SANFORD J. SCHMIDT The Telegraph
December 16, 2013
ALTON — Quick action by Alton firefighters may have saved an Alton landmark Monday, just before the 1 a.m. closing time at Tony’s Third Street Cafe.
“Our guys did a terrific job. We were very fortunate or we might have lost an important landmark in that part of town,” Fire Chief Bernie Sebold said.
Firefighters spotted smoke coming from the area of a neon sign at Tony’s Third Street Cafe, adjacent to Tony’s Restaurant, 312 Piasa St.
“It was beginning to extend to the second floor,” Sebold said. Had it reached the banquet room on the second floor an hour later than closing time, it might have spread to the second floor.
As it turns out, the cafe’s bar staff started to smell smoke about 1 a.m. and dialed 911.
Firefighters noted the fire around the sign had burned through plywood framing to a stucco facade. They climbed a ladder and reached the burning spot above the patio facing Third Street.
The firefighters cut a hole through the facade in front of the building to a void between the facade and the second-floor banquet room.
Sebold said the fire presented an unusual challenge, because, like many older buildings in Alton, the Tony’s building has been remodeled numerous times.
Tony’s opened in 1954. Tony and Edie Ventimiglia opened it after operating the Midtown Restaurant in Alton. It has always been operated by the Ventimiglia family. It opened as a pizza and pasta restaurant in just 80 feet facing Piasa Street. Its operators believe it was the first restaurant in the area to serve pizza. It is now known for its pepperloin steak.
It expanded to the former Young’s Department Store after the 1993 flood. The Young’s Department Store building is believed to have been built in the 1930s.
Once the firefighters entered the 4-foot high void, they were able to put the fire out before it did any extensive damage. The food preparation area and most of the restaurant was not damaged. Some smoke damage was done to the area in the front of the building.
“Our investigation determined that the neon sign shorted out — we don’t know why — and melted the wires, which set off the fire,” Sebold said. He estimated the damage at about $5,000. No one was hurt.