Tag Archives: Bill Rizzuto

Igloos, Cabanas, Takeout And More: One Restaurant Weathers The Pandemic

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.

Rizzuto’s, on Riverside Avenue.

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 popular igloos. (Photo/Joel Treisman)

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.

Bill Rizzuto

“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.

It may be a while before Rizzuto’s happy hour returns.

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.”

Rizzuto’s: Rock Of Saugatuck

For decades, Manero’s drew steak lovers to Riverside Avenue, at the foot of Bridge Street.

When it closed, a succession of other restaurants followed quickly. There was John Harvard’s, Conti’s, and probably a couple more I forget.

Rizzuto’s has been there for 10 years now. It’s a Westport favorite: warm, welcoming, lively, packed, always serving great Italian and seafood.

Rizzuto’s has survived an economic downturn, the rebuilding of Saugatuck, and the continuing debate about the Cribari Bridge.

It’s not going anywhere. In fact, owner Bill Rizzuto recently gave his place — the 3rd in his small chain — the strongest endorsement: He moved to Westport.

Like many restaurant owners, he has an intriguing back story. A Long Island native, he attended NYU for chemistry. To help pay for tuition, he worked at the midtown Hilton.

There, he fell in love with the hospitality industry.

Bill Rizzuto

The man who hired him offered Rizzuto a job in Las Vegas. At 26, he headed west.

He quickly worked his way to food and beverage manager at the MGM Grand — at the time, the 2nd largest hotel complex in the world.

Rizzuto sat at the casino with Frank Sinatra (“really friendly and generous”). He was in Dean Martin’s suite (“he changed a lot after his son died”). He met Rodney Dangerfield (“definitely funny”), Sammy Davis Jr. and Pee Wee Herman.

He managed 1,500 employees — some old enough to be his grandfather. He learned how to treat people respectfully, how to organize a business, and that there is “life west of New Jersey.”

But he wanted to run his own property. A friend was opening the Dolphin Hotel in Florida. “I went from adult Disney World to the real Disney World,” Rizzuto laughs.

He was handed 12 restaurants, a set of blueprints, and told, “Make it happen.”

It became “the most rewarding part of my career,” Rizzuto says.

Next came 15 years with Hyatt — “the greatest company ever.” He worked in New York, Greenwich and San Francisco.

Bill Rizzuto and his daughter welcomed former President Jimmy Carter to the Hyatt in San Francisco.

But Rizzuto — who had moved 10 times while growing up — did not want that for his young kids. One day, he says, “a brick fell on my head. I said to myself, ‘why are you working for the greatest company in the world, with a car and an expense account, when you can open your own restaurant?!'”

He relocated back East, and opened his first Rizzuto’s in … Bethel.

“I knew a lot about hospitality. I didn’t know jack about real estate,” Rizzuto says.

He earned $3,000 that first year. But he persevered. The Bethel location is now thriving.

In 2008, he opened his second restaurant in West Hartford. The recession took a toll — and opened up an opportunity here.

Rizzuto had always wanted to be in lower Fairfield County. In good times, nothing was available. Yet in 2009, commercial space opened up. Rizzuto examined plenty of properties. When he heard Conti’s was closing, he realized the site was perfect.

A rare shot: The Rizzuto’s bar without a crowd.

The restaurant was an instant hit. It’s survived so long, he says, because “we never tried to be who we were not. It’s good to learn from new trends, but you can’t over-adapt.”

Rizzuto’s recipe for success is “really good, fresh Italian food,” and offering diners a wide range of choices for preparation and sauces.

Over the years Rizzuto’s added more fish and vegetables — the owner is a Westport Farmer’s Market regular — plus an oyster bar. Four years ago they introduced a Lobster Shack. Twice a week, trucks deliver fresh lobsters straight from the Stonington wharf.

Along the way, Rizzuto fell in love with the town.

“Westport is a great place,” he says. “There’s a lot of affluence, but people wear blue jeans. They’re very down to earth, friendly and generous. They really enjoy their community. There’s a very welcoming feel.”

Last year, he moved his family here from West Hartford. That’s another great community, he says. But real estate taxes were “insane.”

He and his wife Lisa are “enthralled” by Westport. “We’ll go to the beach in a blizzard, and walk around.” Rizzuto is an avid fisherman, so the proximity to water is a joy.

Outdoor dining at Rizzuto’s.  The Lobster Shack is next door.

Saugatuck’s restaurant scene is far more crowded than 10 years ago. Rizzuto is not only unconcerned — he welcomes the competition.

“Trust me, it’s good,” he says. “More places make Saugatuck more of a destination. People like clusters.”

He gives big props to town officials, who “go out of their way to be helpful to restaurant, retail and other business establishments.”

And, he notes, “we have a huge parking lot. That helps.”

Bill Rizzuto is a hands-on restaurateur. “I love food and people. My favorite thing is hanging out in the kitchen, and walking through the dining room. It’s just like my old hospitality days.”

Of course, Westport is not Las Vegas. He’s not hanging out with the Rat Pack.

Somehow, this is even more fun.

(On Saturday, March 2 — from 6 p.m. till midnight — Bill Rizzuto gives back to the community. An “Ice Bar” bash, sponsored by Tito’s Homemade Vodka and featuring live music, is a fundraiser for the Levitt Pavilion. Admission is free.)