Regional Dining Guide

Costa’s Italian Ristorante: Where Old Family Recipes are Treasured

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Restaurant Profile: To many Italian-Americans, family is everything. Meet a restaurant owner who takes that to heart, with homemade food and a welcoming atmosphere.

Costa’s Restaurant, in Byron, Ill., is a true family business. Owners Saro and Robin Costa often recruit their two daughters, Adrianna and Antonina, for kitchen duties. Saro’s parents help, too.

For so many Italian-Americans, family is everything. That’s why Saro and Robin Costa, owners of Costa’s Restaurant, 133 E. Blackhawk Dr., Byron, treat their guests like family. And that’s why everything they serve, from bread and tomato sauces, to pastas and steaks, is prepared using the same recipes Saro learned from his Sicilian family, which immigrated to Rockford in 1966.

“A lot of our recipes came from foods that we used to make and eat at home with my grandma and my mom and my dad,” says Saro. “Even to this day, my dad still grinds his own sausage and dries it out for salami.”

The homemade touch is apparent in Costa’s signature dishes. Even the homemade bread, served with olive oil, is based on a family recipe. So are Saro’s homemade pastas and sauces, made in-house daily. The noodles and cannelloni are made by hand, too. The pizzas originate from family recipes, and are topped with generous heaps of fresh-cut ingredients.

But Costa’s serves more than just pasta and staple Italian dishes. A creative chef, Saro applies his signature sauces and spices to ribs and char-grilled steaks. Even the seafood reflects his custom touch. Favorites like cashew-encrusted sea bass aren’t necessarily on the menu.

“A lot of people come in here, and they won’t even look at the menu,” says Saro. “They just ask if Saro can come out here, or say ‘tell him so-and-so is here.’ I’ll go back and create something, give them the bill and they’re happy with that. I add a homey-ness to our food. It’s like you’re coming into my home.”

Saro learned all of his cooking skills from family members and co-workers in other restaurants. Growing up, he worked evenings at a family member’s pizza restaurant in Rochelle, Ill. Later, he worked at Ross’ Steakhouse in downtown Rockford. In the mid ’90s, he and a friend started their own restaurant in downtown Byron, and by 2002, Saro had bought out his partner and moved the restaurant to its current location along Route 2.

The restaurant interior is Italianate, with dark wood trimming, stucco-painted walls and real twisted grapevines – picked from his parents’ backyard – hanging above the windows. A variety of drinks are served from the bar near the entrance.

“A lot of people say, when they walk in, that it looks like it should be in the City of Chicago,” says Costa. “It’s not common for a small town to have a nice Italian restaurant like this, with hardwood chairs and linens and cascading grapevines.”

The restaurant is something special to his family members, too, who help out however they can. Daughters Antonina, 20, and Adriana, 11, pitch in, as does Saro’s mother, Antonina, 80, and father, Vincenzo, 90.

“It truly shows that we’re a family-owned restaurant, rather than a big chain business,” says Robin. “We have a lot of familiar customers, and it’s not uncommon for us to host a family dinner with 20 people at the table, in addition to our other guests.”

Every four or five months, the Costas fill their dining room for a customized wine dinner in which five courses are prepared. These events fill up fast, by reservation only.

Byron diners also may sample Costa’s food at nearby Tailgaters, 107 E. Second St., Byron. Saro and a friend bought it about five years ago. Though its menu is entirely pub fare, it still reflects Saro’s special way with food.

Expect a menu change at the main restaurant this spring, as Saro stirs up new sauces to complement his staple entrées. He also plans to add a California pizza, and whole-wheat and gluten-free pastas. Costa’s is open every day from 4 to 11 p.m. ❚

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