Racanelli’s New York Italian kicked off the new year with a new million-dollar look.
Until recently, the former Pizza & Brew restaurant at 851 Central Park Ave. in Greenburgh was closed while undergoing a $1.2 million dollar renovation. The family said it’s the most significant change since the restaurant opened its doors in 1974. The new model of the established family business aims to please area customers and pay homage to the Racanelli restaurant tradition in Westchester County.
More than 40 years ago, Martino Racanelli, a native of southern Italy, ventured into the restaurant business with his brothers Frank and Gennaro “Gino” Racanelli. They co-founded the original Pizza & Brew at 85 Knollwood Road in Greenburgh in 1971. Later they added the location on Central Avenue and a restaurant group, SDB Holding Company Inc., grew from there.
Eventually the Racanelli family ran 12 restaurants within the metropolitan area. Early on, Martino’s sons were called on to work in the family business.
“It was great way to grow up,” said John Racanelli, one of Martino’s sons and co-founder of the newly formed First Generation Hospitality L.L.C. said. “We learned life lessons and the value of the dollar.”
Martino instilled a hard work ethic in his sons, an asset they applied in other professions before returning to the family enterprise. John went into the commercial real estate industry, worked under billionaire hotelier and casino developer Steve Wynn in Las Vegas, and then became president of Racanelli Development, a real estate development company based in New York. His brother, Martin “Marty” Racanelli, became an attorney specializing in corporate law, intellectual property, management, and finance and information technology. Their brother Alex Racanelli never left the family restaurant business.
Alex helped run the Racanelli-owned restaurants. He said he treasured the experience of receiving daily knowledge from his dad.
“It was an honor to be with him. Respecting him in the new restaurant is important,” Alex said.
He said he knew his dad planned to upgrade the Central Avenue eatery, but in April 2011, Martino died unexpectedly.
His sons Marty and John returned to the business to help maintain their father’s legacy. But the extended family, left with multiple restaurants and differing opinions about what to do with them, had to resolve disputes over family members’ ownership stakes.
Rose Racanelli, Martino’s widow, and three of their four sons sued in state Supreme Court in Westchester to dissolve the extended family’s several restaurant companies and recoup for the late founder’s estate any misappropriated funds. The case was settled out of court in 2012.
“Over the years the family evolved,” John Racanelli said of the lawsuit. “That happens. You create your own identity and after 10, 20, 30 years it’s difficult to keep going in the same direction.”
In late 2012, the family sold the upscale Spiga Ristorante business and property at 718 Central Ave. for $2.85 million. Ownership of the family’s first restaurant on Knollwood Road went to Frank and Gennaro Racanelli, while the second generation of Racanelli brothers took over the Central Avenue eatery.
With the ownership issue settled, the brothers decided a fresh start was exactly what the family and restaurant needed. They signed a new 25-year lease for Racanelli’s New York Italian and moved forward with the plan to renovate.
The fixtures the original restaurant was known for were removed. The old dining booths and the vintage Tiffany light fixtures are gone, along with the tabletops covered with dated newspaper clippings. The new interior creates a more sophisticated setting with reclaimed wood, updated lighting and wall sconces and a new bar.
The Racanelli brothers took great care to honor their father throughout the revamped space. Old photos of Martino as a boy hang in the restaurant entryway and at the bar. Some of the founders’ original décor, including a 40-year-old Pizza & Brew sign and the original restaurant’s familiar striped stools have been kept as carefully placed interior accents. They also reassure old customers that the Racanelli family is still there.
When the brothers took over Racanelli’s New York Italian, they brought in Mount Vernon native Nick Mautone as an investing partner. A former managing partner of Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, Mautone was familiar with the Pizza & Brew brand. He and the Racanellis formed First Generation Hospitality L.L.C.
“The concept is honest with who we are, New York Italians,” said Mautone, who had a large part in creating the new artisanal-themed Italian menu. “That’s a clear distinction.” The new brand, he said, aims to clearly define the difference between Italians in New York and other Italian-American enclaves such as Chicago or Boston.
Patrizio D’Andrea, a native of Florence, Italy, is head chef and Tony Diaz, who started working at the Pizza & Brew 30 years ago, remains as pizza chef.
The new owners are watching to see how customers react to the change. Racanelli’s New York Italian is a “prototype,” said Mautone. The partners plan to launch another restaurant in the tristate area within the next year and eventually expand as a national chain into southern and western states.
“We studied the market and no one is expanding that Italian-based concept,” John Racanelli said. He said they want their new restaurant group to reach a level “somewhere between Mario Batali and Olive Garden.”