Building on a culinary legacy

November 26, 2018

Rocco Muriale Jr. prepares sauce during the Facing Hunger Food Bank's Hunger Action Awareness Dinner with special guest and NYT best selling author, Clint McElroy, on Sept. 24 at Rocco's Ristorante in Ceredo.


CEREDO — There’s a romanticism in the restaurant business — the constant hustle, the entrepreneurial spirit, the satisfaction of a meal served and a job well done when the dishes finally hit the sink at night.

Once bitten, it’s hard to shake the drive no matter how long you leave it. It’s even harder when it’s in your blood.

And it’s impossible when your name is Rocco Muriale.

The 29-year-old son of celebrated restaurateur Rocco Muriale — who built his fame through doting customers from a humble spot in Ceredo — Rocco Muriale Jr. now holds the reins of the family’s hard-fought legacy at Rocco’s Ristorante.

And while the younger Muriale has his own ambitions to expand his 73-year-old father’s empire, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“He’s taught me more about business than anyone ever taught me,” said Muriale, posted up at the restaurant’s bar with a cup of morning coffee hours before doors opened for dinner. “He being a perfectionist really helped me out now, because everybody knows I’m going to be the same way.”

The only son and the youngest of two, it was always in the back of his mind that someday he’d take over the restaurant he and his older sister, Samanta, grew up in, Muriale said. It was a terrifying thought back then, he continued, knowing countless hard hours Rocco Sr. had spent in the kitchen.

After graduating from Huntington High School in 2007 and Marshall University with a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2012, the thought remained pushed in the back of his mind, but his immediate path as even less clear.

He kept the bar, and filled any position at the restaurant from dish washing to cooking, but he then doubted it was his calling. A few connections lead him south, like many young people, and he found himself doing door-to-door sales for a pest control company in Charlotte. He moved again, this time taking up property sales in Atlanta.

But any restaurant he went to, even the little breakfast joints and Starbucks, he caught himself watching how they worked. He grew more and more to miss the hustle, and home. It had always

been the elder Muriale’s dream to pass it on, but he let Rocco Jr. figure out his own path.

And in 2015, he did.

“Coming back really broadened my horizon to how important this place is to people, especially me,” Muriale said. “When people come in here and you see how happy they are, that’s the reward.

“And to come in here and build on what my dad has built is just a blessing.”

Simply coming back to the restaurant wasn’t enough to lead it. He grew up there and worked in every capacity at some point but he had to learn everything. Every sauce, prep work and two or three ways to cook every dish, needed drilled into his head.

Luckily, he had a good mentor, and the long hours his father once worked didn’t seem so scary anymore.

“He’s made it very easy for me,” Muriale said. “Because of the way he taught me, he didn’t spoil me. He made me work for it. He training me from the ground up was very rewarding.

“Sometimes it was a pain in the ass,” he laughed. “I didn’t want to come in when he’d call me but him doing that made me who I am. I could have just been a spoiled kid. I’m very, very fortunate that I’m able to come back and do this.”

But all the training in the world wouldn’t have been enough to keep the legacy running had it not been for the restaurant’s seasoned staff— some who have worked for Rocco Sr. longer than Rocco Jr. has been alive.

“If it wasn’t for the staff back in the kitchen and out front, this would have been way more difficult,” Muriale said. “Finding good help is hard, especially when it comes to kitchen help.”

The wheels of the business will stay in motion as they always have, but the 29-year-old said his era won’t simply be a carbon copy of his father’s. Where Rocco Sr. was happiest in kitchen, Rocco Jr. wants to be in the front and the back of the house both, “everywhere running the whole show.”

And while nothing is set in stone, he hinted at expanding the business to new markets — both through brick-and-mortar business and the restaurant’s popular line of frozen lasagna and sauce — with the help of his girlfriend, Carmen Franklin, and his older sister.

“I want everyone to have an opportunity to try this food.”

But at the end of the day, no matter how they change, Rocco’s will be Rocco’s for a long time to come.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.

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