Moonlite Cafe shines at heart of neighborhood

Owner Luciano Defelice opened Moonlite Cafe on Brookline Boulevard in 1997. Photo by Seth Culp-Ressler.

Owner Luciano Defelice opened Moonlite Cafe on Brookline Boulevard in 1997. Photo by Seth Culp-Ressler.

By: Carley Thieret

Luciano Defelice, known by most as Lou, moved to the United States from Pizzoferrato, Italy — three hours east of Rome — in 1983.

“And I’m never leaving Brookline,” Lou says with a toothy smile.

Lou is the owner of Brookline restaurant and bar Moonlite Café, where he combines his love for Italian food and culture with the neighborhood that he considers his home in Pittsburgh.

Lou met his wife Toni in Brookline. He enjoys seeing other young couples migrate to the area to start a family, just as he did.

Lou’s sister was living in Brookline when he arrived in the United States. Because he didn’t know anything about Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, he decided to trust his sister and the positive things she had to say about Brookline.

“I liked the community, it mirrored my town in Italy, so that’s why I stayed,” he says.

In 1997, he decided to open a restaurant on Brookline Boulevard that displayed his Italian culture. Although Lou has made Brookline his home, his Italian accent remains strong. It’s evident especially when he asks customers, “What are we drinking tonight?” He has evolved into a “yinzer” in his 22 years in Pittsburgh. The walls of Moonlite are decorated with Steelers memorabilia, and Sunday game days are Lou’s favorite at the lounge.

“Lou wears his jersey every Sunday, he talks football with the guys at the bar and every TV is turned to the Steelers game,” a regular says while winking at Lou.

The bar is crowded on a Steelers’ Sunday, with customers enjoying the game, drinks, community and food. Among the Terrible Towels hanging, there are old pictures of Lou and his family. He may be a Pittsburgher now, but the food served at Moonlite reflects his Italian heritage.

He is often found cooking authentic Italian recipes in the back. His favorite thing to make for regular customers is stuffed peppers with scallops in a garlic butter sauce, something he calls “The Mother-In-Law.”

Lou has seen new customers migrate to his business in recent years as the landscape of Brookline changes. Lou has noticed an increase in young professionals moving to the area, looking for a place to start their family. He has noticed more people moving from out of state as well as coming from the suburbs to be closer to downtown.

“It’s closer for people to work. Downtown Pittsburgh is waking up and so is Brookline,” he says. Although younger people are beginning to come to Brookline, Lou and other business owners saw struggle in previous years despite the growth of the community. The recently-completed reconstruction of Brookline Boulevard nearly put Lou out of business. As the work dragged on, Lou had to lay several employees off.

“My wife Toni had to do a lot more around the restaurant, ‘Honey do this, honey do that’ type of thing. I did a lot more cooking, my son cooked and bartended,” Lou says.

Businesses were not given a tax break during the project, which limited traffic. Lou explained that he used to get a nice crowd for dinner, but since the construction, his business has evolved into more of a bar.

“The construction of the Boulevard was the hardest time my business faced in 18 years. It was to the point I thought we would have to close,” Lou says.

The strength of community is what Lou believes kept him in business. Locals are loyal to the Moonlite Cafe and his family. He has seen an increase of business from young people, especially those in their 20s and early 30s.

Lou explained that young people from Brookline are getting tired of going to South Side on the weekend and prefer to stay within the neighborhood to experience the nightlife there.

His wife Toni agreed, explaining that there is less trouble from locals in Brookline, where the same regulars gather every weekend to have a few drinks and enjoy each other’s company.

Lou enjoys having them. “I see Brookline growing. It’s a place for people to come, work, live and have a life with their family. A lot of people don’t know about the area, but the ones that are coming keep coming back, and they are here to stay.”

Video By: Kayla Casavant