One of Provo's beloved restaurants, Ottavio's Ristorante Italiano at 71 E. Center St., is closing its doors on Saturday after nearly 11 years of business.
That's because Sicilian owners Vic Balsano and his cousins Lenny and Ottavio Belvedere are planning to launch full-time into their prepackaged food-making business, Primavera Foods, which has been distributing the restaurant's signature creamy tomato basil soup at Costco in Utah for the past year, and more recently, Vic's personal favorite pasta sauce, dubbed the Toscana, which is made of tomato, basil, cream and Romano cheese.
"I'm very saddened by the decision to close. But I've been in the restaurant business for 50 years, and it's time for me to move on and try other things," said Balsano, who also turns 69 on the day he closes his family-owned business on Saturday.
Opened in 1998, the Zagat-rated restaurant, which was named after Balsano's grandfather, Ottavio, is known for its elegant family charm with its marbled tabletops and counters, high ceilings, a curved granite bar and numerous Italian murals, including one of Balsano and his family, and of Michelangelo's David, complete with a leaf painted over his genitalia.
The 7,000-square-foot restaurant is replete with memorabilia of the owners' Italian heritage, from photos of beloved movie stars like Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren to numerous family photos, including that of Balsano's uncle, Gian Belvedere, who was the first of his family from Palermo, Sicily, to arrive in the United States in 1950 and launch their first family restaurant in San Diego, Calif.
Balsano said his family had initially intended to open Ottavio's in Orem, but decided to stay in Provo because they felt the downtown area had more character.
"There are many historic buildings here, including the one we're in, which was built in 1909," Balsano said. "People here are also more conservative than in California. We love our employees because they're very faithful, and have a good work ethic."
The family business has been in the San Diego area since 1955, and Balsano and his cousins still own an Ottavio's restaurant in El Cajon, Calif. A Utah franchisee opened an Ottavio's restaurant in American Fork in 2005, but the business closed two years later.
A 20,000-square-foot building, which houses Ottavio's in Provo and a 7,000-square-foot basement that currently serves as a storage and food preparation area, was recently sold by the Belvederes, Balsano said.
He declined to comment on the terms of the sale, the identity of the new owner, and what is being planned for the restaurant space once it is vacated.
"The basement would be good for retail, and a good steak and fish house would be nice for the restaurant space," Balsano suggested. "You've already got Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants on Center Street, but no good fish or steak house."
The building is also home to the restaurant's parent company, Tribeca Corp., and Pacific Development, a real estate business owned by the Belvederes. Other tenants include Studio Element, a graphic design and Web development company that designed the packaging for Ottavio's soup and sauces; Bluelab Design, an industrial design firm; Center Street Studios; and Wi5 Connect, a social networking and marketing business.
Lathum Nelson, an account executive at Studio Element, said the company plans to remain at the building. "There's a nice Soho vibe to the location. It's one of the last nice old buildings with a lot of class," he said.
All of Ottavio's 30 workers will be let go by Saturday, after a party to commemorate its closing, Balsano said. All its house wines, which include several varieties of Chianti and Pinot Noir, are up for sale from $30 upwards. The most expensive wine is the Ruffino Reserve, which retails for $105, he said.
"The restaurant business has been slow because of the economy. In the last two years, the economy has been bad, real estate has been bad, and people don't have disposable income like they used to. They have to watch their pennies, especially with unemployment rising, people are just not spending like they used to," he said.
That's why they're going into food packaging, because people are eating more at home instead of going to restaurants, Balsano said. "In the old days, it was TV dinners, but today, some of the prepackaged foods are very good and can be bought very inexpensively."
Balsano said he got the idea for the new business from customers who live in Salt Lake City and St. George, who opined about the inconvenience of driving to Provo on a weekly basis for Ottavio's popular Pollo Marsala, Pollo Penne Pesto and crème brêlée.
"We've a lot of customers that tried our food and say it's so good we ought to package it," he said.
So far, sales of his two products -- the soup, which retails in two 20-ounce containers for under $10, and the Toscana sauce, which retails in a 30-ounce container for under $7.99 -- have been good. The products are branded under the name Octavio's because Costco already sells an olive oil called Ottavio.
"We just want to make sure there's no trademark infringement," he said.
Over the next few months, Balsano said, the company plans to introduce several new products at Costco including a chicken lasagna in an Alfredo sauce, chicken penne with pesto sauce and chicken penne with red sauce.
"We chose Costco because it draws a lot of people into their stores and they're all over the country," he said. "To help with our expansion into San Diego and Los Angeles, we have independent brokers who will recommend and distribute our products to other retailers such as Sam's Club and Trader Joe's." Balsano said.
"We have a factory in Springville that does all the packaging and cooking of the product," he said. "When we first started this business, we already had most of the equipment we needed. So all we needed was an initial investment of $30,000 to $50,000. To expand into the next phase, we're re-investing our earnings from the soup and sauce sales into new product development."
While Balsano understands the importance of good taste and high food quality standards, he said he has had to learn about food packaging and how to price their products in order to be competitive.
"Our biggest challenge is maintaining quality at a reasonable price, because we're competing with Michelangelo's Food Products and Buitoni. We've tried their food, but I think my food is of a better quality because I used better quality ingredients. For instance, there are many types of tomato products available but we make sure our tomato products come from Stanislaus, Calif., and it's a much better quality."
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