he History of Milano Inn
Milano Inn opened in 1934, with Mary and Joe Modaffari taking over a late 19th-Century, brick building in the 200 block of South College Avenue for well-received renditions of spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti with clam sauce, ravioli, manicotti, and pizza with assorted toppings.
A conversation piece at the Milano Inn has been the dazzling mural that courses around all four walls of the main dining room, telling the story of the Allied liberation of Italy during World War II. It was created by Sergeant Donald Peters in 1947 at the behest of the Modaffari family. Upon mustering out of the military, Sgt. Peters had become a student at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.
The Modaffaris were admirers of Peters’s art, and they commissioned him to paint a mural capturing a moment in their homeland that was near and dear to their hearts and legacy. In exchange, Peters received free room and board for the summer in one of the apartments above the restaurant. In vivid colors, images, and detail, Peters saw to it that each scene in the mural had a riveting story to tell.
The Milano Inn breezed along for over four decades as one of the city’s most revered neighborhood Italian restaurants until the passing of Joe and Mary in the late ’70s. Other family members tried to keep it going, but by 1980, it appeared to be doomed. Leo LaGrotte, who owned a neighboring railroad equipment salvage business, bought the building with an eye toward tearing it down for expanded parking space.
However, grizzled Milano regulars convinced LaGrotte that, with some judicious renovation and an accomplished chef, keeping the Milano Inn alive could be a wise culinary investment. LaGrotte began extensive remodeling in 1983, giving the main dining rooms sleek elegance, adding a solarium, and replacing the old apartments upstairs with banquet and party rooms. He even recruited local artist Greg Hughes to paint a large mural on one of the upstairs walls, learning only later that Mr. Hughes is a cousin of Donald Peters.
But Leo LaGrotte’s most inspired move was to recruit veteran chef Vickie Dragoo, who took on the challenge with a boxful of recipes designed to bring northern Italian influences to the Milano Inn.
Very quickly, the luster of the Modaffari years was restored by the LaGrotte/Dragoo partnership, as diners luxuriated in Vickie’s: exceptionally rich fettuccine Alfredo; five-layer lasagna timballo; stuffed veal and chicken dishes; shrimp parmigiana and shrimp linguine; and sauteed chicken strips and vegetables in raspberry cream sauce. The Modaffaris’ southern-style staples of lasagna, ravioli, and pizza were also given new life.
Mrs. Dragoo passed away in 1997, but her legacy lives on in the menu, and, under the guidance of Leo’s daughters, Tina and Gina, the Milano Inn is fully prospering after its near-death experience.