Cortino’s Endures As Mercedes Iconic Business Serving RGV
The road to one of the Rio Grande Valley’s best and most authentic Italian restaurants began in Brownsville, just after World War II.
John Cortino of Chicago arrived in South Texas in the post-war era to supervise the construction of a multi-story building in Brownsville. With him was his wife, Mary, and it was at the beginning of what would become the Baby Boomer era in America.
John found that his South Texas clients in the construction business had a taste for Italian food. Mary began cooking up meals as part of their business in dealing with customers.
“That was the base point,’’ said Paul Cortino, a grandson of John and Mary. “They figured after a while that if we’re cooking this much, let’s start a restaurant.’’
It became official on Father’s Day in 1966 when Cortino’s Italian Restaurant opened in Mercedes. Over 50 years later, the Cortino’s customer following holds true, a favorite gathering place on east Business 83 for Winter Texans, local families, birders, and Valley residents at large who come to the restaurant in the heart of the Valley in Mercedes.
“We’ve watched kids grow up in this place,’’ Paul Cortino said. “We’ve seen marriage proposals and all kinds of family-oriented get-togethers here. It’s been special to be in the city of Mercedes and the Mid-Valley all these years.’’
A bright yellow-and-green sign welcomes passers-by on Business 83 near the Mercedes/Weslaco boundary line. The restaurant’s parking lot was repaved in recent years and is often full, especially during winter tourist months.
Cortino’s Facebook page is filled with photos of Winter Texans celebrating birthdays and other festive occasions. Plates of fettuccines, spaghettis, lasagnas and pizzas are shown in front of diners with smiling faces.
“Italian dinner at Cortino’s for Dean’s birthday,’’ reads one photo caption showing a group of Winter Texans. “Great night!’’
“A taste of Italy,’’ is how Paul Cortino describes it, saying the fettuccines, lasagnas, and anything with alfredo sauces are among the favorite dishes. There is no cherished book filled with secret recipes, he said, but rather family knowledge passed down through the generations from those who came before them. A business that’s so rooted in its Mid-Valley community has forged deep ties with its customers.
Cortino speaks of knowing what customers want as they walk into the restaurant. Cortino’s staff knows what sort of salad and preferred side dishes a customer will want before the order is even made.
“We know our customers,’’ Cortino said. “That’s the kind of relationship we have with them.’’
Cortino’s uncle and aunt – Joseph and Maria Anna – run and operate the restaurant today. It’s a continuation of the Cortino name and legacy in the Valley, all of which began over 70 years ago at the start of one of the more consequential periods in U.S. history.
It’s when the Cortinos of Chicago found a new home they’ve never left, with Mercedes as their base point. Cortino’s Italian Restaurant is located at 3812 E. Business 83 in Mercedes.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos