By Sue Botos
Back in 1965 when Dominic Chillemi opened Dominic’s Pizza on Center Ridge Road in Rocky River, not many Westsiders were familiar with the carryout version of what has become a favorite food.
“My mom, Vuila went with her sister to the area elementary and middle schools to introduce the idea of pizza delivery one day a week for school lunches,” recalled Chillemi’s daughter Janet Vinciguerra recently. “Their theory of educating the public through their children’s great experience with school pizza was a key element in creating a market for pizza at a time when there was none.”
The delivery concept grew, as did Dominic’s, which became “The Woods” in 1982, and today is run by Vinciguerra’s brother Chad Chillemi. But Dominic was still an important presence, and could be found at The Woods every Monday night at 6 p.m., accompanied by his fellow R.O.M.E.O.S. (Retired Old Men’s Evening Out). According to his family there was always room at the table for family or friends to join.
For six decades, Chillemi could also be found hosting a traditional Italian supper every Sunday at 4:30 for friends and family, which eventually grew to include four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
But the table will now be missing its head, as Chillemi passed away Dec. 12 at the age of 92, after being diagnosed with cancer four years earlier.
“There are so many people who have fond memories of Dominic’s,” said Vinciguerra. In addition, she said that in 1972, her father opened Dominic’s Pizza Villa in Westlake, which became James Dominic’s after her brother Jim took over in 1988.
Born on Oct. 12, 1921, Chillemi grew up on Cleveland’s west side, attending West High School and carpenter apprentice school. He was a captain in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, serving as a reconnaissance pilot.
After marrying Vuila, who, according to Vinciguerra was engaged at the time of their meeting at the Aragon Ballroom in 1947, and starting their family, Chillemi decided working “day and night” as a custom home builder was taking up too much of his time. He became a building inspector for Cleveland Trust and being an avid historian, Vinciguerra said that her father submitted several ideas to community leaders for the preservation of city landmarks, including the conversion of the former Ameritrust building into a fully functioning structure.
Vinciguerra ventured that her dad’s idea may have helped spark the development planned for the building and surrounding area today.
But it was the iconic pizzeria that most people link to Chillemi. Vinciguerra said that the original Dominic’s was fashioned from a former chicken coop, as was the present day Behind the Woods. An original farmhouse still sits on the property and is used as office space and storage. The cobblestones in the parking area even have their own story, according to Vinciguerra, who recalled that her dad had the stones, from a near West Side street, delivered one summer, and Chillemi, his sons, and whoever wanted to help, spent the whole season chiseling cement from the stones and placing them in the lot.
Many area residents also started their working careers at Dominic’s. Doug Breitmayer recalled on Facebook, “Dominic was my favorite boss. He was honest and taught me the value of a dollar at age 15. I learned lifelong skills and how to take pride in my work. To this day, I am still trying to make a pizza as good as Dominic’s.”
Rebecca Breitmayer Charvat added, “He meant so much to everyone who knew him (the) pizza shop was my very first job and Dominic was a wonderful boss. How he put up with all of us teenagers, I will never know.”
Despite his illness, Vinciguerra said that her father always maintained his positive outlook. Remembering his many words of wisdom, she recalled her favorite, “The other side of the coin of adversity is opportunity. One must but turn it over.”