A dish of success: Spoleto owner still going strong 30 years on



Published: 11-13-2017 1:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The year is 1987. The scene is downtown Northampton. A tall, skinny young man with a beard is staring at a key outside a storefront — a key to his future.

“I was contemplating how this one key was gonna change everything,” restaurateur Claudio Guerra said last week, remembering that pivotal moment in his life three decades ago.

The restaurant Guerra was about to start was called Spoleto. Fast forward 30 years and Spoleto is still alive and well in Northampton, albeit inhabiting its third location in the city. In this time Guerra has learned quite a few things about surviving in an industry where failure is common. But in 1987, Guerra’s mind was not on such things.

At 25, Guerra had already lived a lot of life: Biking across the country, doing a 2½ year culinary apprenticeship at a hotel in Germany that began when he was 16, and working in restaurants all around New York City — from a high-end French establishment to a big-volume catering hall.

“I did it all,” Guerra said.

Born in Germany to an Italian father and a German mother, his family emigrated to the Bronx when he was a toddler. Guerra’s father was the head waiter at the esteemed Manhattan restaurant Lafayette, before striking out with a partner to found La Coquille in Long Island.

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“I grew up in the restaurant business,” Guerra said.

Following his return from his cross-country bike trip, Guerra helped his father establish The Mill on the River restaurant in Connecticut. From there, he would take road trips to find out where he wanted to set up his first restaurant.

The first time he visited Northampton, Guerra said that he knew it was the place. It was Vespers at Smith College, and snow was falling onto the Calvin Coolidge bridge, when he and his father got off Exit 19.

“I turned to my dad and said, ‘This is it,’” he said.

They then proceeded downtown, where they saw many people entering a church on the Smith campus. Smith students then came in, clad in white gowns and holding candles.

  “And I said ‘Dad, I know this is it,’” said Guerra, noting that he was a young man at the time.

Besides feeling right, Northampton had another strategic advantage at the time — little competition both within its borders and beyond for a “nice” meal.

“It was pretty crazy here 30 years ago,” he said, noting that it wasn’t unusual for there to be wait of more than two hours to eat at Spoleto on weekends.

Guerra named Spoleto after the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and he originally intended for its concept to be Charleston meets Italy. However, public demand caused the restaurant to go into more of a classic Italian direction. That said, the one dish that has remained on the menu for all 30 years of Spoleto’s existence still reflects his original concept: A pasta dish that combines pasta shells with Italian and Cajun flavors simply titled “Pasta Shells.”

“Kind of an Italian Jambalaya thing,” he said.

Starting the restaurant with a chef couple from New York City, Guerra originally intended to become a silent partner. Six months later, he bought the couple out.

Guerra moved the restaurant from its original location on Crafts Avenue to a Main Street location in the 1990s, despite a warning from his father not to do so, who said Guerra had a good thing going on Crafts Avenue. Nevertheless, the new location flourished, and Guerra started a new restaurant in the old Crafts Avenue space — Pizzeria Paradiso — which has been an institution ever since.

A chain takes shape

This wouldn’t be Guerra’s last expansion. In the ensuing years he would purchase the pub Paradise City Tavern and the neighboring fine dining establishment  Del Raye Bar and Grill; and start the casual Mexican restaurant Mama Iguana’s — all in Northampton. Further afield, Guerra launched expansions of Spoleto in Easton, East Longmeadow, and a lunch-based Northampton spinoff, Spoleto Express. He would also open a Mama Iguana’s in Springfield, a 350-seat establishment in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

There were setbacks. The Easton Spoleto ended up failing. Paradise City burned down, and a changing restaurant climate caused Guerra to shutter Del Raye and reopen Paradise City in its old location.

All of this would pale, however, to the situation that Guerra found himself in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, the fallout from which hit Guerra’s business hard.

To make matters worse, his ventures were all financed by cash flow. When that flow trickled off, so too did his financial security, as banks also stopped lending money at the time.

In order to survive, Guerra attempted to execute a plan as simple as it was ambitious: Cut his restaurant holdings down to Mama Iguana’s, Spoleto and Pizzeria Paradiso, all within walking distance in downtown Northampton. The other restaurants in his chain were either closed or sold.

“Go back to my roots,” he said.

Despite a significant investment, Guerra shuttered the Mama Iguana’s in Springfield, walking away from it after a Saturday service. He then sold the Spoleto in East Longmeadow to two of his employees, for the price of these employees taking on many of the accounts payable. Spoleto Express was shut down because it wasn’t performing well enough, while Guerra decided to close Paradise City in order to get out of the pub business, relocating Spoleto to its current location and into a building he owns.

“It’s miraculous I’m still in business,” he said. “I had so much crushing debt.”

The whole process took about two years, but Guerra came out on the other side of it. He said the reason why he was able to pull it off was because he had been in business for awhile, and people trusted that he would pay them back, even when he couldn’t do so immediately.

Today he still owns the same three restaurants, all of which are in good shape. He and his wife, Maria, were married in 2003. They met at Spoleto when she entered as a customer, and he asked her out. The couple has three young children ages 10, 7 and 6.

Business decisions

Guerra said that he doesn’t have much sentiment or ego when it comes to his business, and that he would walk away from Spoleto if it wasn’t making money. At the same time, he did acknowledge that he’d had tears in his eyes when Spoleto moved for the first time.

In that period, Guerra was cooking in the kitchen seven days a week, and that night was no exception.

“That was kind of the last time,” he said, saying that he knew life was changing then.

Guerra says the biggest reason for his longevity in the restaurant industry comes back to a simple philosophy — he treats employees and customers how he would want to be treated.

“It sounds ... completely idiotic,” he said, while noting that it is the number one rule and plays a big role in why some people fail in the business.

He also said that he wished he could pay every single one of his cooks twice as much, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to give every person in his kitchens a $5 an hour raise if it were possible. The small margins of the restaurant business make those desires difficult, he said.

Some of Guerra’s employees have been with him for decades, including Chito Diaz, his prep guy at Spoleto, who was with Guerra when he started Spoleto. A number of Diaz’s family members work or have worked for Guerra as well, and Diaz’s uncle worked for Guerra’s father in New York City prior to the establishment of Spoleto.

One thing that Guerra is careful not to do is to discipline employees in front of their co-workers, something he hated being done to him when he worked in kitchens.

When it comes to customers, a key policy of Guerra’s is to sit them in the nicest tables available, and not based off dividing them evenly between each server’s sections.

Guerra also remains personally involved with his establishments’ operations. He still works in development for the menus of his restaurants, and is in regular contact with his chefs. He works the front of the house at Spoleto three nights a week.

He said that he warns people entering the restaurant business against personally guaranteeing their leases. That’s why he was able to jettison Mama Iguana’s in Springfield.

“Why would you jeopardize the rest of your life because you’ve put money into somebody else’s building?” he said.

He also encourages restaurateurs to spend a day in the dish pit, and see which plates are coming back with food on them, and said that consistency is the “holy grail” of the restaurant business.

As for how he has been able to personally preserve himself, Guerra noted taking time for himself and his penchant for power napping.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.