Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Restaurant Is Little Town's New Year's Eve Tradition

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Restaurant Is Little Town's New Year's Eve Tradition

Article excerpt

WINDBER, Pa. - This little town in Somerset County has been losing population since the peak of coal mining. But on Graham Avenue, tucked among houses, a church and an old Italian social club, there's Rizzo's, a restaurant established in 1937, where today, even in a town of fewer than 5,000, the restaurant pulls in more than 800 reservations every year for New Year's Eve.

Customers visit for the veal-, eggplant- and chicken Parmesan or spaghetti with golf ball-sized meatballs. They're here for mozzarella sticks breaded in-house, the best-selling steak tips, or the house-special chicken Captiva, with its creamy mustard sauce.

In a town that's been hollowed out by a changing economy, Rizzo's maintains a sense of community: a giant, welcoming, lively one. Depending on the day, from three to 10 family members will work at the 250-seat restaurant, from expediter Dominick Rizzo - who goes by Butch - in his 60s, who's worked in the kitchen for over 40 years, to sauce maker and general manager Dominick Chippie, 40, who has worked in the front and back of the house since he was 16.

Dom Chippie's daughters Talia and Sienna also work here: Sienna has already been learning how to make carrot cake and cannoli, and she knows the secret recipes for the steak and marinara sauces. Sienna doesn't even try red sauce at other restaurants anymore - she calls it "foreign sauce" - though her sister does.

The spirit of Mildred "Millie" Rizzo infuses the place - even though she's likely sitting in her upstairs apartment watching the stock market report. The oldest member of the family at 96, her apartment is accessed by a staircase across from the stove in the kitchen.

Mrs. Rizzo, who retired from restaurant work long ago, is most proud of the pasta dish and she's glad that after all these years, it's still the place in town "where people get together," she said.

A tie to Pittsburgh is Nick Rizzo - a third-generation Rizzo, one of the few in his clan who isn't currently working in his family's restaurant. But he was a busboy there and worked on the line during high school and college summers. He's the former general manager of the handful of restaurants formerly owned by Yves Carreau of the now defunct Big Y Group, and he's been bartending at a pop-up spot as he awaits the opening of a new restaurant where he has accepted a management job.

Back in the kitchen in Windber, a cook like Brent Blough might be making meatballs, while another such as Sonny Wright stirs the vat of sauce. "It changes throughout the day," Marie Chippie said about the sauce. She's Butch's sister and said she's semi-retired from Rizzo's. What she calls "new sauce" starts the night, and it changes in its complexity throughout service, she says.

In the week between Christmas and New Year's, the lighted tree anchors the host stand, while paper snowflakes and poinsettias lend the season's cheer to the dining room. The front of the house that starts filling up at 5 p.m. is fastidiously maintained, with its polished family photos, painted tin ceilings, carpeted floors and stained glass. Nearly 20 servers and 12 to 14 cooks will be working New Year's Eve, along with nine handling busing and, likely, all four dishwashers - one who has worked here for more than 20 years.

Most of the staff used to be lifers - or at the very least, they worked here more than a decade. Now, "the circle of people who have worked here for more than 10 years is smaller than those who have worked here two or three," said Norma, the mother of Nick Rizzo in Pittsburgh, who handles the reservations and special events. Nick's father, David, died in 2001.

Dom Chippie acknowledges that even in Windber, hiring and keeping restaurant staff is tough, as it is in Pittsburgh. There aren't enough people in the area, let alone enough of those who want to commit to hard restaurant work. "Staff that stays for two or three years?" he said. "I'll take it."

Many customers book big tables for the New Year, whether they're coming at 5:30 or 9 p. …

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