A historical neon sign that hasn’t flashed neon in decades will get a makeover, thanks to plans to build a bus stop.
It all started about four years ago when the Regional Transportation Authority identified the area in front of Mario’s Pizza at 3157 N. First Ave., as the perfect location for a bus pullout with a covered stop.
But the plans, no matter how the RTA chose to go, would involve moving the neon sign anchored since 1958 in a concrete base where the restaurant’s parking lot meets the sidewalk.
Everyone involved, from the restaurant’s owner, Vince Vollero, to the RTA’s deputy director, James DeGrood, knew that was a problem. The sign had significant historical value, and no one involved wanted to see it destroyed.
“We’ve been working very diligently to preserve that sign,” DeGrood said. “We know signs are valued in the community.”
DeGrood said that the first step in preserving the sign was having it certified as a historical landmark, which required tracing the sign’s history and establishing that it fit the criteria.
About a year ago, Vollero turned to Tucson sign company Addisigns Inc. to help with the research. A.J. Lee, who has worked for the company for 11 years, dug into the assignment, combing through city records and phone books with Carlos Lozano, who has made it his mission to save endangered neon signs in the Southwest.
“We found photos in phone books and the old yellow pages of Marco’s Pizza” — the predecessor of Mario’s — “and it had the same design and shape of the sign,” Lee said. “This sign goes way back.”
Vollero said the research also uncovered something deeper about Tucson’s Italian immigrants and the role they played in developing the city’s culinary landscape.
From the 1930s to 1958, Italian immigrants opened 10 restaurants in Tucson, including the Leonardi family’s Italian Village, the Zagona family’s Caruso’s, and Mama Luisa’s La Cantino, opened by the Casadei family, according to documents filed with the city in the historical landmark designation application.
Of those restaurants, only three survived: Marco’s (now Mario’s), Caruso’s and Mama Luisa’s.
Vollero had no idea of the restaurant’s history when he bought it in 1985. He was 22 years old and had worked as a mechanic; he had no restaurant experience.
“I was naive at 22. I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” he said.
He was the third person to run an Italian restaurant in the building, which was considered modernist in design and futuristic. The building was designed by Gino Perfetto, the architecture son of restaurateur Marco Perfetto.
The senior Perfetto, who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy, opened three Marco’s Italian restaurants, including an upscale sit-down restaurant on Speedway. Marco’s on North First Avenue, opened in 1958, was intended as a more casual carry-out operation, with a small dining room and a handful of tables and booths with checkered tablecloths.
The Perfetto family sold the restaurant in 1979, and the new owners changed the name to Mario’s by scratching out the c and turning it into an i on the neon sign and the building’s sign.
Vollero bought it from the second owners six years later and kept the name. At no time, he said, did the restaurant ever close for business during the ownership transitions.
For the most part, the restaurant is unchanged from its early days. He’s painted it every few years, and not long ago he created a patio where diners can sip beer with their pizzas. He’s tweaked the menu here and there, adding chicken wings when they became the hot commodity and taking a few items off the menu, including a breakfast sandwich, steaks and ribs when no one seemed interested anymore.
The neon faded at least 15 years ago and Vollero substituted fluorescent lights on the sign. And while he worries that having his parking lot dug up and the intrusion of construction crews and equipment will distract from his business, he said he will be excited to see neon once again blazing in the Mario’s sign.
DeGrood said he anticipates work on the bus pullout will begin early next year once the sign has been removed. Work could take a few weeks.
Lee said restoring the sign, which will include new neon tubing and replacing the chasing lights that run around the sign, could take a month or more. The RTA will pick up the $20,000 tab.