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Papa knows best

After a bumpy start, Papa Dio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar gained a following in the 1970s that remains today.

Greg Horton April 30th, 2014

Bill Bonadio opened his first restaurant in Oklahoma City about the same time a revolution was unfolding in Iran. The two unrelated events helped catapult Bonadio and his restaurant into Oklahoma City’s collective awareness in a very unusual way.

Bill, Constance and Michael Bonadio
Photo by Shannon Cornman

Bonadio, owner of Papa Dio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar, opened his first concept, Dio’s Original Fried Pizza, at 10700 N. May Ave. in 1979. Bonadio was using a 600-year-old family recipe that his paternal grandparents brought over from Italy.

“I had just left the HRAD [hotel and restaurant administration] program at Oklahoma State [University], and I was a third-generation restaurateur, so I believed I was prepared to open my own place,” Bonadio said.

The first location didn’t thrive. He had placed a pizza joint within one mile of six others.

“I didn’t do my market research,” he said.

His father was semi-retired at the time, and he suggested that his son open an Italian restaurant. Bonadio liked the idea, and his dad supplied some of the recipes. To honor his father’s input, Bonadio opened Papa Dio’s at 2905 W. Hefner Road shortly after closing the fried pizza restaurant.

Because Bonadio is Italian-American, he decided to honor both countries by flying their flags outside his new restaurant. However, this decision caused some difficulties. The Italian flag features three vertical bars of green, white and red, and the Iranian flag includes the same colors displayed horizontally. Some Oklahomans were confused, and given the state of the Iran hostage crisis, Bonadio quickly became the object of threats and insults. He took to local media to introduce himself and clear up the confusion.

“We got a ton of business after that,” he said. “We grew until I was able to buy my dad out in 1988.”

Bonadio would eventually move the restaurant to its current location at 10712 N. May Ave. In 1996, Bill Mathis, a friend of the family, approached Bonadio with an idea.

“He loved my food,” Bonadio said. “He said, ‘Bill, this is as good as anything I eat anywhere I travel, but you have to have good wine.’” Bonadio, who confessed he is more of an Italian jug wine drinker, agreed, and the two opened the wine bar adjacent to the bistro to feature an improved wine list and fine dining options.

Papa Dio’s menu has grown since, but you can still find the pizza from Dio’s Original Fried Pizza on the four-page menu. The only item ever removed from the menu was Italian chicken-fried steak. Everything else remains, including all 14 sauces made in-house, which Bonadio himself helps prep every day; he still cooks every day the restaurant is open.

Bonadio recently expanded the menu to four pages because he wanted to include all the former daily specials.

“We still do specials, but these were the ones everyone wanted,” he said.

The most popular special menu item over the years has been the meatloaf. Bonadio’s mother, Constance, works in the restaurant, and her job is to call a long list of customers every time the meatloaf makes an appearance.

“I love making the calls,” she said.

“Everyone is happy to hear from me.”

Bonadio’s son, Michael, also works at Papa Dio’s. That means there are three generations of the Bonadio family working at the restaurant. The generational consistency leads to a consistency in quality, too.

Bonadio said he credits his family’s commitment to quality, consistency and service for his success. Hard work should probably be included, as well, but Bonadio focuses on service more than anything.

“When the gluten-free craze started, people used to bring me the pastas and asked me to cook them,” he said. “I’ve added them to the menu now because that’s what we do; we serve customers what they want.”

When the gluten-free customers showed up, staff members asked Bonadio what they should do.

“I told them what I tell everyone who asks for a modification,” Bonadio said. “I cook for money, so the answer is yes.”

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