A cable network has added bite to a Girard Estate restaurant with an impressive overhaul.
One wonders if novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lamented “There are no second acts in American lives,” would adopt the same philosophy for restaurants. The personnel at La Stanza, 2001 W. Oregon Ave., hopes its recent appearance on the Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” proves good fortune can lead to great fortunes.
Desiring a new identity, the 12-year-old establishment served as the site for the second episode of the show’s second season. Hard times had concocted enough woes to cause the Italian eatery’s management to search for assistance.
“We had nowhere else to turn,” manager Lucia Tripodi said before Friday’s dinner service. “The next step was probably to lock the door.”
John Tripodi, Lucia’s father, became involved with the location seven years ago as the ground floor’s partial owner and the overseer of The Loft, the second-floor nightclub. The former chief owner’s legal troubles led to a proprietorship transfer and the assumption of $600,000 in debt for the patriarch. Primarily a construction worker, he placed his daughter in charge in January 2009. Her relative inexperience, a controversy over serving minors alcohol and a sluggish economy caused La Stanza to struggle to attract bodies and retain dollars.
Michele Tripodi, John Tripodi’s sister, completed an Internet application for “Restaurant: Impossible” in February. A phone interview with Lucia Tripodi and a stop at the restaurant led to a March announcement that filming with chef and host Robert Irvine would begin in May.
“My aunt’s decision made me a bit nervous,” Lucia Tripodi, a New Jersey resident and native of the 3000 block of South Smedley Street, said, “but I knew we had to keep up with the new look of restaurants.”
Interviews and service observations comprised May 3, with Irvine arriving the next day. Fond of being forward, he immediately critiqued the ambience, the food and Lucia Tripodi.
“I had watched the show before, so I expected his bluntness,” the 25-year-old said, revealing she had seen the space as “an open cave” with no true division between the banquet and lounge areas.
The show gave Irvine two days and $10,000 to modify the space’s atmosphere. Food analysis involved the fewest suggestions, as chef Marco Decotiis noted the on-camera commentary differed from other perceptions Irvine offered.
“It’s television so I know there are two versions,” the Canadian native and 16th-and-Ritner-streets resident said. “Robert said our food is not bad, but the show sort of made it seem so.”
Irvine spent little airtime in the kitchen, proof that menu tweaks did not top his concerns. He talked with DeCotiis about new dishes, including a tapas menu to allow patrons to share plates. The visitor expressed no qualms with their existing menu, tabbing the tapas, also known as appetizers, as means to enable people to eat more and to generate more income.
“The Food Network told me it had looked into me and realized I’m a good cook,” Decotiis said of knowing he would not suffer the most slings.
Irvine burdened Lucia Tripodi with most of his gripes, labeling her the main problem. He assigned that title primarily because of her refusals to taste the food, communicate enough with DeCotiis and arrive before noon.
“I was scared to take over the restaurant,” she said Friday, adding her role led to the interruption of her college career. “With our situation, I had to take the help.”
Irvine dished out aid instantly, helping her to become more familiar with the fare by having her guess the costs of menu items. Her struggles caused him to become more adamant about her need to learn her job’s full responsibilities.
“I know the point of the show was to make people feel bad for us,” she said of her depiction as someone with a fledgling handle on matters. “I wish it would have discussed our past more to let people know we had so much to overcome.”
Concerned with the future, Irvine had the restaurant emptied, and work began his first evening. Eager to help his protégé, he woke her early the next morning to convince her of his severity. He found his workers behind schedule but left them to their tasks to prepare her for a television promotion. From the kitchen, she made a confident pitch that earned plaudits.
“That’s the person I want running this restaurant,” Irvine said.
“It was frightening at first, kind of nerve-racking,” Lucia Tripodi said Friday of her spokeswoman role.
Renovations have been taking place at La Stanza, chef-owner Frank DeCotis' restaurant at 20th Street and Oregon Avenue. Although I reviewed La Stanza exactly six years ago, I felt a return visit was in order. I wanted to try the new menu. And what a delightful, refined menu it is. Meanwhile, the menu also has been renovated.
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