"An Italian chef can be complicated, you know," Avelluto says, referring to himself. A fiercely independent personality, Avelluto also has a distinctive culinary style, which his patrons have come to expect. That may be why Kaniger's suggested menu changes didn't go over. "When we put Dennis' ideas to the public, it was not too receptive to them," Avelluto says.
"The dishes that Dennis changed weren't bad," confesses one of the restaurant's servers. "They were good, but our regular clientele bitched and raised hell and insisted on having things taste the way they always did before."
"I'm changing my philosophy," Avelluto adds. "I'm going to give my customers what they want -- my way." He's simplified the lunch menu to six daily offerings and is returning the dinner menu to the Puglian-influenced dishes (including fresh pastas and homemade mozzarella) that made it such a hit in the first place.
Avelluto admits that business is down. Maybe because his suburban neighborhood is glutted with Italian chain restaurants?
Avelluto might consider a move to 39th Street's restaurant row, where some neighbors are bitching (if not raising hell) about empty storefronts. A few new restaurants are already in the process of taking over old spaces: The former Sun's Chinese Buffet (1715 West 39th Street) will lure a different audience with "modern American cuisine" as Circe later this year. Across the street and a block west, the former Tribal Grill space (1808-1/2 West 39th Street) is being turned into My Dream Café, a new venture by Mimi Perkins, owner of Saigon 39 next door. Tentatively scheduled to open in late June, Perkins' new restaurant will also serve Vietnamese cuisine, "but completely different from Saigon 39," she says. "Same family, different food."
Also closed is John and Angie Khoury's three-year-old Angie's Italian Ice (1710 West 39th Street), but the front door now has a provocative "opening soon" sign taped to it. That could mean anything. And still empty: the space vacated by the short-lived Porter's Market (1717 West 39th Street). It's just waiting for the right restaurateur to not only step up to the plate but fill it.