Tony’s Italian Ristorante Celebrates 40 Years as a Political Haunt That Crosses Party Lines
Both Democrats and Republicans have found a home at Tony Scartz’s Brewery District restaurant.
The phone call changed Tony Scartz’s life. In September 1982, Scartz had just opened Tony’s Italian Ristorante on South High Street in what would eventually become known as the Brewery District. Business was slow, until Scartz got a call from Dick Celeste, then a Democratic candidate for governor, asking if he could bring his entourage to Tony’s for a late-night meal. Celeste—an acquaintance of Scartz’s father, Carl, owner of the Knotty Pine in the Grandview area—kept returning to Tony’s for campaign strategy sessions, giving the nascent restaurant a much-needed boost.
Today, Tony’s is a Columbus culinary landmark celebrating its 40th anniversary in September. On Sunday Sept. 4, Scartz will host a private party at the restaurant to honor the occasion. Scartz credits his business’ longevity to consistency, loyal employees, good customer service—and that phone call from the soon-to-be governor of Ohio. Celeste introduced Scartz to the Capitol Square crowd, which became the heart and soul of his clientele, both Democrats and Republicans. “They found a home,” Scartz says.
For Scartz, it’s been an interesting evolution. An ex-boxer and orphan from Italy who was adopted by his parents, Carl and Libby, as a teenager, Scartz knew nothing about politics or politicians until Celeste started showing up at his restaurant. But Scartz is a people person, and he understood from the beginning that, while his Cap Square customers may love nothing more than talking politics, he and his staff should avoid it. “I stay out of it, and I tell my people to stay out of it,” he says.
Through Celeste, Scartz got to know Vern Riffe, the legendary Democratic speaker of the Ohio House, who made Tony’s his evening gathering place, attracting to the restaurant lobbyists who wanted to get face time with the powerful legislator. “Celeste got me started,” Scartz says. “Vern Riffe made me popular.” On the Republican side, Scartz befriended the influential Ohio Senate President Stan Aronoff. But no doubt the biggest Republican backer of Tony’s was Mike Colley, the Columbus attorney who led the Franklin County GOP from 1978 to 2004 and the statewide party from 1982 to 1988. At one point, Colley had five separate house charges at Tony’s—and even put Tony’s in his will, demanding that the restaurant cater his funeral. (Tony’s also catered a memorial dinner for John Glenn, who became friendly with Scartz through lobbyist and former Ohio Democratic Party chair Paul Tipps.)
When Curt Steiner and Jan Allen married in 1993, the two prominent political operatives—one a Republican, the other a Democrat—made it a point to hold their rehearsal dinner at Tony’s. “Our wedding was largely about bringing both parties together, and that’s why we chose to come here,” Steiner says on a recent afternoon at Tony’s. “It was home territory for people on both sides of the aisle.”
Scartz, 73, says Tony’s isn’t quite the political gathering place it once was. “I don’t think any place is as much; things are different,” he says. And Scartz acknowledges that he considered shutting down after the 2020 death of his longtime chef, Antonio Stanley. Scartz, Stanley and a third employee, bartender Chuck Vyzral, had been working together for more than three decades. “I thought I was definitely done when Stan died,” Scartz says. But Scartz is in a better place now, and he still enjoys the restaurant business. Nearly every night, you’ll find Scartz at his familiar place at the front of the house, welcoming guests to the restaurant, whether they’re political royalty or not.
On a recent afternoon, Scartz shows off his first-floor party room, the site of many political fundraisers. Hanging on a wall are several framed legislative proclamations honoring Tony’s, which Scartz proudly notes came from both Democrats and Republicans.
This story is from the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about the Tony’s Ristorante 40th anniversary celebration. Owner Tony Scartz first told Columbus Monthly he didn’t intend to host a party, but he later changed his mind.