Romeo Taus is the first to admit he’s not a trained chef. But the many fans of his Romeo’s Euro Café over the past 20 years probably would be surprised to learn the round-about way he eventually found himself in the kitchen.
Born and raised in Romania, Taus immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1973, settling in Detroit, where he earned an engineering degree from Wayne State University and was recruited into a Chrysler’s engineer apprenticeship.
There was just one problem: “Once I started working, I didn’t want to be an engineer,” Taus says.
Shifting gears, Taus decided to return to school to earn a business degree – paid for by Chrysler – until, that is, Lee Iococca took over the troubled company and laid off a lot of workers, including Taus.
He briefly went to work for deep-discount drugstore F&M Distributors, which would be a mostly insignificant line on his resume except it’s where he met a part-time stocker named Janice Butler.
When Butler decided to move to Arizona to live with her grandmother, Taus tagged along, landing a job with Drug Emporium, helping the fast-expanding chain open stores in Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“A guy I knew at Drug Emporium had an opportunity to take over a deli on the south shore of Long Island,” Taus recalls. “He went back there in the summer. I went out there for Labor Day and he talked me into staying.”
He and Janice – they had married in Hawaii in 1984 – spent a year and a half on the East Coast, but Taus found making sandwiches to be “mindless work.” And then there was what he politely calls the region’s “second economy.”
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “If I had stayed there, I would have been filthy rich, dead or in jail. Dead or in jail was not acceptable so I came back to Arizona.”
He found himself back in the Valley with no idea what he wanted to do. But he was about to meet a man who would change his life forever.
‘I watched magic being made’
In 1989, Nick Ligidakis was on his way to becoming a Valley culinary legend whose numerous Mediterranean-influenced eateries were known for large menus, huge portions and, notably, the owner’s fiery disdain of any diner who tried to request an alteration or substitution.
“I liked his food, I liked his energy, I liked his concept,” Taus says. “Remember, this was when Wolfgang Puck was starting to put goat cheese on pizza, and Nick had that flair.”
Working out of his Golden Cuisine of Southern Europe at Tower Plaza in Phoenix, Ligidakis taught cooking classes every Sunday.
“I watched magic being made,” Taus says. “I was his towel boy. I would listen to him talk about food and I would just salivate. It was the original farm-to-fork (concept).”
Taus convinced Ligidakis to sell him a 25 percent stake in the restaurant, and he began to learn.
“This was the guy who did everything from scratch to order,” he recalls. “It wasn’t out of a bag. You could absolutely taste it. He’d take two, three or four things – Mediterranean-influenced – and put them together to create a dish. Was it authentic? No. But it was authentic Nick.
“Well, monkey see, monkey do. So that’s what I started doing.”
In the summer of 1990, Ligidakis went to Greece for six weeks, entrusting Taus to run the restaurant and uphold his high standards.
“That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Taus says.
The review that launched a restaurant
Taus found a strip-mall space for the original Romeo’s Euro Café at Southern and Longmore in Mesa, walking distance from where he and Janice were living near busy Fiesta Mall.
“It was a Mexican restaurant that never opened,” he says. “But they had put in a hood, sinks and bathrooms.”
Additionally, Red Robin was taking over a nearby restaurant. Taus approached the outgoing owners and bought all their kitchen equipment, allowing him to open June 1, 1991, on a shoestring budget.
“I had to ask my wife if she had $100 for me to put in the register,” recalls Taus.
The original menu was small – pizzas, calzones, just four appetizers and six pitas – and the mom-and-pop operation struggled to bring in $100 to $150 a day, “tepid at best,” Taus admits.
That changed when critic Penelope Corcoran, who then was writing for Phoenix New Times, gave Romeo’s a glowing review under the punny-but-not-exactly-accurate headline “Grecian Formula.”
Sales doubled overnight. Tables were full. Lines formed. Staff was hired.
The menu quickly grew to several pages, boasting dozens of popular new entrees like Pork Molise, Kasseri Chicken and Shrimp Korfu. The space also expanded, incorporating the East Valley’s most mouthwatering dessert case and an art gallery and coffeehouse called Undici Undici.
“We had a quite a bit of success,” Taus says. “We had 175 seats and an hour wait.”
But circumstances beyond Taus’ control soon intervened. After Sept. 11, business dropped 20 percent. The nearby Motorola facility began reducing its workforce.
“Then Chandler Fashion Center put the dagger into Fiesta Mall,” Taus says.
Downsizing into a new home in Gilbert
Taus met Joe Johnston – another engineer-turned-restaurateur – and Tad Peelen at their Coffee Plantation in downtown Tempe in the ‘90s, and admired how they converted an old brick building in downtown Gilbert into popular Joe’s Real BBQ.
A half-block from the barbecue was an 1,800-square-foot space in historic Heritage Court that previously housed the five-star Café au Pwah. In August 2004, it became the new home of Romeo’s Euro Café.
Its small size – compared to the original café’s 6,800 square feet – necessitated a smaller menu – although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the current multi-page menu.
“There’s no back room, so I have to go shopping very day,” Taus says. “The funny thing is we have people who come in and still order dishes from the old menu. Fortunately, we have the recipes archived.”
One of the perks of the new location, though, is a private dining room for weekly “Taste of Euro Café” dinners, which Taus started last year. The dinners, hosted by Romeo and Janice every Thursday, feature smaller portions of five menu items.
“It started out as a table of 10, but I can’t keep it at just 10,” says Taus, admitting that as many as 20 people reserve seats some weeks.
“I want to have a forum to let people know why we do things the way we do,” he says. “At the same time, this is a 20-year work in progress. I want to see if the selections on the menu are still relevant to today’s taste buds.”
Which isn’t to say he’s willing to compromise his principles: huge portions of good-tasting food made from scratch.
“The way I see it, there are very few people in the industry that truly have the passion,” Taus says. “It’s sad, because it’s a reflection of what the collective palate asks for.”
Romeo’s Euro Café, 207 N. Gilbert Road, Gilbert (map), is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday. “Taste of Euro Café” dinners are held at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays and are $27 per person plus tax and tip. 480-962-4224. www.eurocafe.com.
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