Across the Generations
The Families Behind Central MA’s Most Enduring Restaurants
By Bernie Whitmore
One of the many things that Worcester has going for it is a plethora of restaurants ~ our dining scene just keeps expanding and expanding. It’s easy to take today’s culinary diversity for granted, but if you were to step back in time twenty or thirty years you might recognize some of the dining venues you frequent today, but most would bear names long-since vanished. That’s the nature of the restaurant business… one mistake during an economic downturn can be disastrous, especially for families struggling to stay open against the odds.
But a few of these landmarks remain standing tall and proud, in large part the bedrock of Worcester’s dining culture: Coral Seafood, The Parkway Restaurant and Bar, Leo’s, and, a bit further afield, Carmella’s in Brookfield. There are many more, but these are a special grouping of family enterprises who’ve figured out how to fend off the onslaught of corporate franchises and weather the unpredictable economy.
When I visit friends who moved from Massachusetts decades ago, quite often they ask about their favorite Worcester restaurants, wondering whether and hoping that they’re still open. The one I’m asked about most often is Leo’s Ristorante; everyone has a story and warm memory of the most quintessential of Italian restaurants. And I agree…my earliest memory of Leo’s involves a waitress who treated everyone like her own family, astoundingly delicious stuffed shells, and bunches of fake grapes on the walls.
This year marks Leo’s 50th anniversary, which for any business is exceptional. I spoke with Rose Turo, Leo’s daughter-in-law, and Lee Hanson, Rose and Francis’s daughter and a member of Leo’s “next generation,” about the Ristorante and what it takes to maintain a family enterprise as it is passed down through the generations.
Can you give us a bit of background about Leo’s?
Lee Hanson: Leo’s Ristorante was started by my grandfather Leo in 1962. His family had been involved with Turo’s Market (where the 111 Chop House is now located). He left and opened the restaurant on 56 Shrewsbury St. (where Allgos and Victory Cigar bar now stand). In 1986, my father Francis relocated the restaurant to where it is now. Since my father’s passing in 2009, my mother Rose, who has been in the business for forty plus years, my brother Chris, and I have been keeping the legacy alive. My husband and Chris’s wife are also involved in the business.
My father lived for the restaurant business and he spent all his life involved in our restaurant. Had he not passed, he still would be an integral part of the restaurant and I think that he probably would have had trouble giving up control. He might have stepped back a little but I don’t think he would be able to walk away. The restaurant business was in his blood.
What sets you apart from other restaurants?
Rose Turo: Our food has not changed over the course of 50 years. We have made adjustments and additions but there are a lot of staples that we have kept. In fact, many times you hear customers talking about coming to Leo’s as a child and how they loved the antipasto or pizza or chicken parm and it is all still the same as they remember. Our sauce is the same recipe as years ago. I think that consistency is the key. People want to come and have a meal that they can rely on and know that each time they come it will be as good as the last.
But as the times change so must we. We try to keep things updated and now look not only to keeping our long time customers but also towards attracting new customers.
Is dining more casual now than it used to be?
RT: Looking back over the years, I think that of course things have changed and it seems that more and more restaurants are opening in the area [that] Shrewsbury Street has become so much more diverse. Dining is definitely more casual. In fact, there are some nights where our lounge is as busy or busier than our dining room. Years ago the lounge was just were you had a drink and waited for your table. Now it is an extension of our dining room.
How do you define hospitality?
LH: I think that Leo’s has survived through the decades because for one we have been consistent over the years and also because we are a family business and we LOVE what we do. We love to talk to our customers and get to know them and in many cases they have watched me and my brother grow up and now we watch our customers’ families grow. We look forward to the future and to keeping the family traditions alive.
Lee’s explanation of the success of Leo’s Ristorante is quite clear: Treat your customers like family and don’t mess with a winning formula. That combination seems to come naturally to Italians, doesn’t it?
While we have focused on Leo’s Ristorante, now in its third generation of ownership, there are many other restaurants in the area that over the years have also remained vibrant and popular while undergoing a similar generational “passing of the torch.”
The restaurant business is notorious for its high failure rate, so it really is quite remarkable how many Central MA eateries are still around for second generation ownership, never mind third.
Leo’s Ristorante’s neighbor down on Worcester’s Shrewsbury Street, The Parkway Diner, is currently run by the grandchildren of John Evangalista, one of the original founders. While the new owners ~ brothers Brian , John, and Mike Richard ~ are in charge, their grandfather can still be found manning the grill whenever he gets the urge.
Under the ownership of the original Evangalista brothers, the Parkway Diner was homey, open 24/7, and served the working men and women of Worcester traditional diner fare including meatloaf and turkey dinners, but they also specialized in Italian food like meatballs, lasagna and ravioli. The Parkway truly is a restaurant dynasty built on the simple meatball.
The grandsons have updated the diner’s original concept somewhat, recently renovating the “back room” and put in a larger bar, new tables and flat screen TVs. They also changed the name a little to Parkway Restaurant & Bar.
While with each generation change is inevitable, in the restaurant business there are also sacred traditions and recipes that are handed down from grandfather to son to grandchild that will never change.
Not only is Coral Seafood in its second generation of family ownership, it is also in its third Worcester location. Teddy and Georgia Voyatis started Ted’s Seafood in 1981 on Fruit Street in the city as a small fish & chip joint that primarily served the neighborhood and the employees of the old Worcester City Hospital. They then moved to Green Street in 1985 into the building that now houses The Banner, a popular sports bar, and renamed the restaurant Coral Seafood. And with each move came changes. Teddy and Georgia’s son Jimmy is now in charge of running Coral Seafood, which since its opening in 2005 has become ~ from those humble beginnings as a neighborhood fried food joint ~ a mega restaurant on Worcester’s Shrewsbury Street. He manages everything from the kitchen to the functions.
And that’s not the only change; son George now runs a second location in Marlboro. The Voyatis family changed the restaurant’s name to Fish a few years back, and it continues the legacy of serving excellent seafood.
Now don’t for one moment think that just because the sons are in charge of the restaurants that the parents have retired…in fact, anything but. Georgia and Teddy still work every day: Georgia handles the books and Teddy makes the drive to Boston to buy the fish. This is one family fish tale with no end in sight.
CARMELLA’S ITALIAN KITCHEN
Carmella’s Italian Kitchen in Brookfield got its start a few generations back on Worcester’s Shrewsbury Street when in 1966 the Panarelli family opened the original Italian Kitchen. Chubby Panarelli, the founder, was Carmella’s father, and she married Martin Fitzpatrick . In 1987, Carmella and Martin opened Carmella’s Italian Kitchen as we know and love it now and just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Unfortunately, Carmella passed away in 2000, but today the restaurant is still run by her husband and two sons, Marty and Sean Fitzpatrick. While Sean tends to the front of the house, dad Martin and brother Marty take care of the kitchen. Although the family’s name may be Irish, the food at Carmella’s is strictly old school Italian, right down to the daily baking of their own bread and the making of their own sausage. The high quality of the food they serve and the respect and affection they show their customers would make Carmella ~ who still appears in the Kitchen’s print ads ~ very proud indeed.
After 25 years, it’s pretty obvious that from grandfather to mother to sons, this family knows what it takes to survive in the always competitive restaurant business without ever compromising their original ideals.