The Steak and Catfish Barn will close its doors for good Aug. 31, ending a 15-year run for owners Dino Smalley and his wife, Maria Vitale, that's taken them into the national spotlight.
In 1998, Smalley and Vitale signed a 15-year lease to the ramshackle restaurant space located where Waterloo Road meets Interstate 35 — a bold move for the couple who wanted to share the flavors of Maria's homeland, Italy.
“I moved to this country when I was 21 and lived in New Jersey for 20 years,” Vitale said. “I moved here 25 years ago because this is where Dino is from.”
The couple originally opened an Italian restaurant in the space but changed six years later in an effort to boost lunch service by drawing the construction crews who built the many homes that stand nearby today.
“Italian was just too heavy for them at lunch time,” Smalley said. “We did a great night crowd at the time, but we wanted to improve our afternoon business.”
He said the restaurant, at 5175 Waterloo Road, already had steak on the menu from the Italian concept and was well-versed in fish, as Vitale grew up 15 minutes from the beach in Sellia, Calabria.
But it took awhile to find the right breading.
“We were at Gulfport Seafood,” Smalley said. “And Maria was inside. There was this guy in a BMW outside I struck up a conversation with about breading. He told about this one ingredient he used, and I'm not gonna tell you what it is, that made it perfect. It's an ingredient your palate is used to from other foods and craves. But it's a secret.”
Perhaps that's because Smalley and Vitale would listen to offers if anyone wanted to buy the concept and all of its recipes.
Those recipes are good enough to draw lines out the door that are still a mainstay at the Steak and Catfish Barn. The couple's secret catfish recipe started drawing big crowds almost immediately.
“Lunch was an immediate turnaround,” Smalley said. “Dinner took a little longer. We actually did a bigger takeout business than our dining room did for about 12 months.”
Toast of TV
Word-of-mouth and a segment on “Discover Oklahoma” cemented the store's success and drew the attention of producers from the Travel Channel's “Man v. Food.”
The Adam Richman dog-and-pony show arrived to shoot The Steak and Catfish Barn in 2010, and the mold was cast for Smalley and Vitale's retirement.
“We already did a great business before the show aired,” Smalley said. “But after that it's been incredible.”
They said the appearance on the show has been the gift that keeps on giving.
“We can always tell when our episode airs again,” Smalley said. “We get a huge spike in Web hits on our website, and the lines get even longer.”
“We have people who've come in from other states who have been to all the places the show has been,” Vitale said. “Adam has an unbelievable following.”
Each agreed Richman was not only great for business but a great guy, too.
“After the shoot, he stayed with us two hours talking about food,” Vitale said.
“They had to drag him outta here,” Smalley said.