In 1944, the flat, undeveloped land in the Rio Grande Valley offered new opportunities for those who relocated to the tip of Texas. With rich soil and warm climate, the agricultural hotspot supported a booming citrus industry, one that still proves fruitful today. Northerners, like Emidio Milano and his wife Lisetta Berardinelli, moved in pursuit of their own version of the American Dream. The quest into the citrus and farming industry, however, did not deem prosperous for the Italian immigrants, with an unprecedented freeze in 1949 and drought until 1954. Little did the Milanos know their innovation and resilience would continue for generations to come with Milano’s La Piccola Italia Restaurant.
The Milano family name quickly became known in the small town of Weslaco, Texas after introducing authentic Italian pizzas. Soon, the demand for their pies would result in a line of frozen pizzas. This success prompted Emidio, Lisetta, and their son Lino, to open a restaurant: Milano’s La Piccola Italia Restaurant served patrons with a handful of tables and ten chairs. Later, the marriage of Lino Milano and Giovanna Corrente would bring a new adventure for the family.
Giovanna, of Minturno, Italy, described her new residence as “la terra brusciata dal sole,” a phrase which translates to “the land that is burned by the sun.” Nonetheless, Giovanna and Lino diligently catapulted the family-owned and operated restaurant’s reputation into esteem through hard work, as the couple took over in 1968.
“My mom was the hardest worker I’ve ever known. My mom and my dad, they were relentless [with] nonstop working,” said owner and general manager of Milano’s Angela Milano. The fifth-generation Milano is the youngest of Giovanna and Lino’s three children. The tight-knit family was as close to the restaurant as they were to each other. The restaurant, which originally opened in Lino’s parents’ home, also housed the rest of the family, Angela said.
“We grew up there; it was our home. We were involved a lot in the restaurant. The kitchen was our kitchen, so we made our food there along with all the food we made for customers,” she said.
Throughout the years, each room was transformed into areas to seat and serve customers. Intricate murals pay homage to the family’s Italian origins, including a painting of the city of Minturno. The beauty of the restaurant translated into their rich and flavorful dishes, with handmade pasta, homemade sauces, and their famous pizzas. Known as “Mama Milano” to community members and restaurant staff alike, Giovanna made sure customers felt and tasted that quality.
“I used to say, ‘If you can make it in Milano’s, you can make it anywhere.’ She made sure everyone was doing their job because her main goal was for the customers to walk out extremely happy with their experience,” Angela said.
While both Giovanna and Lino passed in 2017, the legacy of Milano’s lives on through the next generation of the family. Angela said taking over the family business, along with her husband, after her parents’ passing left her with big shoes to fill, but she felt very humbled.
“They gave us something that they worked so hard for. We need to continue it. It is a big obligation,” she said.
And continue they did. Today, Milano’s La Piccola Italia Restaurant has served the residents of Weslaco and the Rio Grande Valley for 65 years. With an ever-changing world, Angela said the need for Milano’s to reinvent themselves in order to meet customers where they were was good. However, some traditions must continue. The next generation continues the practice of gathering along the front porch of the restaurant for a meal.
“We keep it going because that’s what we would do when my parents were here,” Angela said.
The Milanos’ resilience and innovation, from the first generation to the fifth, is an unwavering spirit that persists through all who work and dine there. The Italian restaurant is a local landmark representing hard work and family, with their traditional recipes and new creations never failing to feed their community. Angela said their customers are like family.
“We are a family restaurant, and we thrive on serving our community.”