Part 1 of this two-part series appeared on March 19, 2020. It described how Fiorello and Arlene Casale first arrived in Rio Communities in 1981 after many years of owning and operating successful Italian restaurants in New York.
They opened Fiorello’s authentic Italian restaurant on River Road in Belen in the mid 1980s. Fiorello and Arlene worked seven days a week to make their new venture just as successful as their famous New York restaurants had been.
Workers and Neighbors
As hard as Fiorello and Arlene worked in their business, they could not have run their restaurant without many good employees, especially some “amazing kids” who worked as waiters, waitresses and dishwashers.
Arlene found her first waitress, Brenda Barreras, when she saw Brenda’s name on the Belen High School honor roll. Brenda worked at Fiorello’s for many happy years.
Arlene says most of the teenagers she hired were very inexperienced when they first started work. Arlene patiently taught them how to speak to customers and remember their names, making each guest feel welcome and appreciated.
She also trained them to serve the right way, with proper settings, full butter dishes and never-empty coffee cups. Plates were served from the right and removed from the left.
Arlene had her waiters and waitresses take menus home to study them and be prepared to answer customer questions. Servers were expected to taste all items on the menu so they could describe them accurately to their guests.
It took as long as five months to train a good waiter or waitress, but it was well worth it for the restaurant, its customers and the servers who learned a lot and earned excellent tips. Each waiter or waitress wore a tuxedo uniform, with a white shirt and a black bow tie and vest.
Local teachers even asked Arlene to teach their students proper restaurant etiquette to be used at “fancy” restaurants like Fiorello’s.
Brenda Barreras says Arlene was always moving at 100 miles an hour. Workers never stood around; there were always salt shakers to be filled and silverware to be polished. Arlene kept high standards in service and cleanliness, claiming she was such a fanatic that “you could eat on the bathroom floors.”
The Casales valued their employees, often driving them home if they needed rides after work. And their employees appreciated the Casales. Arlene treated them like her kids, complimenting them when they deserved it and setting them straight when they didn’t.
Most employees enjoyed their time working at Fiorello’s. Arlene taught them not only how to work hard, but also how to have fun while working.
Brenda Barreras remembers Arlene even brought her to New York City to attend Arlene’s mother’s 80th birthday and to experience the big city, from the best restaurants to exclusive stores such as Saks Fifth Ave.
Mark Castillo, who washed dishes in the mid 1990s, remembers how good Arlene made him feel when she told patrons he was “gonna be a playboy! Look at this kid’s face!”
Young employees often called the Casales “Mr. C” and “Mrs. C” or simply called Arlene “Mom.” Male employees always stayed with Mrs. C when she stayed late to close the restaurant.
Employees also appreciated the pasta with marinara sauce they ate during breaks. Mark confesses, “I would have worked there for the food benefits alone.” Many local boys and girls worked at Fiorello’s for years, saving for college or their other post-high school plans.
The Casales’ children pitched in, with Deborah working on the weekends, and Fiorello Jr. working in the kitchen with his dad.
The Casales were also fortunate to have good neighbors on East River Road. In particular, three sisters lived in a house across the street from Fiorello’s and did their best to help the Italian family from New York make the transition to life in New Mexico.
Pauline, Christina and Cecilia took the Casale family under their wings, offering friendship, kindness and delicious Mexican food. Fiorello and Arlene reciprocated with friendship, kindness and delicious Italian food.
Fiorello’s did well in its early years, but really boomed when it began to run TV and newspaper ads in Albuquerque. Albuquerqueans learned of the new Italian restaurant and soon realized it was worth the trip to Belen to enjoy the special cuisine they could seldom find anywhere else in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.
Customers especially drove from Rio Rancho, where many East Coast transplants came to eat the good Italian food they missed from back home. Many customers tried to convince the Casales to open another restaurant in Rio Rancho or Albuquerque so they wouldn’t have to drive so far. Fiorello’s was sometimes so busy that they actually ran out of food.
Just as with their restaurants in New York, the Casales’ eatery on East River Road drew in celebrities of all kinds. Some arrived in limos.
Bruce and Alice King often ate there, as did their son, Gary, and his family. Arlene remembers the day when Steven Spielberg scheduled a birthday party for his mother. With a guest list of 90 people, the famous movie-maker requested that the restaurants’ tables be made to look like gift packages. Each “package” was decorated in the same aqua color found at Tiffany’s in New York. Davis Floral provided the table flowers.
Local customers also went to Fiorello’s to celebrate special occasions, from birthdays and prom dinners to engagements, wedding receptions and anniversaries. Children of the McConnell family, which had built the house that became the restaurant, also visited Fiorello’s, eating in rooms that had once been their childhood bedrooms.
Fiorello’s proudly served repeat customers as well. Tibo and Betty Chavez came by often, as did Jim and Mary Kay Foley, Roland and Elia Sanchez and Boni and Eloisa Tabet. Benny Hodges ate at many places, including in some famous restaurants in Las Vegas, but always came back to Fiorello’s for its fettuccini alfredo. Lucy Brubaker also dropped by, especially later in the evening to order her favorite drink, an espresso.
Casey and Beverly Luna enjoyed Fiorello’s so much that they arranged to use the restaurant for an army reunion for Casey’s stepfather, Eulogio Sanchez, and four of his army buddies, Ambrose Chavez, C.D. Chavez, George Leavitt and Luz Sanchez.
By an incredible coincidence, Eulogio and his friends had been among the American troops that had liberated Fiorello’s small Italian village of Ventosa in World War II. Fiorello was only 15 years old at the time, but he remembers the exact date of the GIs’ arrival — May 12, 1945 — because he and 21 of his neighbors were about to be sent to a German labor camp on the very next day.
“That was the happiest moment of the war for me,” Fiorello recalled years later.
An article about the GIs’ reunion and a photo of Fiorello and the five American vets appeared on the front page of the Valencia County News-Bulletin in 1998. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Ventosa’s liberation.
The holidays were particularly busy at Fiorello’s. Arlene always decorated their dining rooms with three magnificent Christmas trees. The trees were so big that it took a dozen people to decorate them. The special trees became a Belen tradition, photographed by a young News-Bulletin reporter named Clara Cano Garcia in December 1999.
Security & Struggles
Fortunately, the Casales experienced few crimes or bad behavior over their many years in business. State policemen often dropped by, especially when they smelled Fiorello’s fresh bread baking in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Fiorello and Arlene also had a good security system installed on their doors and windows, including the skylight they had built in the ceiling over their large kitchen.
One night, a burglar attempted to break into the restaurant via the skylight. Alerted by the security system, the police arrived to find the intruder dangling from a hose tied to metal bars in the skylight. The police arrested the would-be thief and hauled him off to jail.
Other events did not end as well. On Sept. 20, 1988, 19-year-old Tara Calico was abducted while on a bike ride near her family’s home in Rio Communities. Tara had worked at Fiorello’s while she studied psychology at The UNM-Valencia campus. Arlene had always warned Tara and her friend, Gina Page, to be careful when they left the restaurant after working late. The girls always assured her that they would be safe.
The Casales joined hundreds of Valencia County residents in the search for Tara when she disappeared, but Tara has never been found. The FBI still offers a reward of $20,000 for information about her fate and anyone who might have been involved in her abduction.
Occupying an old, remodeled house, some might suspect that Fiorello’s might be haunted by previous occupants or guests. While the Casales never saw a ghost in their restaurant, one employee was sure she saw the apparition of a strange woman dressed in a long white gown. Not quite believing the employee’s story, Arlene checked to make sure she had not had anything to drink on the night of the sighting.
Arlene says it was “hell” to get a beer and wine license for their restaurant. Arlene believes state officials kept changing the rules to prevent the Casales from getting their license. When they got the 200 signatures needed in the process, the state agency raised the required number to 300.
But Arlene was determined and, with Tibo Chavez’s legal assistance, finally won her uphill battle after two years of persistence and many trips to Santa Fe. The Casales celebrated with a beer and wine party held in their restaurant.
Fiorello and Arlene loved their restaurant, their workers and their customers. But, after 38 years in the restaurant business, Fiorello suffered a stroke and was forced to retire. He was 85 years old. About to turn 90 on April 20, he insists that they would still be in business if he had not gotten sick.
Compared to the busy lives they lived for years, the couple now lives quietly, often going to doctor appointments and attending to medical needs.
Like many Italians in the United States and in Italy, Fiorello especially likes watching old Westerns filled with cowboys and Indians. He has always liked to watch soccer with all its action and excitement. In comparison, he has always found baseball to be dull, even when he saw games with great Italian players such as Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees.
Meanwhile, Arlene is as attractive as ever and as fanatic about cleanliness in her home as she was about cleanliness in their restaurant. After many years in New Mexico, she still has a New York accent and proudly contends that “you can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the girl.”
Fiorello’s has been closed for five years, but people are always asking the Casales when they plan to reopen. They have received as many as 20 offers to rent the restaurant and its furnishings, but they have refused them all. A renter might not be as committed to stay and ensure the quality of service and food that the Casales always provided.
And so Fiorello’s stands empty, a reminder that there will probably never be another Italian chef like Fiorello Casale or another Italian hostess and restaurateur like Arlene Casale in the Rio Abajo.
Happy 90th birthday, Fiorello! You and Mrs. C have helped to make this world a happier place. Stay well!
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].