In with the old and new

Recipe for success in restaurant business remains the same

“Ready for the Oven” at Luigis’ Pizza

“Ready for the Oven” at Luigis’ Pizza

Photo By Jeremy Sykes

The restaurant business suffers no fools. It’s notorious for long hours, tough working conditions and quick closures if an establishment doesn’t measure up. So, what does it take to succeed for 40-plus years? According to owners of two of Sacramento’s long-established restaurants, Luigi’s and Club Pheasant, it’s family.

Celso Brida, co-owner of Luigi’s Pizza explains. “The other day we had four generations eating in here,” Brida said. Brida, known to his long-time customers as Luigi, along with his brother Sergio, are co-owners of Luigi’s Pizza on Stockton Boulevard. Purchased by Brida’s father in 1965, the family became the fourth owners of the pizza parlor begun in 1953 by a group of New Yorkers.

What’s kept the family in business all these years? “I like working with food and keeping people happy,” Brida said. “People know me and my product and just keep coming back.” His father made bread in Italy. The dough at Luigi’s is still handmade with a rolling pin then baked in a gas and brick oven until the thin crust is crispy. Luigi’s biggest seller? “They’re meat-eaters around here,” says Brida. “And we use true Italian salami and Portuguese linguica. Plus we top all the pizzas with oregano.”

Luigi’s recently underwent a minor facelift with new windows and a paint job. An ad from the 1950s suggests patrons “Get Pizzacated at your next TV party.”

Besides 19 kinds of pizza, Luigi’s offers spaghetti with homemade sauce, baked lasagna, cannelloni and salads. Brida makes the salad dressings and his brother makes the sauces. So what’s the secret of their success? “Hard work,” he said. 3800 Stockton Boulevard, (916) 456-0641.

Club Pheasant opened in 1935 after Luisa and George Palamidessi purchased the building and the surrounding land. The original building was built in 1912 and was used by UC Davis as an agronomy lab.

Photo By Jeremy Sykes

Known originally as the Hideaway Café, the West Sacramento restaurant now serves between 300 and 500 meals a day, but Peter Palamidessi, co-owner and grandson of the founders, remembers why the initial moniker was apt. “I remember my aunts telling me they would sit outside at nighttime and see headlights coming down the road and they would run inside and say, ‘A car is coming—maybe they’ll stop for dinner.’”

Club Pheasant is still a family business. Three grandchildren of the founders run the 200-seat family-style restaurant. Five of their children also help, making them the fourth generation to work in the business.

Club Pheasant is famous for its garlic steak sandwich. But the menu offers a full array of pastas, chicken dishes, steak and seafood. All dinners come with soup, salad, coffee, tea or milk and ice cream.

The atmosphere is family-oriented and service is attentive. During my meal, I was seated for three minutes max, when the hostess hustled over and inquired if I’d been helped.

Palamidessi attributes the bustling lunch business to lunch meetings of the Rotary Club, West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce and other groups. How does he characterize his customers? “Down to earth, blue collar, hardworking family people,” he said. “We have generations of families coming here.”

Recently a husband and wife who had their first date at the club returned to celebrate their 50th anniversary. And it’s not just customers who are regulars. “We have a lot of people who have worked for us for a long time,” Palamidessi said. “Some of them have been here 25 years. It says something when people stay and work with you that long.” 2525 Jefferson Boulevard, West Sacramento, (916) 371-9530.

Across the river in downtown Sacramento, Brian Ballinger hasn’t been open long enough to have garnered this level of commitment from employees or customers. As owner and chef of four-month-old Cervantes Tapas and Italian Bistro, he’s just beginning to chase his windmills. He and his partner Fred Diaz have gambled it all on their new venture. Ballinger admits it’s been hard.

The location on 21st Street, though getting busier, is still slow. Ballinger hopes the new condominiums and offices in the neighborhood will help. Still he understands that it’s relationships that count. “We’re trying to make everyone feel welcome—singles, couples, families and groups of friends,” Ballinger said.

Photo By Jeremy Sykes

Cervantes is off to a good start. The space is perfect; floor to ceiling windows opening onto the street provide a European feel. Ballinger repainted with bright, fresh colors and added crisp tablecloths and new silverware. Soon he will add live piano music and opera.

Tapas are traditionally shared with friends and served with wine or beer. Cervantes currently offers 14 tapas but the list is growing. While tapas are generally smallish, those at Cervantes are generous.

My companion and I began the selection process over a pitcher of luscious sangria. We chose the zucchini fritters coated with paprika flour served with white wine lemon aioli and the asparagus wrapped in prosciutto served with marinara and balsamic drizzle. Both met with satisfaction.

For entrees, we settled on linguini with clams bathed in white wine garlic sauce and the shrimp and scallops in white wine saffron sauce. Both were yummy. We split the sweet and satisfying homemade tiramisu. 1119 21st Street, (916) 441-1662.

Sometimes success isn’t what you expect. At 58 Degrees and Holding, the recently opened wine bar and bistro on 18th Street between Capitol Avenue and L Street, Manager Jeff Back is surprised by his clientele.

Billed as a definitive wine destination where customers can shop, sip and even store wine, the classy new spot offers food, wine tasting and wine education. There are two 58 Degrees and Holding venues in Tucson, where the steady customers are older professionals.

“What we didn’t expect was the large late-night crowd we’ve been getting in here,” Back said. Back indicated that the crowd at 58 Degrees does vary. First the professionals show up after work. Then a slightly older dinner crowd appears to savor the small plates, salads, paninis and daily specials. As the night evolves, Back says the crowd gets younger. It’s not what he anticipated, but he isn’t complaining.

As a certified sommelier, Back is eager to begin using his extensive education to answer customers’ wine questions. He anticipates that as business grows, boosted by tastings, he’ll be able to offer help and forge deeper connections with customers.

Back admits that wine, not food, is really the focus of the establishment. “We focus on fantastic values and have wines from around the world,” he said. “The menu is pretty simple, mirroring the sister establishments in Arizona, but here we have access to more fresh ingredients that aren’t available in Tucson.”

Still, the menu is a delight. I caught up with Proprietor Ian Smith at 58 Degrees, and he offered his advice on wine and food pairings. With the griddled Angus beef hanger steak, heirloom squash risotto, truffle oil and red pepper cream cheese, he suggested a 2004 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel. To accompany the herb-marinated chicken breast, goat cheese potato gratin and seasonal veggies, he suggested a 2005 Melville Estate Pinot Noir.

Want to learn more? Stop by, browse and ask questions. 1217 18th Street, (916) 442-5858.