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March 26, 2011

 

Comando’s restaurant legacy lives on

By SCOTT CONROE
Staff Reporter
sconroe@cortlandstandard.net

Vince Fragnoli was working away in the kitchen at Comando’s restaurant last Saturday when customers started coming in and greeting him with joy.
He said they shouted, “The sauce is back,” when they saw him making meatballs and spaghetti sauce using what they knew were his mother’s recipes, from the days when his family first operated the restaurant on Comando Avenue in Cortland.
The restaurant was open for dinner for the first time since the summer of 2003, when Fragnoli closed it after the deaths, one month apart, of his parents Fanny and Vincent Sr.
The past week marks a return to familiar ground for Fragnoli, 51, who managed the restaurant for 10 years before it closed. He owns rental properties and drives a bus for Dryden Central School, but he began recently to think about the restaurant where he and older sisters Diana and Maria grew up helping their parents.
“I just decided to do this,” he said Friday. “I used to drive past this building, and one day I started thinking about getting back into the restaurant business.”
The new restaurant closely resembles the old one.
Comando’s occupies the same building on the corner of Comando and Bartlett avenues, which Vince Fragnoli purchased in 2009 and converted back into a restaurant, after it sat empty for four years.
The restaurant and bar was first owned by Mary Comando, whose husband, Judge Albert Comando, owned much of the street’s property.
The Fragnolis operated the restaurant from 1952 until the early 1980s, when another restaurateur took over. At times, Fanny joined her sisters Clara and Theresa in cooking at the Holiday Inn.
The family took over Comando’s again in the 1990s. It was damaged by fire in 1999 and they reopened in 2000. But Fanny became ill in 2003, at age 72, from what turned out to be fast-moving cancer. She died in May and Vincent Sr., who was almost 83, died one month later.
The family leased the building to Tailgaters Sports Bar and Grill in December. That went out of business after a few years. The family sold the building and it sat empty.
Fragnoli said the building was a mess “but I got chills, from so many memories.” He bought the building, got a zone change from residential to retail and began restoring the interior.
He added kitchen equipment purchased from a Johnson City restaurant called Paco’s Pit that was going out of business. He rebuilt the bar, with a 17-foot mahogany top that he kept when the family sold the building, all refinished.
Mary Comando’s original liquor license from 1933 hangs behind the bar, beneath a photograph of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Framed collages of advertisements and menus from over the decades cover a wall.
A crabapple tree occupies one corner, similar to the tree his parents had. A large photograph of Fragnoli with three of his cousins hangs in the dining room. He plans to add a photograph of his daughter Sophia, 3, with his nieces and nephews.
Fragnoli said he is grateful that with the name Comando’s comes a loyal following of local residents who ate there over the years. Many of them have already come to dinner, to savor his mother’s recipes again, this time with younger people in tow.
“People have been so glad we’re back,” he said.
But there are some differences.
The restaurant will be open from Wednesday through Saturday, not every day, “because I want a family life,” Fragnoli said. He may open Tuesdays during the summer.
The dining room seats 75, where it sat 140 in his parents’ time. Fragnoli wants to keep it at a smaller size to keep staff smaller. His parents had help from their three children.
The pizza that made his father famous, when the elder Fragnoli became the first restaurateur in town to sell pizza, is missing along with chicken wings and carryout service. Fragnoli said there are enough pizza businesses in Cortland and he would rather focus on lasagna, spaghetti and specialty dishes.
He may start baking bread at some point.
He has hired two bartenders, a line cook and six waitresses, who have been trained by his sister, Maria Fragnoli-Ryan. She has been helping a little since retiring after a long career in education.
“Our family had a tradition of going to dinner there on Friday or Saturday,” said Helen Ackerman, office manager for Hage Real Estate. Vince kept it just as his dad had it, and it brought back a lot of memories. Eleven of us had dinner there Thursday. The sauce is just like his mom’s.”

 

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