Article and photos by Dorothy Pitti
Tradition is highly valued at the Queen Italian Restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. Loyal customers know what to expect when they spend an evening at this old-school Italian restaurant, which hasn’t changed much since opening in 1958. Though the menu may vary, there are always a few constants: the fresh house-made mozzarella, staple plates like lasagna and chicken parmesan, and the petite, white-haired man greeting visitors at the door.
While the customers come for the food, the most important tradition at the restaurant, may be the maitre d’.
Franco Montalto, who stands 4 feet 11 inches and is known to his co-workers as Ciccio, has worked at the Queen for 36 years. While most 82-year-olds are well into retirement, Montalto can be found at work two to four nights a week, usually dressed in a suit and tie, greeting and mingling with customers–some of whom have been regular patrons for more than 30 years.
“I remember my grandfather taking me to Queen when I was younger, maybe 12,” said Keith Higgins who was dining at Queen on a recent Friday. “I remembered the food was good, and I remembered the little Italian man that was always there.”
Higgins, 27, recalled his surprise when bringing a date to the Queen more than 10 years later. “I saw Franco at the door and was like, ‘no way is this guy still here,’” he said, referring to the maitre d’ by his first name. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. It wouldn’t feel like the Queen I remembered without him.”
Indeed, many Queen customers started frequenting the restaurant as children.
“I have one family that comes once a month. Their daughter was about 6… now she’s 23,” said Montalto in a thick Italian accent. “They respect me, I respect them. These people are very good customers and very good people. It’s why I love the Queen—because of the customers and the owner. Otherwise I would’ve retired many years ago.”
Montalto came to New York from Palermo, Sicily, in 1980, with his wife and three children. He was 46. Having worked at restaurants since he was 10, Montalto got a job as a waiter, working the dinner shift at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy.
To make more money, Montalto started looking for open lunch shifts, when he learned from a friend that Queen was looking for an Italian waiter. The only catch: they would need him for both lunch and dinner shifts. It didn’t take much more than a brief meeting with one of the restaurant’s owners, Pasquino, or Pat, to win him over.
“I sat, I had coffee, and then I was here forever,” said Montalto.
The restaurant is owned by brothers Pat and Vincent Vitiello, and was owned by their father before them. Pat’s son, Michael Vitiello, has worked at the restaurant for the past seven years and has known Montalto even longer.
“Franco taught me how to maitre d’,” said Michael Vitiello. “I remember one of the things he used to say was ‘remember, we are here to serve the people–but we are also here to serve the house.’”
He also noted that Franco’s position at the restaurant is somewhat unusual for a traditional Italian restaurant. “It’s unheard of when someone doesn’t have a family member at the front of the house,” says Vitiello. “That’s never been a question with Franco. He’s part of the bloodline.”
Montalto said the mutual respect between him and the Vitiellos is what reeled him in and continues to be a big reason why he stays.
Montalto and his wife live in Bensonhurst; his children are all grown. Despite working at a red-sauce restaurant, at home Montalto sticks to a diet of mainly fish and vegetables and has one ritual that he practices every day: Two glasses of red wine “filled to the top—every day at 1 p.m.,” he says. “Then, I take a nap. You know why? Because then it’s like you didn’t even drink the wine. Because you asleep.”
Along with his diet and weekly physical therapy sessions, Montalto insists that working at the Queen is the key to his health. “I like to work,” said Montalto. “I want to keep young. Sometime people say ‘You look good,’ and I tell them it’s because of Queen. They say ‘What are you, the king?’”
Franco may as well be the King of Queen Restaurant as, to many customers, he is the face of the restaurant.
“Sometimes I maitre d’ when he’s off, and I can tell people get nervous when they come in and don’t see him here; I tell them ‘I have very big shoes to fill tonight–but really, very little ones,’” joked Vitiello.
Whether he is singing “Happy Birthday” or stealing kisses from the women customers, Montalto knows people love him.
“When the ladies come in, they love me very much. Even the young waiters. Everybody love me, what am I gonna do?” he said with a cheeky grin.
As far as plans for retirement, Montalto doesn’t seem to have any. He retired from the Queen briefly in 2001, but that didn’t last long. He left his job as a waiter for five months and “came back as a maitre d’,” said Michael Vitiello.
According to Michael, the Vitiellos consider Montalto’s dedication to their family and restaurant an honor. “You just can’t find someone who can do that for so many years and be perfectly happy and content,” he said.
Though he claims his wife would like him to retire again, Montalto’s ties to the Queen go beyond just a job. After all, he chose to spend both their 40th wedding anniversary and his 80th birthday eating dinner there.
Ask how long he plans to stay and he says: “Eh, maybe another 20 years.”