Wildwood Barbeque brings flavors of summer to Hadley

Last modified: Friday, September 13, 2013

HADLEY — Since he opened his first restaurant in his early 20s, chef Glenn Brunetti, now 47, has prepared everything from pastries to gourmet dinners. But for him, nothing quite matches the “magic” of creating a truly great plate of barbeque.

“I know there are people out here who still think barbeque is just putting something on a grill,” he said. But the key is using low heat for a long time, he said.

“The whole low and slow thing is like magic,” he said. “You can put a pork butt on the grill for 14 hours and it will turn into something wonderful.”

Brunetti is sharing the magic of tangy pulled pork, tender brisket, fresh corn bread and other barbecue favorites at his new restaurant, Wildwood Barbeque, which opened July 21 at 235 Russell St.

The building formerly housed Sully’s Restaurant for 11 years until it closed when the state briefly seized it for failure to pay back taxes.

It’s Brunetti’s third restaurant, but he hasn’t been in the restaurant business for years. An Amherst native, he owned restaurants in Pittsfield and Portland, Maine when he was in his 20s.

“I’ve been cooking barbecue in my backyard for five or six years and really getting a passion for it,” he said in an interview at the completely renovated restaurant Wednesday. “And I knew there was a need for a barbecue place in the area.”

He named two late barbecue joints that both closed in 2008: Smokin’ Lil’s BBQ in Easthampton and Northampton and Holy Smokes in Hatfield. Now there’s only Bub’s Bar-B-Q on Route 116 in Sunderland, he said.

Brunetti, of South Hadley, looked for a space for the restaurant for about a year before he heard that Sully’s Restaurant was closed, and he hurried over to see about renting it. “I always wanted to be on Route 9. I knew Route 9 was where it’s at,” he said.

“It’s really like a dream come true for me. I have a barbecue place right on Route 9, and I’m really happy with the way it came out and the how the barbecue came out,” he said. “And we’ve gotten a good response from customers.”

Getting customers in the door wasn’t too hard, he said. As he predicted, the visibility of the Wildwood Barbeque sign on the busy route coupled with a Facebook page to promote the joint as they built it was enough to draw 40 hungry people for dinner on their first night, and 140 the next day.

He worked with builders for 3½ months before opening night to redo the interior of the building, including new floors and walls, and put an addition on the back to increase kitchen space and make room for the commercial smoker. They landscaped outside the building to create a grassy lawn where patrons can enjoy their food at picnic tables.

Now, the interior of the 4,800-square foot restaurant features booths and tables designed to resemble wooden versions of lawn chairs at a picnic. Awnings that mimic a corrugated tin roof hang above the counter and booths, and the walls are covered with aged barn boards. Brunetti described the look as “rustic but clean.”

Time to make the barbecue

For the last five years, Brunetti worked as northeast regional executive chef for Compass Group, the largest contract food service company in the region. The company provides food to entities like colleges and schools, and his job was to plan menus and get food to 500 schools in the area. He quit the job to start building the restaurant in April.

“It was very liberating and exciting and terrifying,” he said. “I’ve always been employed, and I basically quit my job and then was unemployed with no income for 3½ months, just in here every day with the builder building this.”

To finance the renovations, equipment, and other costs, Brunetti used his personal savings and a “small family loan.” He declined to say how much it cost to start up the restaurant. His wife, Jennifer Brunetti, still works as a graphic artist at the University of Massachusetts.

But he said his gamble seems to have paid off as customers keep coming. “It’s been great,” he said.

The key to mass producing the same kind of barbecue he’s been cooking in his backyard is the enormous smoker he installed into the back of the building.

It can cook 80 eight-pound pork butts for pulled pork at a time, he said.

In barbecuing, the smoke from the wood is what gives the meat its classic flavor, but keeping a smoker at the exact right temperature for 14 hours is pretty hard to do with wood, especially because it’s not good for the meat to open and shut the door to load wood in.

His Southern Pride smoker is heated with gas, which ensures that the temperature is just right for the whole 14-hour cook time; 205 degrees for pork butts and 190 degrees for brisket. He opened a rear compartment of the cooker, where he can put hickory and apple wood in. A gas flame makes the wood smolder for five or six hours, lending its smoky flavor to whatever is cooking, Brunetti said.

On Wednesday, workers had recently finished cooking a batch of 40 pork butts, which Brunetti estimated would last the restaurant about five days. The large glistening hunks sat on a rack in front of the smoker as a cook pulled the tender meat apart with gloved hands. The restaurant employs 13.

Brunetti said the first thing everyone asks about Wildwood is, “what kind of barbecue do you do?” That’s because the word barbecue means different things in different parts of the country.

“In Texas, it’s all about beef. In South Carolina, it’s pulled pork with a vinegar sauce and they put the coleslaw right on the sandwich,” he said. “There isn’t a New England kind of barbecue. So we do an eclectic mix of things.”

At Wildwood, customers eating in or taking out can get pulled pork in barbecue sauce, St. Louis-style pork ribs, brisket and whole or half barbecue smoked chickens. And when Brunetti is sure his four staple meat dishes are perfect, the restaurant will start offering specials that could be quite inventive, he said.

“With that smoker, we could do a lot,” he said. “We could do smoked turkeys, holiday hams.”

Customers can choose from four homemade barbecue sauces and 11 sides, including classics from potato salad to not-so-traditional options like roasted root vegetables and Cajun rice. Using his experience as a pastry chef, Brunetti prepares gourmet desserts for the restaurant, too.

Brunetti said that to do a good business in the Valley, a restaurant has to be “food-preference friendly.” His menu includes quite a few vegetarian and vegan options, as well as gluten-free and dairy-free choices.

There are eight local beers on tap. “Beer goes with barbecue, plain and simple,” he said. And since the eatery got a beer and wine license, they found a six wines Brunetti says goes well with the fare.

On Wednesday afternoon, brother and sister John Powles of Hadley and Mary Commager of South Hadley sat in a booth, waiting for their food to arrive.

They said they had seen the sign a few times while driving by and decided to check it out for a late lunch. “There really aren’t any barbecue places around here, except for Bub’s,” she said. “We’re really excited to try it. Plus, we’ve been looking at those luscious looking desserts over there,” she said, gesturing to the glass display case of sweets at the counter.

Eager to try the barbecue sauces, Commager dipped a fork in a cup of the mango jalapeno variety and gave an approving nod. “I’m big on spicy, so I’m happy here,” she said.

Wildwood Barbeque is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


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