Editor’s Note: This interview with Richard Britney of Palatucci’s is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Richard Britney admits he is still new to the restaurant business. Fortunately, he has a brother who is accomplished in the industry, which has been instrumental in opening his new restaurant, Palatucci’s Ristorante.
But in the few weeks the venture has been open, Britney has learned plenty of lessons on his own.
One of those is that staffing in the hospitality industry is an ongoing challenge. As he points out, the consistent employees he’s hired are rock solid, but the revolving door so far has made it difficult to present his food, which is based on generations-old family recipes, the way he wants to.
As a result, he has gradually pared down and altered the menu based on how his clientele has reacted and to what simply is reasonable to accomplish.
Hey, making pasta in-house is time-consuming. But he won’t quit. After years as a master electrician, then a robotics tech, and finally running a computer repair business called My Computer Geek, becoming a full-time chef and restaurateur in Palatucci’s, which he owns with his wife Tamara, is unfamiliar. But it’s what he wants to do for the rest of his working days.
“I opened this restaurant from good memories as a child,” he says. “It was a special night when you went to a restaurant.”
He recalls growing up in Hartford, Conn., and taking a Greyhound bus with his four brothers on weekends to stay at his grandparents’ house in the Bronx, N.Y. The neighborhood restaurant where the family went for Italian dinners was exactly that — a restaurant for the neighbors.
“It was a gathering of the neighborhood,” he recalls. “We knew everybody at every table. It was a lesson in just being neighborly. A lot of it was a mentoring in how you handled yourself in general.”
It was the memories of that goodwill — even though he admits there were moments that could have been ripped from reality show family drama — he hopes to capture in Palatucci’s, which he opened in the space that formerly was Gary’s on Spring.
The name Palatucci’s goes back to Britney’s extended family — his cousins in New York are descendants of Giovanni Palatucci, an Italian police officer who is often credited with saving thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Sometimes called “the Italian Schindler,” Palatucci would later be arrested for treason and died in 1945 in a concentration camp.
Needless to say, there are some great stories that have been passed down, and plenty of menus came along for the ride. Not only are all of his recipes based on those, but he also imports as many ingredients as possible from Italy for authenticity.
His half-brother, restaurateur Matthew Antonovich — a veteran of Casa Grisanti, Mozz, Napa River Grill and other culinary ventures — is helping to nurture Britney and Palatucci’s in its formative days. Antonovich holds Britney to a high standard.
“He comes in my kitchen and it’s brutal,” Britney says with a smile. “’What are you cooking? Is this for Olive Garden?’”
He’s also gotten plenty of support from other chefs around town, from Josh Moore of Volaré to Dallas McGarity of Fat Lamb.
“A great business owner does one thing consistently,” Britney says. “You listen to people who know more than you. I’m a big advocate of taking those people’s advice.”
And while he learns, he is doing what he’s always wanted to be doing: cooking Italian food in a place that takes him back to the great meals of his youth.
“I like to feed people,” he says. “It’s a nurturing thing.”
But it hasn’t been easy. He isn’t even fully transitioned from his past life; while sitting in the dining room of Palatucci’s one afternoon when the restaurant was closed, a stranger randomly walked in and said, “Is this the new location of My Computer Geek?” (Britney still has the same phone number.)
Britney invited the young man to bring his computer inside for him to take a look at.
“If they call me, I say, ‘Yeah, bring it to the restaurant,’” Britney says. “It’s hard for me to say no.”
But he also talks about the changes he’s making, the plans to add pizzas to the menu, and the decision of how to best maximize the distinctively different spaces in the building, from the more formal dining area downstairs to the bar and patio area upstairs. The space is decked out with family photos and art downstairs, and the work of photographer Dan Dry upstairs.
It’s a process, and the goal is to get to the point where the restaurant is where people in the neighborhood go for a family meal.
“I’m not out to win ‘Top Chef,’” he says. “I’m not 30, I’m 58.”
But in chef-speak, he’s closer to 30: “I’m a young chef. This is the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. And it’s emotional. It gets intense. It’s a totally different animal. I enjoy it, but it’s stressful. It’s definitely a labor-of-love industry.”