Not many restaurants stick around to celebrate their first anniversary, let alone their 30th.
“It’s widely known that half of restaurants fail within their first year,” says Ray Bartolomucci, owner of Strizzi’s restaurant. “Another 50% fail during the second. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to survive here in Pleasanton, for 30 years, including through two recessions. It’s a testament to our great guests and to our outstanding employees.”
Bartolomucci loves to talk about the history of the restaurant, as it brings back great memories of his maternal grandparents, Luciano and Assunta Strizzi, for whom the three Strizzi’s restaurants are named. “They came from Italy and settled in Greensburg, Penn., where they opened L. Strizzi Deli Shoemaker Shop in the 1920s. I was born there, and at age 3 or 4, moved to California, but a few years later, we went back because my grandmother was ill. I used to help my grandfather make sausage in the basement. I was the grinder! He would make his own wine, and also his own sauces, and he would use the empty wine bottles for sauce. I always dreamed of making and bottling my own sauces one day.”
Back in California four years later, Bartolomucci began helping his grandfather, who was a chef at a Beverly Hills restaurant, cook and prep food while still in high school. “My uncle also had a restaurant in the LA area, and I helped wash dishes, make pasta, bus and wait tables. At an early age, I also enjoyed cooking with my mother, Jennie Strizzi, in her small kitchen – she was an amazing cook. With all of this experience cooking, I decided I wanted to work in the hospitality industry and really wanted to go to Cornell, but couldn’t afford it. Cal Poly Pomona was the only university in the state to offer a four-year degree in hospitality.”
After college, he had quite the whirlwind career in the corporate hotel and restaurant world, beginning with Steak and Ale. At one point, he got involved with Marriott, helping develop a series of new hotels in Houston and Seattle.
His career took him back to California, and in 1986, he opened his first Strizzi’s in downtown San Leandro. That first year, he had 12 employees. Now, there are 140 at his seven restaurants, which include three Strizzi’s restaurants, located in Pleasanton, Livermore and Fremont, three Rigatoni’s, located in Dublin, Hayward and Castro Valley, and Rigatoni’s Red Smoke Grill in Pleasanton.
A few years after opening his initial restaurant in San Leandro, Bartolomucci wanted a bigger space and an open kitchen. He found the perfect spot in downtown Pleasanton. Success would prove a matter of luck and not listening to advice from the bank where he obtained the SBA loan that made this 30-year ride possible. “The bank told me I was crazy to open in downtown Pleasanton, which was kind of a ghost town at the time,” he said. “Stoneridge Mall was just opening up; they wanted me there. But I picked downtown. We were busy from day one and we’ve been at the corner of Main and St. Mary Streets in downtown Pleasanton since Nov. 29, 1989.”
His was the first restaurant to be granted a permit for outdoor dining, a feat in that time, when worries over having outside alcohol were top of mind with the city council. “They didn’t want alcohol on the sidewalks,” he says, “But the mayor (Ken Mercer) supported my idea about outside tables and I convinced him to grant me a six-month permit. At first, they only allowed tables on the side, but I wanted tables in front. I made the case that wine complements our food: we are not a bar! After that, other restaurants started to have outdoor tables as well, but we were the first.”
Along the way, the mayor of Livermore approached him about opening a restaurant in downtown, which was beginning to undergo a renaissance. Fortunately for Bartolomucci, John and Mike Madden ate often at his Pleasanton restaurant and offered to buy a building in Livermore, where they would offer him a long-term lease. The Livermore location opened in 1998, where he was able to have outdoor dining as well. All the while, never one to rest, he had already begun opening a new series of restaurants, called Rigatoni’s.
The first Rigatoni’s was opened in Castro Valley in 1996, with a second in Dublin in 1999, followed by a Hayward location in 2007. Two years ago, he took over Red Smoke Grill in Pleasanton, mostly to use it for catering. “We do a lot of catering at wineries, including Concannon and McGrail.”
Local wines are very dear to Bartolomucci’s heart, and 90% of the new wine list features Livermore wineries, running between $8 and $10 per glass.
“When I go out to eat, it just doesn’t feel right to pay $18 for a bowl of pasta, and $17 for a glass of wine,” he says. And Strizzi’s doesn’t charge for corkage.
What’s the secret to success, besides being the right amount of lucky? “People. I was raised in this industry, and success is a result of the people in the organization. Success is getting things done through others who share in your values and culture. I have 15 to 20 employees who have been here with me for 33 years. Some started as dishwashers in 1986, and now run entire kitchens. The team is doing a fantastic job – they have passion for their work and we share the same values.”
While he’s understandably proud of the 33-year old company he’s built, and points to his employees as the number one reason for continued success, Bartolomucci always comes back to another fundamental aspect of this remarkably long run: good fortune. “God has richly blessed me.”
To celebrate Pleasanton Strizzi’s 30th anniversary, all three locations are offering $30 specials Oct. 4-24. They include a $30 dinner for two menu, featuring a choice of soup or salad and two lighter entrée options, and a $30 entrée and starter option, showcasing full size portions of some of Strizzi’s most popular dishes. For more information on Bartolomucci’s restaurants, visit www.strizzis.com, www.rigatonis.com or www.rigatonisredsmokegrill.com.