It’s 5 p.m. on a Monday as I saunter into Michael’s, the lone surviving Italian restaurant in Elkhart’s fabled but faded Italian neighborhood on the near-west side.
I was expecting a quiet diner experience since it’s the beginning of a work week.
There are three guys seated at one end of the bar and one of them is talking about the music of Chet Atkins. Three women are gathered together in the dining area as I sit down at my table.
Michael’s is one of 23 restaurants participating in Elkhart Dining Days, and I’m here to take a stab at one of the special entrees. I’m more than happy to help.
My waitress happens to be Nancy Iavagnilio, whose family has run the restaurant for more than half a century. Her sister, Michele, is working behind the bar.
Nancy Iavagnilio said she used to work split shifts at the restaurant for some 20 years, but these days, she has an office job and waitresses a few nights every week.
Iavagnilio recommends the mostaccioli, saying it represents some of the best things about Michael’s menu – freshly cooked mushrooms, green peppers, meat balls and lots of pasta and sauce.
I order my salad with – what else, Italian – and dig into one of the four slices of fresh bread that’s made daily. I love bread and butter with a meal, so I’m already slightly biased.
Soon, the mostaccioli arrives and it looks like a piece of art. The mushrooms and peppers are poking through the heavy coating of cheese that is perfectly browned across much of the dish.
This mostaccioli is like a good story with several layers that can be peeled away to expose new secrets. Under the cheese, I find several huge meatballs – so big that they’ll need to be cut into bite-size quarters.
The dish comes with plenty of pasta and sauce that cries out to be hugged and consoled by more slices of buttered bread.
By the time I’m just half way through with my meal, the place is jumping with activity.
There are now 12 tables that Iavagnilio and another waitress, Jamie, are scurrying to serve and keep up with. They’re not overly busy by any means, but on a Monday night, five or six tables per waitress are enough to make the night go quickly.
Turns out, Monday’s are often a good night for Michael’s
“We usually have a good crowd on Mondays because a lot of places are not open on Mondays,” Iavagnilio tells me.
Iavagnilio credits a continued good customer base at Michael’s on new generations of longtime fans plus unfamiliar faces via word of mouth.
She especially likes the idea that new generations with ties to the restaurant keep coming back.
“That keeps us really motivated and going,” she said before getting up to check on another table.
Michael’s is running a $20 dinner for two special during Elkhart Dining Days, which includes a complimentary appetizer (Michael’s famed cheese and crackers) and two entrees, each with a salad. The mostaccioli is one entree option, or you can choose the eggplant Parmesan, Italian chicken breast or Fettuccine Alfredo with chicken.
Ten percent of the proceeds from each Dining Days meal benefits Food Bank of Elkhart County.