Sections Supplements

Coast to Coast

Tradition and Innovation Make Tony and Penny’s a Hidden Gem
Tony & Penny's Sign

The sign isn’t visible from the center of town, but most residents can point the way to Tony & Penny’s.

Tony and Penny’s restaurant and banquet hall is tucked away on a quiet side street in Ludlow, not far from Turnpike Exit 7, but in many ways miles removed from the bustle on Center Street.

Still, the locals know the way, and they often point visitors in the right direction.

That could be one reason why the venture is going strong after nearly 30 years in business. Its owner, Portuguese emigré Antonio Sebastiao, said the restaurant side of the business is steady, while requests for banquet and catering services are brisk, to say the least. Both off-site and on-site, Tony and Penny’s caters anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, corporate dinners and meetings, and other events, including weddings, which in the Portuguese tradition, said Sebastiao, can be very large affairs — sometimes with 200 to 500 guests.

“Right now, we can only handle about 20% of the calls we get,” Sebastiao said. “We try to bring quality food to the table, especially seafood, and make sure that our customers are getting their money’s worth — I think that’s part of the reason for our success.”

Sebastiao’s own story is one that illustrates the American Dream. He came to the U.S. at 21, taking a job in a factory earning just a few dollars a week.

“I couldn’t support my family on that,” he said, “and I’d always wanted to have a restaurant.”

He started mulling ideas for an eatery, using the Americanized versions of his name and that of his wife, Piedade.

History in the Making

Tony and Penny’s opened its doors on East Street in Ludlow in 1980, at the time a small pizza shop. Five years later, Sebastiao moved the business to its current location on Canterbury Street, formerly the town’s Italian Club, built in 1936.

He purchased the building in 1983 and spent two years remodeling, creating a small dining area with a hometown feel, a take-out window, and a larger banquet area for private functions, which can accommodate about 220 people.

Sebastiao also revamped the menu to offer finer dining and a number of Portuguese selections to honor his heritage and that of a large faction of Ludlow’s population. Today, the menu has been expanded to include American and Italian offerings as well, reflecting Sebastiao’s new home and the history of his restaurant.

The combination has proven successful. What began as a small mom-and-pop shop has grown to become one of the busiest banquet facilities in the region.
“Ludlow is not a town with a big, busy center,” he said. “We don’t have big retailers drawing people in from other places. What we do have are people — residents who are our fans and keep us going.”

Many of those residents are frequent visitors to Tony and Penny’s, either as banquet guests or Friday night diners. Recently, Sebastiao said the regulars have found themselves waiting for a table more frequently, and though they hate to wait, it’s a clear sign of the restaurant’s growing popularity.

“When I first opened, I thought this place was too big,” Sebastiao remembers. “Now, sometimes I think it needs to be five times bigger.”

Fine Kettle of Fish

Regulars often patronize Tony and Penny’s for the authentic Portuguese cuisine, including traditional dishes such as Mariscada (half a lobster, clams, scallops, and shrimp in a traditional Portuguese spicy red sauce, served in a iron pot) and Bacalhau (salted cod topped with roasted peppers and extra virgin olive oil).

However, those specialties have also attracted customers from across the Northeast, many looking not only for Portuguese dishes, but also for fresh, innovative seafood.

Sebastiao explained that seafood is a staple of the Portuguese palate, and therefore Tony and Penny’s regularly offers a wider array of fish and shellfish than most eateries.

He listed among them lobster (usually found in the front of the restaurant, giving children a thrill from their oversized tank), scallops, cherrystone and littleneck clams, cod, schrod, and mussels, often with a unique mix of spices and grains such as saffron, chorizo, and red pepper.

“Seafood is a very expensive part of our business,” said Sebastiao, “but we do a lot of catering because of it — we’ve been doing more in the eastern part of the state, especially in the Boston area, and within other Portuguese communities.”

Moving ahead, Sebastiao said he’s still considering an expansion or a second location, perhaps bringing Portuguese culture to another community.

There are no firm plans on the drawing board — Sebastiao nearly opened a second location in Wilbraham two years ago, but lacked the necessary management and the time — “it’s just too busy here,” he said.

He has three daughters, who have chosen careers outside of the restaurant business. Sebastiao said he still holds on to the wish that some day he can pass his restaurant on to one of them, but concedes that he understands their choices, too.

“They went to college and took jobs in their field of study, and that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “I also think they recognize what a harsh job owning a restaurant can be. I can work 9 a.m. to midnight and still have things to do. You never know how business will be from one day to the next, and it’s hard to get started.

“When we first opened, it was hard to make ends meet,” he continued. “It’s different now … but the work has not changed.”

Down the Street, Take a Left

Still, Tony and Penny’s continues to attract new diners and a steady stream of catering clients.

“I have no complaints,” said Sebastiao. “Especially being in a small town, located on a side street.”

Indeed, plenty of people know the way to Antonio and Piedade’s place, and look forward to pointing toward Canterbury Street for many years to come.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]