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