Claudia Mini

Photo by Christina Dimeo GusemanWhere do you live?
Lake Monticello.
How long have you lived in Fluvanna? What brought you here?
We’ve been here about a year and a half, since we opened Sal’s Italian Restaurant by Lake Monticello.
My parents own the Sal’s in Fork Union. Some people came by and told them about this building (where Sal’s is now) and said it needed an Italian restaurant. My husband and I were running a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the time, but we wanted to be closer to my family. We were at the point with the restaurant where we needed to either buy out our partner or come up here and set up shop with my parents. It was risky, but we felt more comfortable with my parents. So we came up here and opened this restaurant.
Tell us about your work.
My husband and I opened Sal’s here at Lake Monticello on Oct. 24, 2012. We’ve been in the family restaurant business for so long – we like to become kind of family with people and get to know people’s names. Our food is all fresh and we make everything homemade. Nothing is pre-made, the marsala is made when you order the marsala, everything.
We put our heart and soul into the restaurant because that’s what we love to do. A long time ago we tried to switch. We were so tired of the restaurant, because it’s 12 hours a day, six days a week. We tried doing something else – we went to Italy, we got married, we were going to live there. And we found ourselves wanting to get into the restaurant again because we missed it so much. We didn’t know what else to do with ourselves. Everything else – it didn’t really fit. So after two years we came back to the States, moved to North Carolina, and got back into the restaurant business. It’s just what we love to do.
People say to find something that makes you happy. This is what makes us happy – even though it’s a lot of work.
Why didn’t you just open a restaurant in Italy?
In Italy it’s hard opening up a restaurant because you stay till 1 or 2 a.m. Over there you sit and enjoy your dinner, you have a glass of wine, you take a bite here and a bite there. It’s not about the food as much as it is about the experience, every time. Going out with friends. Usually people are sitting out for two hours, just taking their time enjoying their meal. Even with kids – they just run around the restaurant. People come out at 9 or 10 p.m. still wanting dinner. You couldn’t really have a restaurant and close at 10 p.m. Plus, being in Italy, you’d want to be out and about, too.
But restaurants don’t open till 4 p.m. over there – they don’t have lunch. Some of them are starting to. But in my town in Sicily, none are open for lunch. People usually go home for lunch.
Tell us about your family.
My husband, Giacomo, and I have been married seven years. We have a son, Luca, and another boy on the way. We’re trying to teach Luca Italian. When I was young, my parents only spoke to us in Italian. But here, it’s hard once they get into school, they’re so submerged in English that’s all they want to speak. But we’re just speaking Italian at home.
My family is from Sicily. My dad came to America when he was 17. His family was very poor, and when he was 17 his sisters were getting married and his mom didn’t have enough money to marry them. He was the youngest and a mama’s boy. He called up some family in New York and he came here to work and help his mom by sending money back.
He and my mom knew each other in Sicily. My hometown is very small, so everyone knows everyone else. My dad always said he and my mom hated each other. If they passed on the street my dad would go one way and she would go the other way. I don’t know why they hated each other so much, but they did. But when he came back from America and saw my mom again, he was like, “Who’s that?” so they started going out and got married after two years.
They moved to Petersburg, and that’s where my sister and I were born. They had a restaurant there. From then on we were always back and forth to Italy. My dad always wanted to move back to Sicily – that was his thing. But there were never any jobs or anything that could really hold him there, whereas here there is so much more opportunity. There’s always a job here – if you know how to make food, you can make food. There’s always a chance somewhere if you try, there’s always going to be some kind of door open. But in Sicily there isn’t. You can try and try and there just aren’t any jobs, especially right now.
I’m proud of being Italian. It’s funny – in America there are so many nationalities. People are proud of being Italian and something else.
My sister and I would work in our family’s restaurant, Vito’s, in Cumberland. I was the bus girl and dishwasher, and she would answer the phone to take orders. The funny thing was, she was so small that people wouldn’t trust her to take their orders. They’d say, “Can we talk to your mom?” So she started saying, “Okay, here she is,” then change her voice to sound deeper and getting right back on the line. Then they’d give her their order.
My husband, Giacomo, and I met in Sicily when I was 17. He came to America and worked at Vito’s, too. He was the pizza man. Then we went and got married in Italy. He wanted to live in Italy, but a better opportunity (the partnership in Greensboro) came over here.
Our son, Luca, was born in Greensboro and he’s just like his dad. He’s very quiet and precise with things. And he’s a very good little boy. He loves going up to people and talking, especially kids at a table at the restaurant.
Tell us about a hobby you have.
Describe one of the highlights of your life.
Having Luca and my family is my highlight.
Describe one of the biggest surprises of your life.
At one point when we were dating, Giacomo was in Italy. My grandmother was coming over here, and Giacomo just decided to come with her. I didn’t know they were coming – my parents did, though. I was working at the restaurant and in walked Giacomo to pick up a pizza. He had flowers. That was an amazing surprise.
Describe one of the tragedies/struggles of your life.
When I was young, before I was a teenager, my mom had stage four ovarian cancer and they gave her six months to live. She was only 32 or 34. The doctors over here refused to operate on her because they said she was too far along. She got all sorts of opinions.
So she and my dad went to Milan for the operation. The doctor told my dad that they had operated on a woman just like her and she had died on the table. They didn’t want him to have too much hope. But my parents had a lot of hope. They operated on her and she’s been cancer-free since then. She’s 49 now.
It was the hardest time in my mom’s life. We didn’t really know what was going on. My mom told us she had an ulcer in her stomach and that was why she was going to Italy. But I caught on. And we ran the restaurant, my sister and me. We lived with my aunt and uncle – we’d go to school and then we’d go straight to work. We grew up a lot.
Describe a dream you have for your future.
After what I’ve been through with my mom and being in the restaurant a lot, I just want to live happy. There’s so much tragedy and people work so hard – and then, like with my parents, my mom got cancer. You can’t just wait until this is over or that is over, you have to live happy now.
We love this area here in Fluvanna. I want to own our home with a little bit of land and let our kids run out and play. My parents gave us a really good childhood, we were always playing outside, and that’s what I want for my kids. Yeah, we worked a lot as kids, but I still feel like my parents instilled so much into me. I often hear, “You’re 28 years old and you seem so mature, like you know so much more than someone your age should know,” and I think that’s because of my parents. I want to do the same for my kids.
Describe a fear you have for your future.
With the restaurant you never know what could happen. We put our life into this place.
Here’s your chance to sound off.
If you could give one public service announcement or one word of advice to the public at large, what would it be?
Live happy – even if you’re poor and in Sicily. In Sicily they don’t have a lot of money. But they still go to the beach. They’re living life. Take the good moments in life. I try not to dwell too much on the sad.

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