The redevelopment of the Aksarben neighborhood and groundwork for future UNO campus expansion threatened to bulldoze Sam and Ann Amato's little restaurant seven years ago.
They and neighboring businessman Nils Anders Erickson fought to survive and enjoy the good times ahead at 64th and Center Streets. They won. After hearing impassioned testimony, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents declined to use eminent domain to force the Amatos and their neighbors to sell their land.
Since then, Amato's Restaurant — with the help of appearances on the TV shows “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Man v. Food Nation” — has gone on to thrive as Aksarben Village sprang up nearby.
Now the future appears to be here, and it's not so fuzzy anymore.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha proposes to build a 7,500-seat hockey arena next door to Amato's. While the proposal is still far from becoming reality, it has Sam Amato wondering: Is the other skate about to drop? Can he stay and cash in, or will he have to cash out and go?
No buyer has come knocking on behalf of the university, although Amato said he would be willing to listen to a good offer. Meanwhile, he has been quipping to regular diners, as they dive into stacks of his famous raspberry-ricotta pancakes or Gut Buster lunch sandwiches, “You're sitting at center ice right now.”
But early indications are that Amato won't be frozen out of his newly hot corner at 6405 Center St. Neither he nor Erickson has heard a word from the university or its private development partner, Scott-Woodbury-Wiegert.
One of the principals, Zach Wiegert, told The World-Herald that current plans call for building the arena and its parking lots on land the university already owns.
“We're not trying to acquire any other pieces of ground around there at all,” Wiegert said.
UNO officials made similar remarks in October. Conceptual drawings back up that view. They show the proposed arena about a block south of Center Street, between 64th Street and Little Papio Creek. The drawings show parking lots stretching to Center Street. But they leave out Amato's restaurant and Erickson's Rainbow Recording Studios.
Amato sounded equal parts enthused and concerned during a recent morning interview at the table he shares with a rotating cast of regulars.
“If they leave me alone, I'll be a great neighbor,” he said. “I'll jump right in with them. I'll make improvements. I'd even take advice from them!”
Amato said his business has tripled since the Food Network and Travel Channel discovered his restaurant, and since Aksarben Village began filling up with shops, apartments, offices, restaurants and a multiplex movie theater. Amato's now is open Wednesday evenings in addition to its Tuesday-through-Sunday breakfast and lunch hours.
Besides the Omaha crowd, foodies from across the nation — and even other countries — have made gastronomical pilgrimages to the restaurant. Amato pointed to a wall-mounted U.S. map festooned with colored pushpins from coast to coast. Each pin represents a hometown of a diner. On an adjoining wall, hand-drawn shapes depict other diners' countries of origin.
“A lot of them want to have pictures taken with me outside by the sign,” Amato said. “It's embarrassing.”
But he does not demur.
Amato and Erickson said that since their initial dust-up they have gotten along well with UNO and the NU Foundation, which has offices at Aksarben Village. They said they never opposed the redevelopment, they just wanted to be treated fairly and have a chance to be a part of the new, improved neighborhood.
Aksarben Village developer Jay Noddle “is doing a great job of promoting it. The apartments, the farmers market, it's just terrific,” Amato said.
As he spoke, two women, friends from their youth in northwest Iowa who met up in Omaha for the recent Bruce Springsteen concert, finished their breakfast and put pushpins in the map for their current hometowns.
Diana McKenna stuck one in Durango, Colo.; Julie Hoffman squeezed one in at Weston, Mo.
Hoffman's daughter lives in an apartment at Aksarben Village. The two friends had popped into Amato's because it looked like a local breakfast joint.
They walked in and “it smelled like Iowa,” McKenna said.
“We were just praising Omaha because they built up this yuppie development over here, when the (Ak-Sar-Ben horse) racetrack was no longer viable, but they left this old world cafe here,” she said.
How much better, McKenna said, could a day be?
“Springsteen at night, and Italian omelets in the morning.”
The prospect of an arena next door has Amato asking a similar question. Now 71, he would entertain an offer from the university for the restaurant and property. But he's also begun to think of passing the business on to his son, and would love to be able to hand off a growing restaurant in a growing entertainment district.
“That would almost be too sweet,” Amato said. “Could I be that lucky?”
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