Hoisting Italian beer, a small gathering watch the World Cup soccer replay match between Mexico and Italy at Franco’s Ristorante Italiano at 824 E. 5th St. in Dayton. Owner Franco Germano, second from right also watched the game live at 7:30 a.m. with invited guests at the eatery. DDN FILE PHOTO

Archdeacon: Franco’s founder was avid sports fan who loved golf, soccer, Cincinnati Bengals

When he was just 18, Franco and his two brothers – Dominco and Pasquale – arrived in America by boat from Duronia, Italy, by way of Rome.

They first went to Fairmont, West Virginia, where there grandfather worked with coal miners and eventually they ended up in Dayton.

“They came here because of NCR and they all ended up working in food service there,” Franco’s son Nick said Tuesday as he sat in a booth of the Fifth Street restaurant on the edge of the Oregon District that bear’s his dad’s name: “Franco’s Ristorante & La Taverna.” From NCR, he became the general manager at Saksteder’s Cafeteria, but then he joined the Army.”

The United States was immersed in the Vietnam War at the time, but that didn’t deter him.

“He felt like it was his duty to serve for the country that gave to him,” Nick said quietly. “He wanted to show his appreciation for being let into the United States. He wanted to give back.”

For the next five decades, Franco kept the same attitude.

He gave back to those who gave to him.

His customers often saw that side of him. He’d stop by a table with a smile and story that was enriched by his Italian accent. He might sing Happy Birthday in Italian or offer a glass of wine. And often there was a toast that was sealed with Grappa.

“When you walked into his restaurant, it was like you were walking into his house,” Nick said.” He treated you like you were in his home. He was straight forward and to the point at times, but he was very caring. Very genuine.”

Along with preparing and serving food, he loved sports. He played and coached soccer — including for a while at the University of Dayton, Wright State and Carroll High School. He was an avid golfer who played three and four times a week and he was a loyal and sometimes exasperated Cincinnati Bengals fan – he often referred to quarterback Andy Dalton as “the damned redhead” — but he religiously kept his season tickets for the past 27 years.

Often he took customers with him to Bengals games.

His big embrace of those who frequented his restaurant was his annual Christmas Eve party.

“That was his favorite time,” Nick said. “It was customer appreciation. He wanted to thank everybody for coming to his place.”

Today at 5 p.m. something similar will take place at Franco’s, but this time the script is flipped.

Folks will show up to toast Franco, who died Sunday after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 73.

His visitation will be next Monday from 4-8 p.m. at Westbrock Funeral home at 5980 Bigger Road in Kettering. His funeral will be Tuesday at 10 a.m. at St. Anthony Catholic Church, 820 Bowe Street in Dayton. Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetery.

Today’s gathering was put together by Nick and Steve Tieber, who runs the Dublin Pub a couple of doors down from Franco’s.

“It’s open to everyone and if you knew my dad please come,” Nick said. “Just show your face and tell some funny stories. Maybe he had an impact on your life. Maybe he (PO’d) you. But one way or another, you knew he cared about you.”

Opening his own place

Franco and Barbara Kosater, a Dayton girl who graduated from St. Joseph Commercial High School, met on a blind date and ended up married for 48 ½ years. They had two children, Nick and Gina, five grandkids and one popular family restaurant

After Saksteder’s, Franco worked at the Bullpen Diner in Dot’s Market in Kettering and then decided to open his own place.

In October of 1976, he launched Franco’s at what had once been the site of a Greek restaurant.

Franco Germano in the kitchen of his restaurant on East Fifth Street. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

Initially, Nick said, his dad served “food American people liked, like Swiss steak,” and added a few Italian dishes, which soon became more and more popular.

He had first learned about food from his mother, Addolorata, who later moved to Dayton after Franco’s father passed away. She worked at the restaurant in the early days, making pasta and sometimes engaging in spirited debates with her son.

He used her recipes, tweaked them slightly, but kept things simple, Nick said. He said his dad did create some signature dishes of his own, especially his Franco’s World Famoso Spaghetti, which is prepared with oil, lots of roasted garlic, homemade sausage, mushrooms and Romano cheese.

In 2001 Franco – with the inspirational help of Dana Downs, who then worked for him and now as her own restaurant, Roost, in the Oregon District – gave the place a complete makeover and added a classy lounge and a signature front entrance.

In recent years Franco could often be found sitting at the bar in the early evening, a Peroni in front of him, and friends at his side as he shared stories. Among his favorite topics was sports.

He loved soccer and passed it on not only to Nick, who starred at Carroll and then played at Wisconsin Green Bay, but to his granddaughter Abigail McNamara, who was a Carroll standout and now plays at Wake Forest.

Franco coached many youth teams, as well as briefly at Carroll, Wright State and UD.

And Nick remembers a game his Green Bay team was playing at Valparaiso. Suddenly there was his dad running practice beforehand.

“He was telling guys, ‘You’re not doing it right’ and I was like ‘Dad?,’ “ he laughed. “But our coach (also Italian) just said, ‘Go ahead Franco, you run it.’

“That was him — straight forward but wanting the best for you.”

Tributes pour in

Three years ago Franco was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He managed to get it into remission and it stayed that was for a year before coming back last July.

Nick, with tears suddenly filling his eyes, recalled when he and his dad debated what would come next:

“We were in Florida and I remember him asking me, ‘What do you think Nick? Should I do chemo again?’

“ I was like., ‘Well you have five grandchildren. Give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, stop.”

His dad eventually switched his cancer treatment to Cincinnati and had a doctor that Nick said was “the best man I ever met.”

Funeral services and a tribute gathering have been set for Franco Germano, founder of Franco’s Ristorante Italiano. FILE
Photo: Staff Writer

He helped his dad through the rough stages of chemo until it became too debilitating.

“ I remember being there with my Uncle Pat and my dad looks at me and finally saying, ‘That’s it. I don’t want any more treatment.’

“Two weeks later he passed away.”

Since Franco’ death Nick and his family have heard from scores of people who talked of their love for Franco. Many of them have been fellow restauranteurs.

Nick said he got one of the best messages from Amy Haverstick, who runs Jay’s Seafood restaurant, the popular Oregon District eatery that was launched by her late parents Jay and Edie.

“She sent me a very nice note,” Nick said. “She said, ‘Nick. people will come in and say it’s not the same here without your dad. You just have to swallow it and keep going.”

Just as she has put her own stamp on her restaurant while keeping remembrances of her parents around – especially a portrait of her dad above the iconic bar, — Nick plans to do the same:

“While I might improve some things I won’t ever change our recipes . I remember a couple of months ago after my dad’s last chemo treatment. He was having a bad day and I said, Listen Dad, be proud because the front of that building always will have your name on it. I know I run your restaurant, but it will always be your place. You taught me what to do.”

And in their very last conversation last Friday – not long before his father would drift to unconsciousness – that point was made clear.,

Franco, lying in bed in hospice care at home, said Nick could take his beloved 1999 Corvette to work.

But before his son left Franco said:

“Don’t hit the mirrors when you pull out of the garage.

“…And one more thing. What you running for a special tonight?”