From NYC to Oswego: Murphy Occhino Jr., grandson of restaurant’s founder, in charge of restaurant along with his wife and relatives
By Tom & Jerry Caraccioli
As Oswego welcomed home its fighting men and women from their service during World War II, Tom and Mary Vona also returned to the Port City.
Having met in Detroit during the war when Tom was employed by Ford Motor Company building military hardware for the war effort, he and Mary married in 1941 and ultimately returned to his hometown. Together the newlyweds established what would become a landmark and one of the finest restaurants in Central New York.
Located at West Utica and 10th streets, Tom and Mary Vona set out to build a neighborhood establishment like others prevalent in many small Central New York towns like Oswego during the first part of the 20th century. Their original intent was to create a neighborhood bar that served food. As interest grew, and Mary’s Italian mother’s family recipes became more popular, Tom expanded the space from the bar area into the current dining rooms that now exist.
Almost 80 years later, Vona’s Restaurant, billed as an “Oswego Tradition — A Nice Place to Visit,” still stands and thrives as a premier spot serving authentic Italian cuisine.
After operating the restaurant for nearly 25 years, Tom and Mary relinquished the full-time duties of the operation to their eldest daughter, Josephine (Joey), and youngest son, Tom Vona Jr., along with their spouses Murphy Occhino and Mary Jane Vona.
The second generation owned and operated Vona’s for the next five decades. Nearly 50 years later, the torch is being passed once again to the third generation of the Vona family as the Occhino’s oldest son, Murphy Jr., his wife, Debra, and his sister, Lesa Peterson, will now take over management of the restaurant.
Murphy Jr. is a 1982 graduate of Oswego High School. He went on to attend Boston University and the Berklee School of Music before setting out as a professional musician and his current career in movies and television.
Having spent the last 25 years working on New York City film productions, Occhino has worked with some of Hollywood’s most well-known directors, producers and actors including Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez, Ray Liotta, Rob Reiner, Baz Luhrmann and many other bold-faced names in the business. In the last few years, he was a first assistant director on the highly-acclaimed HBO Max original series, “The Gilded Age,” produced by Downton Abbey producer Julian Fellowes.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some of the most talented people in both movies and television,” Occhino said. “It’s been a very rewarding career with many great experiences and stories to tell. The opportunity to return to Oswego and manage the family restaurant that my grandparents began was a chance to get back to my roots and continue our family’s legacy.”
And that legacy most assuredly will include his grandmother’s famous “Vona’s Red Sauce.”
Now, the recipe for success is in the hands of the next generation of the Vona family. And while they don’t plan to make many major changes, Murphy does envision taking Vona’s into the future.
“There have been so many notable improvements to the city of Oswego in recent years,” Occhino noted. “The chance for us to grow and contribute to all of its recent success stories will be our main goal. While we will always lean into our nostalgic past, our aim is to give the restaurant a more modern feel.
It’s an honor to be able to run an 80-year-old successful restaurant. There are so few of these historic establishments left in the country. When I think of all the celebrations Vona’s played a part in over the years — birthdays, graduations, first dates, wedding proposals, retirement parties, and more, it evokes a lot of warm feelings and a strong desire to continue to serve our customers and the community.”
Though Tom and Mary are long gone from running the establishment, the family Vona continues to carry on the tradition of serving the finest food in Central New York where Mary’s authentic recipes continue to satisfy. It is these dishes that keep people coming back and has made Vona’s a culinary landmark for homemade Italian fare in Oswego and beyond.
“As exciting as my previous career has been, I’m looking forward to continuing the legacy my family has created in Oswego,” Occhino, the younger, said. “We’re proud to carry on the family tradition and uphold what my grandparents always wanted Vona’s to be — ‘A Nice Place to Visit.’”
Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli have co-authored two books – “Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America’s Forgotten Hockey Team” and “BOYCOTT: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.” Also, they currently write a monthly column for USA HOCKEY Magazine – “In the Corners.”