An offer you can’t refuse
Spurred by downtown success, Celestino’s opens a new pasta and pizza restaurant on East Avenue
It seemed a bit strange at first.
In 1997, directly across from Taylor Hall on the Chico State University campus, a new East Coast-style pizza business, soon to become the busiest and loudest on the block, was born.
Celestino’s Live from New York pizza restaurant appeared as if someone had scooped the shop and its owners, Celestino Gencarelli and cousin Enzo Perri, right out of northern New Jersey and dropped them in the middle of our little college town. Quickly word spread, and the Italian owners and their authentic food began to conquer local polls on pizza popularity.
The shop, decorated with The Godfather and Good Fellas movie posters and portraits of Italian-American celebrities, does a brisk student business. And it’s not just because the HBO hit series The Sopranos coincided with their venture. The likeable pair uses top-quality ingredients to make tasty food—and you can add the standard “fuhgiddabout it” for emphasis.
Now the cousins, who count “family, hard work and good product” as keys to their success, are ready to open another store, Celestino’s Pasta & Pizza, in the busy East Avenue shopping center—a similar-sized shop that will offer more dinner-style meals and delivery as well.
Gercarelli, with his thick Jersey accent and deadpan wit, doesn’t mince words. Perri seems like the talker of the two. If you had to draw comparisons to the Godfather trilogy, as so many young people like to do, you could say Gencarelli plays Luca Brazi to Perri’s Corleone, although it is the former who founded this restaurant dream.
Gencarelli (or Cel—pronounced “Chell"—as his friends call him) originally moved to the West Coast in 1993, opening a pizza place in McKinleyville, near Arcata, with the Humboldt State University college crowd nearby. After expanding to three stores in ‘94, he called his cousin Perri to come west to join him and help run the business.
Gencarelli soon decided to sell those stores and move to the next college town on the map, Chico, where there was a greater student population.
The restaurant’s current location at 101 Salem St. right next to campus had just become available, and the cousins promptly acquired the lease, opening Celestino’s in ‘97. Since then, they have enjoyed success, respect and a warm welcome from the hordes of students and local citizens who pass through the doors like clockwork every day around lunchtime.
Asked what they first thought of Chico, the cousins both say almost at once, “It’s much different … but we already had the culture shock in Arcata.” They say this most recent summer found more local customers in the store and allowed them a better feel for the community.
“It’s kind of nice for the customers to come in and know the person you’re giving your money to,” Perri adds. “They know we spend the extra money for the quality ingredients and we make everything fresh.”
“On the East Coast, every corner has a pizza place, so it’s pretty competitive,” Perri explains. “Out here, it’s all pretty much quality, and there’s no real loyalty—people just go to a different place and expect quality. There’s a lot more vegetarians. … People out here are more health conscious.”
“Yeah, the tomato sauce is supposed to help on prostate cancer,” Gencarelli chimes in.
The men’s large family is originally from Calabria, the province that forms the toe of the boot of southern Italy. The cousins say the area, with its coastal mountains, is similar in geography to Northern California. Their family moved to northern New Jersey and New York in the early 20th century and began running Italian restaurants because it was a popular and easy way for immigrants to get work.
“When you come from another country, you can’t get the jobs, so our family started a business they knew about—cooking,” Perri explains. “The family business works because you have to work so many hours. You bring your wife or your kids in and you cook like you do at home. The quality comes from home. And it’s family, so you can yell at each other.”
“We started working young, so we know the value of a buck—you know what I’m saying?” Gencarelli says with a stern look.
The cousins have worked together since they were 10 years old, a time when they were living about 10 minutes outside of Manhattan ("though that 10 minutes takes an hour ride,” says Perri). About 80 percent of their high school was Italian, and the cousins miss the community as well as their beloved Yankee Stadium, though they try to make it to Pac Bell Park ("second-best park in baseball") when the Yanks are in town.
“A business partnership like ours takes some of the pressure off,” Perri says. “If you have a disagreement, you can yell and scream at each other, maybe wrestle a little—get it out. You don’t get sued. Rather than deal with lawyers, you can call up his mom.” He laughs loudly.
As for their work philosophy, the cousins have always been self-starters and believe in the individual working to get ahead instead of for other employers—they even encourage their own workers to pursue their own businesses … some day.
Gencarelli, a business owner since he was 19, saved enough money to buy the building and now rents it out to seven others. He is married, and the two cousins have settled into homes in Chico. While the lease for the new East Avenue store was expensive (thanks to the large amount of traffic and parking), Perri says they expect the benefits will work in their favor.
“Basically, we still make the same pizza as we did back on the East Coast,” Perri says. “At the new restaurant, it’s still going to be very casual, but we’ll do more pastas, appetizers, grow on what we have already. … You’re watching football, you’ll be able to get a lasagna, wings, maybe alfredo fettuccini delivered to your home. A little something for everybody.”
The cousins explain that the biggest complaint at the downtown location was parking problems near campus, not an issue in the large complex at 1354 East Ave., by Safeway. Delivery, currently a small part of the business, should take on an even greater role at the new store, Perri says.
At the current location, they don’t keep late shop hours in order to avoid the drunken antics of late-night revelers, which is also why they’ve never cared to run a pizza cart downtown ("gotta keep up the quality,” Gencarelli says).
But the cousins do hire lots of part-time students, a work pool they characterize as “more educated than usual,” adding that numerous job applicants walk in every day.
Raymond Semanisin, 31, who now works at the downtown Celestino’s, will be managing the new store.
“These guys are the greatest, best people I’ve ever worked for—it’s like you’re part of a family,” Semanisin says.
He adds that the owners plan to keep things simple and consistent at Celestino’s, and he thinks the new place will be great because parents can order pizza for the kids and dinner meals like calamari or pasta for themselves. The pizza dough for the new restaurant will be pre-made in the current location and taken across town to the new store, but everything else will be made on the spot. Semanisin’s preparing himself for the onslaught of hundreds of Pleasant Valley High School students likely to walk through the doors at lunchtime.
When asked about the secret to good pies, Semanisin says it’s all about the dough and the personal touch.
“In most pizza places, you usually have an assembly line, but we have one guy do the dough-tossing here … which makes it a little harder but it’s got the texture, it’s got the love.”
“We run a real New York place, but people have a misconception about New Yorkers,” Perri says. “They think we’re being rude, but we’re just being more direct. Honest.”
“We get a few people that come in here all the time and want to speak Italian,” Gencarelli adds. “That’s nice, ya know?”
When asked about any greater plans for the future, the brothers are modest.
“A few more stores,” Gencarelli says. “As long as we can keep a handle on it and know that the quality is good. … We don’t want to be like Domino’s.”
Of course, I had to ask about the controversy surrounding the portrayal of Italian-Americans on the The Sopranos. The cousins don’t see anything wrong with it.
“Most Italian-Americans are hard working,” Gencarelli says. “We like that show, that’s our area, where we’re from. That stuff is real.”
“The only people that are offended by it are the mobsters,” Perri laughs. “If anything, with that show it’s the crime that’s the problem: the killers, whether Italian or Irish or whatever, are heroes to the kids.”
Speaking of heroes to the kids, the new Celestino’s store is complete as far as construction goes, and the cousins just need to make sure the staff is ready to for the open date—scheduled right around Labor Day weekend. They expect the store to be busy from the start, so they’re holding off plans for a grand opening party until a bit later.
Fuhgiddabout it, indeed.