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Up from the Ashes

Pinocchio’s Ristorante Gets a Fresh Start in Three Rivers

The sign above the bar at Pinocchio’s Ristorante says it all.

“Lasci il buon rullo di periodo,” it reads. The translation? “Let the good times roll.”

It’s something Chris Brunelle actively keeps in mind as he attends to the day-to-day details of the business he loves — because the past few years, by and large, have not exactly constituted what would be considered good times.

That’s mainly due to a fire in 2005 at a neighboring tanning salon that forced him out of the downtown Amherst location where the restaurant had operated since 1978 (Brunelle bought it in 2000). With bills piling up and insurance claims turning into a nightmare, he had to find another location — and he did, reopening in the Three Rivers section of Palmer in February 2007.

“Being from Western Mass., I know that Three Rivers borders three of the top-five fastest-growing communities in Western Mass. in Belchertown, Ludlow, and Wilbraham,” Brunelle noted. “Plus, we have a Mass Pike entrance nearby.”

He and his partner, Tom Decosmo, kept the Italian focus, especially emphasizing Northern Italian cuisine, but also decided to make the eatery a little less formal to attract families and other casual-minded diners.

“We didn’t want it to just be a place to go for a special event, like a birthday or an anniversary,” Brunelle said. “We wanted people to take their family to dinner here and feel comfortable.”

From the time of its reopening, he told BusinessWest, the restaurant has been well-received. “The biggest thing we have going for us is our name recognition,” he explained. “Being in the Valley for 25 years, that was a big plus.”

At the same time, he knows the new site won’t pull in the $2 million annually Pinocchio’s regularly chalked up in Amherst — that facility had the benefit of size (50 more seats than the new spot) and some 30,000 college students nearby, as well as their parents on weekends.

But he hopes a family-friendly atmosphere and quality food will keep a new crowd coming — and so far, he’s cooking up a promising second act.

From Pins to Pasta

Actually, Brunelle isn’t cooking anything. He says he doesn’t even pretend to know how to cook, leaving that to his head chef, Santa Saravio, and focusing instead on growing and marketing the restaurant. It’s a role he has relished since coming on board eight years ago.

“I was in the 10-pin bowling business and had an opportunity to be a partner in the restaurant,” Brunelle said. “Coming from a people-oriented business, it was an easy transition into the food business. It’s all about managing people.

“It may sound cliché,” he continued, “but you have to believe in what you sell. I love food, and I like being around food and people, so it was a natural fit.”

Soon after he joined the business, he launched Pinocchio’s To Go, a natural offshoot of the takeout business already being offered in Amherst. The ‘To Go’ locations — which now number five, in Amherst, Springfield, Wilbraham, Ludlow, and the Three Rivers flagship — emphasize quicker fare like pizza and calzones, but allow people to pick up full meals on the run as well.

More importantly, the ‘To Go’ locations kept the Pinocchio’s name in the public consciousness for almost two years between the Amherst fire and the Three Rivers relaunch.

The new site had been a restaurant and bar since the mid-1950s, and even today maintains some of its vintage architecture, such as the arch metal awning out front and the entryway lined with glass blocks. “We wanted to keep some of the ’50s characteristics,” Brunelle said.

Pinocchio’s didn’t change its culinary emphasis with the move. “We still sell a lot of fish and seafood dishes, a lot of different variations of meat dishes, and pasta and risotto. The idea is to have fine Italian cuisine at family prices.”

Indeed, the extensive menu seems to have something for any taste, such as ‘Penne Rompicapo,’ with grilled salmon, fresh spinach, artichokes, roasted red peppers, and capers; ‘Filetto Tartufato,’ a marinated fillet of beef wrapped in prosciutto with a black truffle cognac reduction; and classic chicken preparations like parmigiano, francese, and marsala.

Meanwhile, the risotto options include ‘Pescatore,’ with clams, mussels, and shrimp in white wine sauce over saffron lobster risotto; and ‘Veneziana,’ which marries grilled chicken, porcini and portabella mushrooms, broccoli, tomatoes, and smoked mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

The To Go menu strips down those options somewhat, Brunelle said, but retains many of the same entreés, pasta, and gourmet pizzas, adding sides like cheese sticks and french fries.

“People like the To Go concept, and they like that we have such a wide variety of food,” he added. “Two of the locations are primarily college-based, and the others have been placed in more family neighborhoods.”

Fire Escape

The book isn’t closed on Amherst by any means, said Brunelle, who still struggles with insurance companies over compensation for the event which caused about a closet-sized patch of fire damage in the restaurant but enough smoke damage to shut the doors for good.

“We’ve been tortured by insurance companies, and there’s a lot of lawsuits that still haven’t been settled,” he said. “So we had a lot of risk out there, and we were forced to reopen. I have to keep our name recognition strong. I’m still a victim in this.

“We’ll never do the numbers here that we did in Amherst,” he added, “but it is what it is, and we’re going forward.”

Not that he minds.

“I truly enjoy being around people, and this business is definitely something to be proud of,” Brunelle said. “My kids are proud to come here, to work here and eat here. And we do a lot in the community.”

Among those efforts are quarterly Italian wine dinners, from which Pinoc-chio’s donates 20% of its proceeds to the Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“We’re constantly doing events and donate a lot of food to different charities in the area,” he said. “I like being a part of the community — I live in this community, and I really like the people.

“It’s a good business to be in,” Brunelle added. “You feel good about yourself when you can go home at the end of the day having made other people happy.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

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