From left to right, Tyler, Chad and Seth Napper represent Tre Ragazzi’s namesake, which translates to “three boys” in English.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A beloved family-owned business is setting up shop in a City of Champions landmark.
After a decade on Broad Street, Tre Ragazzi’s Italian Café bid ciao to its original location, embracing a new era on the corner of the former Sears department store at the Gadsden Mall.
Tre Ragazzi’s joins an ensemble of tenants taking root at the Gadsden Mall, following Martin’s Family Clothing in the previous JCPenney block and entertainment venue The Alley in a portion of Sears. While the restaurant’s move proves a golden opportunity for owners Kevin and Toni Napper, it also represents the mall’s current metamorphosis, giving residents an exciting glimpse into the future.
“Our goal is to transform the traditional mall experience into new, unique spaces to better meet the needs of the community,” said Carmen D. Spinoso, chairman and CEO of Spinoso Real Estate Group, which oversees the mall’s revitalization. “With space for live music and authentic Italian food, Tre Ragazzi’s strengthens our quality dining options and helps us further evolve to serve as Gadsden’s premiere shopping, dining, entertainment and gathering destination.”
Fans of Tre Ragazzi’s have much to look forward to, with specialty pastas and gourmet Chicago and New York style pizzas crowning the menu. With ample space for indoor and outdoor seating, guests can visit the gelato bar while they wait and sit outside on the restaurant’s lovely patio or satisfy their sweet tooth at the dessert bar, which will feature cappuccinos and espressos.
Kevin hopes to entertain guests while they dine, planning to host live music three to four times a week, karaoke and bingo nights. He even shared that the restaurant might project old films onto a wall outside, for visitors to enjoy.
Tre Ragazzi’s new spot also honors the relationship that built the restaurant itself, exemplifying the Nappers’ sentimental ties to the mall and serving as the place where Kevin and Toni first met one another 34 years ago. While working in construction, Kevin met Toni (who worked at Sears), sparking a lifetime together. A table in the restaurant, designed by their children, will pay homage to the pair.
The Nappers were no strangers to the restaurant business when they debuted Tre Ragazzi’s in 2012.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the couple operated Uncle Sam’s Pizza in East Gadsden before Toni decided she wanted to stay home with their sons – Tyler, Chad and Seth – and Kevin acquired a position with an Italian food company.
Over the course of several years, Kevin traveled countrywide as a distributor, learning the intricacies and realities of the restaurant business and unearthing traditional gems of Italian cuisine. Working alongside Italians and Sicilians, Kevin developed an understanding of what composes authentic Italian recipes, discovering a shared passion behind the food in the process.
“When I was a 27-year-old country boy from Alabama that went to work for an Italian food company where everybody spoke Italian, and most of them were from Italy, it was a learning process,” said Kevin. “But I enjoyed it. I’m now considered an Italian specialist when I’m in New York, training New York Italians how to sell Italian [products], which is kind of funny to me. To me, Italian food is more of a passion food – especially for the owners. We’ve always been passionate about the Italian side of the business.”
While training, Kevin delved into cookbooks at libraries, flipping through pages of flavorful and unique recipes to collect and explore. He and Toni often dabbled with different pasta dishes for their sons, who emerge as the true inspiration behind Tre Ragazzi’s and the purpose of the restaurant’s inception.
After eras spent absorbing the tricks of the trade, Toni and Kevin felt compelled to try something themselves – to develop a place that treasured Italian cuisine, rooted in its community and dedicated to the reason behind the restaurant’s opening: family. With their boys in mind and the vision of one day passing the torch to their children bright in their eyes, the Nappers crafted Tre Ragazzi’s in downtown Gadsden.
Tre Ragazzi translates to “three boys” in Italian, an appropriate title for the quaint café’s namesakes: Tyler, Chad and Seth. With the financial assistance and emotional support of Toni’s parents, Arthur and Margaret Hanson, Tre Ragazzi’s began making its mark on Gadsden and news certainly traveled fast.
Tre Ragazzi’s classics like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan and baked lasagna prove tried and true staples for customers, while newfound favorites like baked chicken alfredo ziti and Mediterranean pasta dish out the perfect dose of comfort. Caesar, Caprese and Greek salads coincide with appetizers like roasted-walnut-filled gorgonzola bread, stuffed mushrooms, fried ravioli, toasted bread topped with freshly sliced mozzarella, seasoned tomatoes and basil, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Sub sandwiches, calzones and specialty pizzas join a dessert menu enriched with options like tiramisu, chocolate or caramel syrup-covered cannolis and a variety of gelato flavors.
Kevin shared that the best advice he ever received came from an 82-year-old Sicilian man, with whom he formed a friendship while working in New York. The man inspired several Tre Ragazzi’s recipes, teaching Kevin the value of investing in quality ingredients to create excellent meals, rather than purchasing poor ingredients that equate poor products. Instead of cutting corners and exhausting extra efforts to transform bad products into something pleasing, Kevin and Toni learned to begin their recipes with fresh, simple and clean ingredients – building a foundation for success as the end result.
“We look at everything,” said Kevin. “Our products that we use are special to us. We use Bacio cheese, the only mozzarella out there with buffalo milk in it, which is denser and a little more flavorful. When we look at our olive oil, we know what city it comes from in Italy. The Italians will say if you’ve got more than five ingredients in your dish, it’s not Italian. That’s what I’ve always loved about it – that’s the fun side of the business.”
Today, Tre Ragazzi’s harbors locations in both Boaz and Glencoe to accompany its new mall location, with all three Napper sons involved in the business. Kevin described the family dynamic that ensures the restaurants thrive, sharing that each son adds a different dimension to the business’s success.
Tyler is the “fixer” of the trio; Chad shares a similar, assertive personality to Kevin and analytical Seth thinks through situations calmly before making any decisions. Seth persuaded his father to open Tre’s Southern Café, an offshoot of the original brand that focuses on southern cuisine for breakfast and lunch, neighboring the Italian café’s Glencoe location.
“It makes me really proud to walk in to one of our restaurants and see all three of our sons there, laughing, making pizzas and kids up there watching them through dough,” said Kevin. “It’s been a lot of hard work getting here, but I think we’re at a point now where I feel like we’re getting better at what we do and how we do it, and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.”
“You have to be a pretty close family [to run a business together]. The boys don’t just walk in as owners; they work every day. You’ve got three boys that didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, and now are doing fantastic. They’ve all washed dishes, cleaned, made pizzas and pasta – they have not had the easy way. If we’re a little short-handed at some of the stores, they’re pulling 50 to 60 hours a week. We’re family, so we’re going to have disagreements and a different vision on how to do things, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have each other’s back. We work through it. The boys are now seeing more of the business side of it, and I think they’re enjoying that. Tre Ragazzi’s is strictly for the boys. One of these days, me and Toni want to hand them the keys and say, ‘Here you go, we’ve got you this far,’ and I think they’ll do a great job with it. They’ve done a great job so far.”
Those family ties that bind Tre Ragazzi’s together filter into the restaurant’s atmosphere, which welcomes all who enter its doors. When a fellow restaurant owner suggested the Nappers add wall-barriers for privacy, Kevin declined, reflecting on the relaxed, comfortable nature that encapsulates the communities where Tre Ragazzi’s flourishes.
Kevin expressed a love for small towns, local places where “everybody knows everybody,” but everyone supports one another in return. Conversations drift from table to table as diners recognize familiar faces, friends pile in booths ordering regulars, children laugh and run about, akin to the comforting gatherings of home, with a big-city taste.
During COVID-19, Toni and Kevin hosted a three-day event where customers could purchase an 18-inch pizza for whatever price they could afford. Kevin felt that this represented the essence of Tre Ragazzi’s heart, which resides with its staff and customers, allowing them to serve 900 pizzas to families across the community. He commended the employees, some of which who were struggling themselves but offered to work for free, who witnessed the importance of generosity and helping others. He reflected on how the restaurant extends as an outlet for people to progress and grow, remembering a head chef that began as a dishwasher and employees who paid for their college education through Tre Ragazzi’s.
“It’s a little more to us than a restaurant,” said Kevin. “It’s something different to us. When things get hard, we look at our employees and our sons and say, ‘We can figure this out and get through this.’”
From charity events, donating proceeds to families in need to dedicating dishes to beloved individuals, Tre Ragazzi’s embodies a restaurant rooted in its community. As the business booms and welcomes guests to experience its latest venture at the Gadsden Mall, the same family-oriented nature that inspired its inception still abounds, inviting new and old friends to discover the difference.
“Without our customers, there is no Tre Ragazzi’s,” said Kevin. “I deal with restaurants all over the country, and I don’t think there’s a better community to be a part of – whether it’s Boaz, Gadsden or Glencoe. I think people around here are different. We want to have that place with a community feeling, where people enjoy going because they see their friends, but they know we support the community, too…that’s what we’ve always tried to do. Thank you to the community for your appreciation. We’ve always looked at Tre Ragazzi’s as our everyday customers and we appreciate them…without them, we wouldn’t be anything.”
Tre Ragazzi’s at the Gadsden Mall does not have a definite opening date, but plans to open its doors in the near future.