Treating everyone right: Mike’s Court offers family atmosphere, varied menu

First-time customers to Mike’s Court in Altoona will not be welcomed immediately with a menu, but instead with a basketball.

Each new visitor is asked to sign one of many basketballs that line the walls of the bar section, and owner Mike Luciano said he’s filled up more than 160 of them with the signatures.

“I wanted to make sure I treated everyone right,” Luciano said.

The balls fit right in with the rest of the decor at Mike’s Court. The walls are lined with autographed sports memorabilia – photos and jerseys and pennants – much of which Luciano gathered early on in the restaurant’s life.

Mike’s Court opened in 1993, and the first collectible that went up on the wall was a signed photo of famed Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, which Luciano acquired simply by writing a letter. Items from other famous sports figures, like football legend Mike Ditka, were added to the walls through similar efforts.

But the signed basketballs are the centerpiece.

“We have new people come in and ask, ‘Are those all famous people?'” he said. “I say, ‘Yeah, they are. That’s you, the customer.'”

Luciano also works to ensure that Mike’s Court is welcoming to families and children, just like Henry’s Tavern, the bar that preceded him at that location.

Luciano said his father was a regular at Henry’s, and as a kid, he would often find himself in a booth there.

The opportunity to open his own place at the same address came, and he declined it, as he was getting ready for a finance job.

The chance came around again, however, and that second time, he took it.

“I had nothing to lose,” Luciano said.

The bar only serves beer. And an addition Luciano added onto the back of the building provides a dining room away from the bar area, which is great for families who might be leery about bring their kids to a sports bar.

Making Mike’s Court a family affair extends to his own, he said. His wife, Shelly, is also co-owner and works as a server and behind the bar. She makes a lot of the food too, including seasonal items like the turkey dinners that will be offered beginning later this month.

“She’s been such an important part of what we do there,” Luciano said.

Sports are the centerpiece to Mike’s Court, and the menu reflects a collection of foods that are perfect for enjoying while watching the game. Among the most popular dishes are roast beef sandwiches, huge baked subs and nachos, stacked high.

Luciano said he originally offered just a couple of sandwiches and the nachos, but over the years, the menu has blossomed to include personal pan pizzas, an array of appetizers and salads.

He partners with a number of local companies for meats, rolls and other necessities for the menu, and using local ingredients is something he said is important to him.

Some of the dishes were inspired by those close to him; for example, the roast beef. Luciano said his mother would bring a similar sandwich home from a visit to his aunt: the meat fresh and tender and cheese melted on top.

“As the menu grew and grew, I remembered my mother,” he said.

Bill Mallory of Altoona and his wife, Sandy, come to Mike’s Court every Wednesday, and he said he’s known Luciano since he was a teenager.

“He couldn’t even drive when I first knew him,” Mallory said with a laugh.

Aside from the memories, though, it’s the food and the atmosphere that keep them coming back. Sandy Mallory said Luciano “reserves” the same table for them each week.

The baked Italian hoagie, she said, is her favorite, and it’s the “best around.”

“It’s just a good place to eat,” Bill Mallory said.

Plus, Sandy Mallory said, they’re always among friends.

“This is like ‘Cheers,'” she said. “Everybody knows your name.”

Luciano said making the place feel like home is important to him.

And his regulars, he said, are like family.

“I know a lot of these people, and they become an important part of me and my place here,” he said. “That’s the fuel that keeps us going.”

A number of drink specials and things on the menu are named after people who frequent Mike’s Court. Some of the decor on the walls has been donated by customers, and photos of some of them are hanging alongside the autographs.

Luciano said he also pulls ideas from customers for new menu items and updates, too.

“You always have to reinvent yourself, and it’s the hardest thing to do,” he said. “It’s easy to become stagnant.”

Though the collection of familiar faces is large, Luciano said he’s drawing in a crowd of people from out of town, too, with a little help from the Internet.

Mike’s Court is tucked away in Altoona, but GPS systems allow people to find it more easily, and websites like Trip Advisor and Yelp show a stream of positive reviews for the food.

In tandem, these attract visitors to Altoona and those just passing through on a trip elsewhere, people who would never have come to Mike’s Court even a decade ago. Luciano said he’s filled 40 tables in the past year this way.

“That’s been a little tool for me,” he said.

Whether it’s a long-time customer, though, or a first-time visitor, Luciano said he is always “grateful for them coming,” and makes sure to tell them so.

“I’d always hear from my parents to be grateful for what people do for you,” he said. “So I hope I never miss thanking anyone who comes through the door.”

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7466.