Meet Your Merchant: Family restaurant renovates, holds on to Italian tradition
Special to the Bonanza
Location: 930 Tahoe Blvd. (in the Raley’s center)
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Although the green and pink tile has been replaced and the restaurant’s tabletops are now a new, dark red granite, the foundation at Azzara’s Italian restaurant remains.
Guests can still find the glass signs that were etched for owner Sam Azzara when his restaurant opened 37 years ago.
The boot of Italy, with its contours and borders, still hangs on the wall, although it has been repainted and moved toward the front windows.
“We wanted to tie in something more classy and sophisticated, but wanted to stay true to Azzara’s, which is family and history,” said co-owner Cord Gitchell, regarding the restaurant’s recent renovation. “We wanted to pay homage to Sam and Vita.”
Sam, born Salvatore Azzara, is the man who opened Azzara’s in Incline, and Vita, his mother, is the woman who started it all.
Vita, mother of two young children and an immigrant from Sicily, used her experience in the kitchen and her broken English to sell homemade food to hungry tourists at Huntington Beach.
Her food was famous, her recipes, classic. The extra income helped the family stay afloat, and in 1956, the first Azzara’s opened in Stanton, Calif.
“My father was young and wanted to opened a restaurant,” said current co-owner Andrea Gitchell. “So he opened a restaurant with (Vita’s) help and with her recipes.”
Andrea and Cord Gitchell were on a tight budget and an even tighter timeline when renovating the restaurant they have now owned for seven years. Azzara’s received its new look after only 28 days of work
“It’s dramatically different,” Andrea said. “The last remodel was in ’87 so it was a bit stuck in the 80s.”
Cord and his wife added new flooring, new chairs and brick archways that lead to the bar. The most important addition to Azzara’s, however, is the family photos that now hang on the freshly painted walls.
A black and white portrait of an Italian woman in a long dark skirt hangs prominently on one wall. Vita, meaning “life” in Italian, was one of 13 children and the only daughter of her family to come to the United States.
The stories of the Azzara family are told through the nine black and white photographs: the very first Azzara’s restaurant in Stanton; Sam and his parents in from of People’s Shoe Store; Andrea’s grandfather’s business in Huntington Beach; Andrea’s great aunt holding olive branches in the olive orchards of Italy; another aunt playing the accordion in front on an olive oil factory.
The photos, done by Mary Garrel of Garrels Gallery, portray the tradition of family and of food that is the foundation for Azzara’s.
“We don’t want it to look like a living room, where you just walk in and see all family photos — we have to try to tie in the restaurant-themed ones,” Andrea said.
The photos, which were an afterthought of the remodel, are now the topic of conversation with employees and guests.
“That’s who we are,” said Andrea. “The reason we are here is because of all of the risks and sacrifices that our grandparents and great grandparents made.”
To celebrate the renovations and, like all good Italians, celebrate family, Azzara’s will host a grand re-opening party, Thursday through Sunday of this week.
Live accordion and acoustic guitar music as well as drink and food specials will be offered to guests who come see the renovations.
“We’re very blessed not only with where we live, but with the customers that we have,” Cord said. “We have a lot of loyal customers and without them it’s hard to survive in this day and age.”
The restaurant is a place of family and tradition for Andrea, and she hopes it will continue to be for her children as well.
“I remember that booth,” she said pointing to a corner booth in the restaurant. “My sister and I would do our homework there after school.”
Although their three sons are all under the age of 10, they have been exposed to the family business at an early age.
Andrea and Cord hope to instill the values they learned as kids, watching parents like Sam and Denise Azzara own and operate a business.
“When our kids are actively involved … they are more apt to understand how to earn a living,” Cord said.
The family feeling resonates through the restaurant’s staff, too. Some employees have been with Azzara’s for 10 years, some for 20, and a few for as long as the restaurant has been open.
When Andrea and Cord took over their family’s restaurant in 2007, they knew they would become part of an even bigger one.
“We have a very family oriented mindset here as far as our employees and our customers go,” Cord said. “During the process of this remodel, we actually had some customers help out, which I think speaks to how we are as a community.”
NOT ALL HAS CHANGED
Like friends, some menu items change. But like family, there are other dishes that are based in tradition and will always stay the same.
Dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, cannelloni and Osso Buco (slowly braised veal shank in a white wine sauce) will always be available at Azzara’s.
Cord and Andrea also believe in honoring their customers’ requests and have added special items, such as gluten-free pasta.
“Every time we change the menu, we try to add option to accommodate everyone,” Cord said. “There are a few items that are so popular and so good, you would never take them off of the menu.”
Andrea and Cord owe a lot to their parents, Sam and Denise, just as Sam and Denise owe to Vita and her recipes and innovation.
Cord said running a restaurant and raising three boys would not be possible without the help of family.
“I’ve always had a huge tie to my family, ever since I was a little girl,” Andrea said. “This was just as much ours as my parents, and it was our responsibility to make sure that it was successful because it provided us our lifestyle, and the same goes now that we have children.
“They will grow up working in it and hopefully loving it.”
Azzara’s is open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 5 p.m.
Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at email@example.com.