In early March of 2020, Rizzuto’s was booming.
With a prime location — Riverside Avenue across from the Cribari Bridge — plus great Italian-and-more food, a booming bar, live music and plenty of parking, owner Bill Rizzuto was pleased. His 2009 decision to open in Fairfield County — his first Rizzuto’s was in West Hartford — was paying off.
Then came COVID.
Every Westport restaurant closed to in-person dining.
Many resorted to takeout. Rizzuto’s shut completely.
“Safety was the guiding light,” explains the owner. “We were concerned about the safety of our customers and our employees.”
Rizzuto’s reopened 2 months later, on May 22 — the first day outdoor dining was allowed in Westport — with both patio seating and takeout.
They saw an “exponential” increase in online orders, compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
He invested in new technology, to speed up and ease the process. “We became really good at takeout,” Rizzuto says proudly.
That’s just one way the restaurant has adapted to the new normal.
He looked into renting or buying tents. But, Rizzuto says they did not seem to offer a different experience than indoor seating. Diners were leery of that.
Then he had a “crazy idea” install cabanas in the parking lot.
The 8×8-foot structures provided physical barriers. for each party. People felt comfortable and safe.
Plus, he says, “they’re fun.”
In the winter came more fun: igloos. They’re safe too — and warm.
Rizzuto’s did not open its indoor space until October. By that time they’d redone the ductwork, renovated the HVAC, and installed ultraviolet lights.
Thirteen months later, they still have not added back all their furniture.
Rizutto’s igloos are here for a second winter. The owner thinks a fourth wave of COVID is coming.
He also thinks masks may be mandated indoors again. He wears one all the time. So do waiters and servers who enter the igloos.
There remains a “significant number” of people who will still not dine inside. “I respect that,” he says. “My wife is one of them.”
Yet — as he surveys the restaurant industry nationwide — Rizzuto knows he is lucky.
“I’m blessed we could expand into the parking lot,” he says. “And all of us in Westport have been blessed beyond belief at the support from Town Hall. Zoning laws that had been written in stone were bent, to allow people to survive.”
Without that — and outdoor dining, and takeout — Rizzuto says, “we would not be here.”
“Here” is decidedly different from before the pandemic.
Rizzuto’s live music is gone. So is happy hour. Lunch is served on weekends only. (Weekday lunches used to be driven by nearby offices. Most of those people have not yet returned, Rizzuto says.)
There’s been an uptick this year in holiday party bookings. (That’s all relative, of course. Last year there were none.)
But the groups are smaller. They keep things low-key. And organizers are waiting as long as possible before reservations, in case situations change.
During his 12 years in Westport, Bill Rizzuto has seen plenty of changes. COVID created new challenges, caused unforeseen disruptions, and prompted plenty of changes.
Rizzuto looks on the bright side. “I’m blessed with incredible customers. We’ve gotten to know them even better now. That’s incredibly rewarding.
“And I’m blessed with a great staff. They all came back when we reopened. This has brought out the best in people.”
Speaking of people: The owner has seen one other big change over the past 18 months: A lot more 212 and 917 area codes when people call to order takeout.
“New residents really appreciate what we do,” he says. “They came here from a scary situation in New York. I’m glad we can be here for them.”