CHICAGO (CBS) -- Piccolo Mondo Restaurant and Bakery has closed after serving a staple in the Hyde Park community for nearly four decades.
As CBS 2's Marybel González reported Monday, the guests did not want to say goodbye to the staff without first letting them know how much they appreciate their service.
Outside Piccolo Mondo, on the ground floor of the Windermere House apartment tower, at 1642 E. 56th St., you'll find signs thanking those who have dined at the restaurant and offered support over the years.
But now, it is the customers themselves who want to make sure they send off the staff of around 15 people with an even bigger thank-you.
Piccolo Mondo had been in business for 37 years. It was popular for decades with Hyde Park neighbors and the University of Chicago community – as well as visitors from elsewhere in the Chicago area and beyond. A stop for lunch or dinner at Piccolo Mondo has long been a popular choice in particular after a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, which is located just across 57th Drive and a strip of parkland where the museum's parking lot used to be located.
But owner Norberto Zas decided it was time to retire.
"After 37 years, I decided to relax and enjoy life," Zas said.
The Italian restaurant closed its doors this past weekend – but that does not mean the memories won't linger.
"We served generations," Zas said. "We are talking about three to four generations."
Original owners Anna and Dino Romanucci opened Piccolo Mondo as a restaurant in 1985. The Hyde Park Herald notes a small Italian grocery store, also called Piccolo Mondo, had operated in the space for two years before that.
Zas started working at Piccolo Mondo clearing tables before taking over as general manager in 1999 and owner in 2007. And many of the staff, such as server Juan Francisco, have been working there for decades.
"I've been here 12, 13 hours a day," Francisco said. "I'm living more time here than my house."
For both Zas and Francisco, their coworkers became as close as family. The same can be said of customers who dined at Piccolo Mondo weekly, like John Murphy.
"The staff has become part of our lives," said Murphy, a Hyde Park resident.
So when he heard about the restaurant closing, Murphy and other customers decided to fundraise for what they call one final generous tip for the staff.
"So now in less than two weeks, we've collected more than, or close to $24,000," Murphy said.
The customers surprised the employees with the donations during the restaurant's closing night Sunday.
"In appreciation for all they've done for us over the years," Murphy said.
For the guests, the restaurant is more than just a place to dine. It became a place to connect.
"We have some people in the neighborhood who are here almost every night, so it's going to be difficult - especially for seniors that kind of counted on this place for them," Murphy said. "People should appreciate the things they have in their neighborhood that are meaningful to them and don't forget them.
"I say to everybody, thank you. I appreciate it and Hyde park - it's in my heart, and thank you everybody," Francisco said.
Murphy said he and his fellow customers will keep their GoFundMe for the Piccolo Mondo staff open for the next few weeks in case anyone else wants to pitch in.
He said they will distribute the remainder of the funds to the staff just in time for the Christmas holiday.
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