In 1990, doctors gave restaurateur Phil Romano one week to live.
He had a mass the size of an apple near his appendix, and doctors seemed sure malignant lymphoma could kill him.
Romano was then already an accomplished business owner and a multi-millionaire, having created about 15 restaurants and bars including Fuddruckers and Romano's Macaroni Grill. But he didn't want to quit the restaurant business and he didn't want anyone to know he was dying. So he had the surgery, then agreed to chemotherapy when he lived longer than his allotted seven days.
He set his sights on six months and continued to keep the secret. His hair started falling out, so he shaved his head. If anyone asked, he fibbed, saying he "was trying to win a bet."
It probably goes without saying that Romano, one of Dallas' most successful entrepreneurs, didn't die. He, the son of two upstate New York shoe factory workers, has since opened Eatzi's, Nick and Sam's Steakhouse, Coal Vines and is one of three investors who purchased nearly 100 acres of land to create the Trinity Groves restaurant complex in West Dallas.
He is unquestionably one of Dallas' most noteworthy restaurateurs, says Doug Brooks, former CEO and president of Brinker International, the restaurant company that bought Macaroni Grill and others. Romano partnered with restaurant mogul Norman Brinker for 13 years, and Brinker "loved Phil's creativity and bravado," Brooks says.
"He saw Philip as the perfect business partner," he says. Romano was the creator, Brinker was the replicator.
Still, Romano is famous for doing what he wanted to, when he wanted to. It's only now, at 75 years old, that he seems cautious about what's next.
"It's scary when you're old," he says, "because you're not going to stick around long enough to make something else work."
That's where New-York-style Italian restaurant Saint Rocco's New York Italian comes in. Romano co-owns it with fellow Italian guy (and former Eatzi's corporate executive chef) Jay Valley. Romano wouldn't say it'll be his last restaurant, but he knows "something else" might not come after it.
Restaurants aren't Romano's biggest achievement
Oddly enough, Romano didn't make most of his money on restaurants — and he doesn't consider Fuddruckers or Nick and Sam's as his highest achievements.
In the late '80s, Romano was one of three investors in a medical marvel, the PALMAZ stent: a small mesh tube that props open an artery. Romano and his partners later sold the patent to Johnson & Johnson, and Romano singlehandedly made more than half a billion dollars in royalties, he says.
"People come to me and say, 'I love your restaurant.' That's fine," he says. "Just as many people say, 'You saved my mother's life. Or my life.' That's better."
In fact, the stent saved Romano's life, too. When he was 73, a doctor discovered two blockages in his arteries, which required stents. Rather than dwell on what could have been, Romano makes a joke: "I'm into lateral integration," says the businessman. "You eat my burgers, you get high cholesterol, you use the stent."
Even he couldn't have planned it better.
'I like to cause controversy when I do things'
The bottom of Saint Rocco's menu says, "If Saint Rocco were here eating with us today, he would say ... 'Jesus Christ, This Food is Good!'"
Romano knows some people won't like it. He doesn't care.
"If I didn't do what people told me not to, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. "I like to cause controversy when I do things." You could call him ornery, and he is. He's also creative.
At a restaurant he opened in 1992 in San Antonio called Nachomama's, Romano served nachos in a hubcap. "Oh, people didn't like that," Romano says, chuckling. But he didn't stop doing it. He did, however, have to rename Nachomama's for "political reasons," he recalls. You likely know it: It's now the chain Cozymel's Coastal Mex.
He's big on showbiz. That's why Eatzi's plays opera music and Macaroni Grill serves wine on the honor system. It's bada-bing. It's memorable.
The story with Saint Rocco's
Romano's new place, Saint Rocco's, is a blast back in time. It's designed to feel like old-time New York, with its bright red carpet, black and white tile and big circular tables where Italians can "sit and argue" like Romano intended.
On the walls, black and white photos depict moments from Romano and Valley's childhood. "This guy has a butcher shop," Romano explained, pointing at one of dozens of photos. "That right there is my First Holy Communion," he says, "and that's me" — a grinning kid just about to make an important rite of passage for an Italian-Catholic. He has photos of his Italian ancestors, his aunts and of course his priest.
Several of Romano's old buddies flew to Dallas to check out his new Italian place and "sit and argue" like they do. Most, like Major Gen. Jack Leide and Tony TaCito, don't eat much Italian food outside their homes. But in Valley's hands, they feel like they're eating mom's chicken francaise or nonna's pot roast.
Valley explains the menu as home cooking that's "just a little cheffed up." Being a chef "is all I ever wanted to do," he says.
Saint Rocco's is Romano's next big move. He has opened two other restaurants in Trinity Groves — a hot dog shop called Hofmann Hots, temporarily closed while it relocates to a new address; and a concept called Potato Flats, which didn't work in West Dallas and has since closed.
Saint Rocco's is an ode to his childhood, and it's a place for his friends to eat "real" Italian food, as he tells it. Its location in Trinity Groves is his way of inspiring restaurateurs by offering them partial ownership in a restaurant. They don't need beaucoup capital; Romano and his team have that part covered.
But hasn't he done enough in the restaurant biz already? This one's personal.
"I've got to do it before I'm dead," Romano says."We've all got an expiration date."
Follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.