For more than 35 years, Amato’s Holiday House anchored Madison’s evening social life from its spot on South Park Street, serving up Italian family classics from pastas to pizzas to a Friday night fish fry invented and perfected by the restaurant’s owner, George Amato.
George the entrepreneur was as comfortable chatting up customers out front as he was pounding suppliers on a per-pound price of cod in the back, but he was never happier than when he was with family and friends.
On Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011, Joseph George Amato died in Florida, surrounded by his loving family. He was 92.
The story of George Amato, who skipped his first name and used his second, is the story of the World War II generation, told with food. He was born in Milwaukee’s famous Third Ward on Aug. 31, 1918, one of four children born to Sicilian emigrants, Dominic and Angela Amato who soon after relocated the family to Madison.
The elder Amatos opened a bar and pool hall that gave way to Amato’s Grocery Store and Meat Market after Dominic died of spinal meningitis when George was still a child. The lessons of his mother’s grocery business stuck for George, who went on to build his own life and family – and memories – around cooking.
Years after leaving Madison for Florida, and leaving Amato’s Holiday House behind, George Amato remained an Italian family cook. Every family occasion was an opportunity to simmer up a big pot of something delicious – cioppino, lentil soup. Fresh tomato sauce almost every day.
“George Amato was the one who got me started in the restaurant business by hiring me to work at the legendary Amato’s Holiday House when I was 14. He was a charming softy with a tough guy exterior who could work a room like nobody else. I learned two critical elements about the restaurant business at that young age from George. Enjoy yourself, your guests and your staff, and make good consistent food night after night. He was a true character and I’m going to miss him,” says Monty Schiro, restaurateur and owner of FoodFight Inc. of Madison, Wis.
George served five years in the U.S. Army, ending in 1945, primarily in Europe. While stationed in England, George met and married Joan Lewis, his “English War Bride” as he liked to say it. Together they had four daughters, Angela, Barbara, Catherine and Diane and yes that “ABCD” sequence was not an accident.
Angela was born in England, but his three other daughters came after the couple had moved to Madison. In 1964, tragedy struck when Joan was killed in a car accident, leaving George to raise his daughters alone.
George met his second wife, Virginia Sanchez, in 1970. Not one to let any detail of his business go unattended, George was knocking on the apartment door of someone who had written a bad check to Amato’s Holiday House when Virginia stepped out of her own apartment to let him know the people he was looking for weren’t around.
The casual conversation they began lasted more than 40 years. Virginia, raising two young girls, Robin and Christine, married George in 1971. Two years later, the family moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where George hand built a five-bedroom house on a quiet street in a burgeoning spot along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
George and Virginia traveled the world, from Europe, to the Soviet Union to South America, and enjoyed successful careers as real estate brokers. In his spare time, George was a budding inventor, designing and producing tools that made every-day life a little easier for friends and family.
George is survived by his wife, Virginia; his six daughters, Angela Amato (Giuliano Flora), Barbara Amato, Catherine Fischer (Jim), Diane Amato (Philippe Lochman), Christine Montgomery (Scott) and Robin Malchow (Mark); grandchildren, Joan Hughes, Christopher Cunningham, Jack Felton, Nick Fischer, Kate Tousignant, Stella Lochman, George Lochman, Quinlan Montgomery and Alex Malchow; and great-grandchildren, Angela Hughes, Alexis Hughes and Olivia Tousignant.
A memorial service is planned for this summer, in Madison.