess it’s meant to be, right?”
So he made the move 550 miles north with his wife and children, his mother and Dawn Maucieri’s aunt and uncle, who still live behind Zorbaz today.
“None of them had experience in this, so that, I think, is really (nervy),” Dawn Maucieri said. “My dad was a milkman. My mom didn’t work. My grandma was a florist. My aunt and uncle were in other businesses and stuff.”
The Maucieris came to the area at a time when supper clubs were common, so Echo Ridge served steak, chicken ribs and other Midwestern fine dining options, though they managed to sneak in some Italian dishes, like their spaghetti, baked mostaccioli and meatball sandwich.
The family owned Echo Ridge off and on until 2000 when they sold it for the last time. For the next few years Tony Maucieri and Dawn Maucieri bounced around different restaurants in the area, with Tony Maucieri working at Pestello’s in Pequot Lakes and Riverside Inn in Crosslake and Dawn Maucieri stopping at Moonlite Bay and The Bungalow in Emily before managing the Wharf for a couple of years.
“My dad and I just kind of decided to do (Maucieri’s),” Dawn Maucieri said. “He’s like, ‘Well, maybe it’s time for you to have your own place to run.’”
So together with Dawn Maucieri’s brother as a reluctant addition to their trio, the Maucieri family started looking for a place to open their restaurant and began construction on Maucieri’s as it stands today in 2004 before opening in 2005.
“We were looking for buildings and looking for restaurants that were already here,” Dawn Maucieri said. “But we just decided this is what we wanted to do, and we wanted to keep it Italian, something different in the area.”
Italian heritage and traditions are not common in the Brainerd lakes area, and it was even more rare in the ‘70s.
My dad’s like, ‘If we’re (opening our own restaurant), we’re doing Italian food.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“I remember when we first moved here — the Italian food — it was kind of different,” Dawn Maucieri said. “It’s not the meat. It’s not like a burger. It’s not the normal, and that was kind of my thing. My dad’s like, ‘If we’re (opening our own restaurant), we’re doing Italian food.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
The recipes were new to Crosslake, but they were deeply familiar to Dawn Maucieri, whose great-grandmother invented Maucieri’s famous red sauce and other popular eats.
“My great-grandma I don’t remember so much, but my grandmother, I remember sitting in the kitchen watching her make these and this and that,” Dawn Maucieri said. “It’s pretty cool. Not a lot of people have that.”
Coming to the area at a young age was strange for Dawn Maucieri, though she’s happy she grew up here. She went from life in the big city where she was two blocks from school to an hour-long bus ride each day.
There was the added challenge of entering a small community where everybody knew each other, plus the lack of other Italians.
“It’s so funny, but they thought my dad was from the mafia,” Dawn Maucieri said. “That we came from Chicago to hide out. I mean, it’s so funny, because now that I think about it, it was kind of crazy. The whole thing was crazy.”
A family affair
Though Dawn Maucieri, who had been serving since she was 13 and went to school for restaurant management, had always thought she’d own her own restaurant own day, her brother was quite the opposite.
“It was never his jam,” Dawn Maucieri said. “Never his thing at all.”
When Dawn Maucieri and her father decided to open Maucieri’s, Tony Maucieri Jr. was an original partner and the general contractor of the restaurant during its construction.
“He never really wanted to be involved with this,” Dawn Maucieri said. “But of course, he ended up being involved.”
Now the pair work as an effective duo: Dawn Maucieri does prep work and is often at the restaurant interacting with customers while Tony Maucieri Jr. covers administrative work and a lot of the catering.
“It’s so nice to have a family, right?” Dawn Maucieri said. “I can’t imagine trying to do this on my own. You have people to back you up, to help you, to support you.”
That support was especially important during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Recession. Both times the restaurant had to cut down on staff to make it through, and it was mostly just family left to run it.
In 2008-09, that meant Tony Maucieri, Dawn Maucieri and Tony Maucieri Jr. In 2020 it was Dawn Maucieri, her three nephews, Tony Maucieri Jr. and their manager.
“It was so exciting to be open again and to have people again, because you don’t realize when they’re not here,” Dawn Maucieri said.
Extended family too
From Echo Ridge to Maucieri’s, Dawn Maucieri has worked at many restaurants in the community. The combination of a small community with high out-of-town traffic means she’s met a lot of people, but she’s always seen what a small world it can be.
“My customers, the people that come in here, the characters,” she said. “There’s so many people I’ve been so lucky to know. Being in a small town, they become family.”
It’s so nice to have a family, right? I can’t imagine trying to do this on my own. You have people to back you up, to help you, to support you.
When thinking of her extended business family, one couple named Betty and Dale came to mind. Dawn Maucieri has been waiting on them since she started bartending around 40 years ago, and they’ve followed her to every place she’s worked.
“That’s the amazing part of having this business is having that connection with people, for sure,” Dawn Maucieri said. “I don’t think I could do what I have been doing my whole life and not have had that. That was the biggest reward for me: the people.”
Tony Maucieri’s legacy
Tony Maucieri Sr. died five years ago this March, but Dawn Maucieri still feels his presence on quiet mornings alone in the restaurant when she’s doing prep work, which she and her father used to do together.
“It’s been hard since my dad’s been gone because the two of us were the ones that were here like every day, and he was kind of my rock,” Dawn Maucieri said. “After my mom passed we became really tight, just with the business. But I’m just really lucky to have that relationship with him that a lot of people don’t.”
Tony Maucieri was one of three Crosslake restaurant owners to start the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a tradition that has only gotten more popular since it began in 1976.
“We’d always put him on top of the float, that poor guy,” Dawn Maucieri said. “He’d show up for the parade, and we were like, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do this year.’ He was St. Patrick one year, everybody thought he was the pope.”
Dawn Maucieri has been like her father in a lot of ways. She fulfilled her dream of owning a restaurant. Like her dad, she doesn’t see herself ever retiring, even if she eventually works fewer hours.
“People talk about him a lot,” she said. “So that’s really nice because you realize how much of an impact he had in this town, and people loved him. He was a great guy. I’m proud to be his daughter.”
Megan Buffington is a 2021 Pequot Lakes High School graduate who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.