If you've ever eaten at a restaurant at 788 Commerce Street in Thornwood, Jack Palevic and Stephanie Noll want to hear from you. They are, respectively, an owner and the manager of Risotto, the small Italian restaurant that opened on the site in February last year.
"We knew that other restaurants had been here going back to the 1970s," Noll said. "Someone told us that the building itself was historic. I thought tracing our history would start a wonderful dialogue with people locally, many of whom ate at whatever preceded our place."
So far, her research results have been tantalizing. Before Risotto there was an Italian restaurant called La Casa Nostra, a.k.a. Crocitto's (the name of an owner). Mexican restaurant South of the Border preceded that. An Italian restaurant, Madera's, named for the chef-owner Don Madera, served patrons into the late 1980s
"I didn't think we'd find anything before 1970, and then this gift landed thanks to a woman in her 80s, a friend of one of our regulars who remembered eating here when she was a girl," Noll said. "She came back the next day with a photograph from 1939. The restaurant was called Redlings, and the photo showed members of a wedding party."
Not just any wedding party, it turns out, but that of Julius Aucello who was marrying Elizabeth Szecker. Aucello, who died in June 2001 at age 88, was a much honored community leader and patron of local performing arts. The owner of Aucello Electric in Thornwood, N.Y., he founded the first choir at the old Holy Rosary Church and the Pleasantville Music Theater. He helped start the Pleasantville Ambulance Corps, was a 4th Degree Member of Knights of Columbus and Past Grand Knight of the St. Dominic Council, helped string Thornwood Christmas lights, the list goes on. Thornwood once named him its Man of the Year.
"It was so gratifying to find that at least one of the restaurants in this building had been very much a part of the community," Noll said.
Researching art and architecture is natural to Noll, who majored in art history and had conducted similar research in Long Island. Both she and Palevic had worked at Amalfi in Briarcliff Manor.
"Being at Amalfi was like being part of a large extended family," Palevic said. "I began as many others did – as a busboy. Over time I worked my way up, learning the business, the profession the right way."
When Palevic, who was also teaching in the BOCES culinary arts program in Valhalla, decided to start his own restaurant, he looked for something small that could be transformed into intimate and homey. "I wanted to be able to stand in the middle of the dining room and see all my customers, see everything that was going on," he said.
He took Noll and two other Amalfi stalwarts – Juan Culcay, now Risotto's head chef, and cook Rutilio Diaz – with him. Culcay and Diaz are part owners of the new business.
"We completely remade the place, laying tile in the floor and the lower part of the walls, stuccoing the brick facade, clearing an outside dining area and planting a few herbs and vegetables and such for our own kitchen garden," Palevic said.
After being open a little more than a year, Risotto has already found a loyal customer base that comes back time and time again."Like this group of older gentlemen who so clearly enjoy each other's company," Noll said. "It's so nice to see that every week, they like to meet here."
What memories, and photographs, do you have of restaurants at 788 Commerce Street?