PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Decades of memories as 'The Venice' changes hands

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By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor

One of the cherished mementoes tucked away at the Venice Cafe in downtown Kent is a small notebook with entries written in Italian.

Dating to 1936, it records the first sales John Sidoti made when he opened his bar on North Mantua Street. The initial receipts were modest, but they provided the start for a business that became a Kent institution owned and operated by three generations of the Sidoti family for 77 years.

John Sidoti and his cousins, Rosario and Josephine Sidoti, opened the Venice Cafe just three years after the end of Prohibition during a time when mom-and-pop taverns were numerous in Kent.

"The Venice," as it became known to those who patronized it, prospered. And, while Kent has seen its ups and downs since the day John Sidoti poured his first beer, the bar he and his cousins opened didn't change much once it found its final home.

The original location on North Mantua Street proved to be problematic after a shooting in the area prompted a vote to ban alcohol sales in the area -- a return to Prohibition, of sorts, that remains on the books today. The Sidotis moved their bar to the upper floor of the Franklin Avenue location that housed the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post for many years.

The family spent a few years looking for a permanent location for the bar, settling at first on the corner of South Water and Erie streets, where a foundation was dug but the project was abandoned because they were unable to get a liquor license for that site. Years later, it became the location of a diner that bore many names, most memorably Jerry's.

They finally settled on a site at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Erie Street, owned by Harry Longcoy. A Chinese laundry had been located there.

Franklin Avenue was the home of several entertainment venues owned and operated by Italian-American families. The Sidotis joined the Salitores, who owned Ray's Place, as well the Mandalaris and the DeLeones, who also owned bars there.

The family hired Kent architect Charles G. Kistler to design the new Venice Cafe. The premiere architect of his era, Kistler's designs included the original Theodore Roosevelt High School, the movie theaters in Kent and Ravenna, Bissler's furniture store and the L.N. Gross Co. building on River Street, now the site of Dale Adams Enterprises.

He designed a sleek, Art Deco-influenced brick structure with a curved facade highlighted by glass-block windows. Josephine Ricciardi, a strong-willed businesswoman, had a great deal of input in the design, which included a skylight and a solid mahogany bar, custom-made by a Chicago firm.

The Sidotis hired E.V. Christenson as general contractor for the project. The foundation was dug out of solid sandstone, with a basement storage area accessible at Franklin Avenue for liquor deliveries.

The new Venice Cafe, located at 163 Franklin Ave., celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 15, 1941, with dancing, "favors for everybody" and a menu offering lunches and dinners that included spaghetti, meatloaf, pork chops and steak. Less than two months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor heralded America's entry into World War II; the radio that reported the attack still sits in a corner of the bar.

The initial clientele included many railroad workers and employees of Kent's manufacturing industries. The bar opened at 8 a.m.

"We used to have a lot of railroad men come in, and they would sit for hours and play euchre," Josephine Ricciardi, the daughter of Rosario and Josephine Sidoti, recalled in a 1991 interview with the Record-Courier.

The blue-collar crowd would be greeted by John Sidoti, a diminutive man with a cigar in hand and a smile on his face. Many came to enjoy a "dimey" served by the man they called "Johnny" -- a small glass of beer for 10 cents. He worked there until a month before his death in 1991, at the age of 92.

Kent State University students soon discovered the Venice was a place where they could enjoy a good meal at good prices, along with a beer or two, in an establishment that welcomed them as long as they didn't become too rowdy.

Josephine Sidoti devoted herself to making the Venice a success. "My family came here from poverty, so when they came here the object was to make money," her daughter, Mrs. Ricciardi, recalled.

It was Mrs. Sidoti who decided to hire Hugo Bietz, a locally renowned artist, to paint frescoes covering three walls of the bar in 1950. The murals depict scenes of Italy, including the Grand Canal of Venice, in addition to one that features a 48-star American flag. Bietz was paid $850 for his work -- the equivalent of $8,000 today.

Josephine and Rosario Sidoti died in the 1970s, and their daughter and her husband, Constantino "Rich" Ricciardi, took over as second-generation owners of their bar. Their children, Joe and Josephine Ricciardi, continued ownership into the third generation.

As time passed, "The Venice" -- like Ray's Place down the street -- became iconic, a haven for a varied clientele that included students, hipsters and "townies" who appreciated its dimly lit charm.

Nothing is forever, however. Change is coming to the Venice, which is gaining a new owner, Mike Beder, who purchased the business last week. His plans for the establishment include opening a nanobrewery there, booking live music and offering a fuller menu.

The Venice will be closed for a while until it reopens later this month. Beder says he will respect its unique atmosphere and what it means for many.

"It's still going to be The Venice," he said.

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