Sister Act: Maria Perry & Angie Ruvo Two Matriarchs of the Restaurant Industry of Las Vegas
Two sisters who have lived in Las Vegas longer than most residents have been alive present an intriguing story about both the early days of Las Vegas and the development of our food and beverage industry. The two siblings are none other than Maria Perry (turning 101 in March) and Angie Ruvo (turned 94 on February 1), who came to town in the middle of the 20th century and founded two of Las Vegas’ most cherished and beloved restaurants: the Venetian Ristorante and The Bootlegger. Here is their inspiring and fascinating story and what paths led them to become the matriarchs of our city’s culinary industry.
Maria and Angie grew up in the early part of the 20th century in Fort William, Ontario, Canada, near Niagara Falls, just across from the US border. They both learned to cook at a very early age and Angie remembers her grandma Maria admonishing her that she better learn to cook, so she could one day get married and cook for her husband. Like many youngsters at the time, they walked to school in the snow, but unlike most others, Maria’s involvement in the restaurant industry began at the early age of nine years old. As her grandparents Luigi and Maria Zoia, ran a boarding house, on a nightly basis she helped prepare dinners but also baked pies and cakes every Saturday and sold them to the boarders for 25 cents each.
Moving to Las Vegas
Maria headed west first, for her husband Al, who she married in 1936, had developed rheumatic fever. She relates his doctor said, “You’ve got to get this boy out to the desert, because if he stays here he’s not going to make it.” As sick as he was, Maria remembers Al driving the whole way across the country with their baby daughter, Lorraine, and Al’s teenage sister in December, 1943. When they left it was snowing and when they arrived four days later, the sun was shining and people were dressed in shorts, and they thought they had died and gone to heaven! She also recalls that at that time the population was only 8,000 and there were only a few casinos and other than a few populated neighborhoods there was desert everywhere. Soon after arriving Maria found work at the old Sal Sagev on Fremont Street, working with a chef named Domenic Piscatelli, who grew to appreciate her epicurean abilities and later brought her along to his new job at the Fiesta Villa Ristorante on the Strip, where they served the likes of Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Clara Bow and other Hollywood legends. Maria would soon take over Piscatelli’s job, as she relates he liked to gamble a bit too much and he delegated more and more of his duties to her. She adjusted the recipes, making dishes her way, and it turned out the customers liked her food better.
A Love Story and a Coincidence that Can Only Be Fate
Angie Ruvo first met her husband Lou at a dance in Niagara Falls in the early 1940s. After he left and went off to defend our country in World War II they lost touch and she figured he must have gotten married. Two years later Angie recalls receiving a call from her sister saying, “I’m so lonesome, you need to come visit me here in Las Vegas.” Low and behold, during her visit they went to a dance and there was Lou, who coincidentally was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. He asked her to dance and they reconnected. They got married and after he got out of the service in 1955 they decided to make the move to Vegas.
Opening Their First Restaurant
Both sisters and their respective husbands were great friends so opening a restaurant together was an easy decision to make and shortly after the Ruvos arrived, in 1955 the two couples opened the Venetian Pizzeria at Fremont and Eastern as the first pizza restaurant in Las Vegas. Named for their parents’ birthplace of Venice, Italy, it had its humble beginnings as a small nine-table, 30-seat eatery. Angie was a great people person and everyone loved her, so she mainly ran the front-of-the-house, and Maria loved to cook and was so good at it she was a natural fit for the kitchen, making everything from scratch, including homemade meatballs, sauces, sausages, gnocchi and pasta. Al and Lou did everything else and also held other jobs. The restaurant was so successful that on many days there were customers lined up down the street waiting to get in to order their pizza. Maria and Angie remember nearly every maître d’ from the casinos coming by constantly with big pots to fill them with her spaghetti and meatballs and they worked 12-15 hours a day to keep up. Casino owner Jackie Gaughan came in almost every day and Marlene Dietrich, who in the 1950s was performing at the Sahara, took home pizza every week.
Moving to a Larger Space on W. Sahara
In early 1966, after the lease was up, they moved the restaurant to the famed location at Sahara and Valley View (where Herbs and Rye now sits) and built the building from the ground up. Known for its brick façade and Old World Venice inspiration, they renamed it The Venetian Ristorante and the new space quickly became known as THE Italian restaurant. Business was good right from the start, in large part due to the use of quality ingredients, and treating guests like family. Angie said, “We made everything from scratch and made 90 pounds of meatballs and 150 pounds of sausage a week.” Many celebrities took notice, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, who frequented the restaurant and enjoyed Maria’s neck bones recipe even more than his own family’s.
Both sisters’ health problems led them to retire in 1971, but about six months later Maria’s health improved and she missed cooking so much the decision was made to forge ahead with a new restaurant where her beloved recipes would live on. The Bootlegger was born at Tropicana and Eastern on land Maria’s daughter Lorraine owned and its name alluded to the fact that their grandfather Luigi was a bootlegger during Prohibition. He made wine, beer and grappa in his cellar and even the police would come over to buy his illegal products. In 2001 the restaurant relocated to 7700 South Las Vegas Blvd. near Robindale, and it continues to function as a round-the-clock hangout, where nightly entertainment is a mainstay, and is still family-owned by Maria and her daughter Lorraine. While Maria is retired, she still comes into the restaurant a few times a week. When she enters the kitchen, a chorus of “Mama’s here,” can be heard, as she spot checks the chefs to make sure they don’t dare change any of her recipes.
Maria and Al’s daughter Lorraine Hunt-Bono, began as a professional singer and later entered politics, serving as a county commissioner, as the first woman chairperson of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority and later becoming the 32nd Lt. Governor of the state of Nevada, where she served for eight years. Angie and Lou’s son Larry Ruvo has directed Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada since 1969, during which time the company has become Nevada’s largest wholesale liquor, wine and beer importer and distributor. While he has been bestowed many honors, including the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Lifetime Leadership Award, and spearheaded the establishment of the now legendary UNLVino wine tasting, recognized as America’s largest wine tasting charitable event, one of Larry’s greatest accomplishments has been his tribute to his father Lou, who passed away from the ravaging disease of Alzheimer’s in 1994. In honor of his father, Larry was instrumental in founding The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Keep Memory Alive Center, which is now recognized as one of the premiere facilities in the world committed to improving the lives of patients and family caregivers as they navigate the extraordinary challenges of brain disorders.
The Legacy Lives On
Maria and Angie have established a legacy as Las Vegas’ first restaurant dynasty and became restaurateurs at a time when few women were expected to or allowed to succeed. Our city and its food and beverage industry owes them much gratitude for setting such a high standard for the epitome of quality and service which restaurants can only hope to aspire to equal.