‘Pomodoro’ aims to modernize city’s 80-year-old Italian tradition

‘Pomodoro’ aims to modernize city’s 80-year-old Italian tradition

The Savini family, from left, parents Roger and Mitch Savini, Jill Savini Moylan, Matt Moylan and Gina Savini.

WOONSOCKET – Roger Savini, owner of Savini’s Restaurant, was eating Italian food on Rathbun Street before he was even born, at least according to family legend.

Grandmother Anna Savini was a cook at the restaurant’s predecessor, the Sons of Italy, in the 1940s, and when her pregnant daughter came in for a meal, she’d tuck an extra meatball beneath the pasta just for baby Roger.

That’s why family members say it just makes sense that the restaurant – renovated and relaunched this year under the name “Savini’s Pomodoro” – would eventually pass to the next generation of Savini children.

The restaurant has seen a complete makeover in the past several months, with a revamp of everything from the menu and bar, to the parking lot and banquet hall, an effort by daughters Jill Savini Moylan and Gina Savini, and Jill’s husband Matt Moylan to update the facility and expand its clientele.

“We’re going through every square inch of the building,” said Matt. “Savini’s always had some of the traditional, classic foods. We repackaged those to fit this market.”

The Rathbun Street restaurant first opened in 1934 under the Sons of Italy name with a mens’ club on the bottom, basement floor. Upstairs was a banquet hall where Moylan says mixed crowds would attend puppet shows. Times changed, and the banquet space was eventually rented to Rathbun Outlet.

In 1968, the Felice family took over, renaming the establishment “Felice Italian Restaurant,” and owners took steps to restore the former banquet hall, while the department store moved.

Roger, who at the time was a young, up-and-coming-entrepreneur who owned several local businesses and also worked in real estate, used to help out at Felice, and when the family decided to sell in 1979, he served as their listing agent.

When the business didn’t immediately get purchased, he asked his wife, Mitch, if she wanted to try running a restaurant, and the couple bought the establishment in 1980.

“They’ve been here since,” Moylan said.

The Savinis continued the restaurant’s longstanding Italian tradition, also adding seafood and steak dishes to the menu. Their family-style chicken also was a hit, and the upstairs banquet facility became known as an affordable wedding venue.

“Savini’s ended up becoming a very successful restaurant through the 80s, 90s and the early 2000s,” Moylan said. “Mitch and Roger’s success through the years has been to allow families to eat affordably.”

But in recent years, things have grown quiet at the city staple, as an older generation of customers makes way for millenials and younger families.

“They weren’t at a point where they wanted to reinvent themselves,” Moylan said of his in-laws, noting that visitors once came from all over New England for restaurant’s authentic Italian-style food.

“I take all that history and I take it in,” he said. “Then I try to go back.”

It won’t be the first time that Mitch and Roger’s progeny take on such a project. Jill, Gina and Matt purchased Ciro’s Tavern, a shuttered downtown business with its own storied past, in 2003, and have built a popular restaurant based on both preservation and modern updates – offering guests an eclectic food and drink menu in an English-style tavern.

“I look back at Ciros: it was once a four-and-a-half-star, high-end dining experience for business men and heads of state from across New England,” he said of the establishment, which was closed when the family purchased it. “I completely reinvented it.”

On Rathbun Street, Moylan says he envisions a similar “reinvention.”

“Savini’s catered to the city of Woonsocket – the local, blue collar people. Today, we are catering to more of the region,” Moylan said. “That’s why it’s going to take some significant investment.”

That investment began around the start of summer when the younger generation of Savinis brought in a new team of chefs from Providence, added on a new menu and drinks, and added a new 30-person horseshoe bar at the center of the restaurant. A complimentary soup and bread station was set up in the main dining room, which Moylan said will soon be expanded to include an olive bar and a spot to make your own oil for dipping. The new menu includes traditional Italian recipes – made from scratch with fresh pasta shipped in from Boston – including marsala and Parmesan dishes, or chicken, shrimp or veal francaise, sauteed in a lemon wine sauce. They also serve wood grilled pizza, paninis, gnocchi and ravioli. And they’ve kept the family-style chicken on the menu.

Upstairs, they’ve renovated the 280-person dining hall to give it a brighter, more contemporary feel. There, they are now serving Sunday brunch for $12.95 every weekend with a breakfast buffet that includes an omelette station; a roast and ham carving station, and pasta and dessert stations. The hall is also still used for private parties including weddings, showers and corporate events, and live entertainment.

The restaurant started holding lunch hours last week with the same menu, adding on changing lunch specials menu for $7.99. New hours offer lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, with brunch served Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a lounge open late. Saying he aims to provide the best quality for the price, Moylan noted that most dishes cost less than $15.

Like with Ciro’s, it’s the details that make the restaurant feel unique. The family looked to the restaurant’s past in moving forward, ordering older-looking furniture, like wood bar stools and a butcher block bar.

Work is now underway on the exterior of the building and the grounds, where Moylan hopes to build an outside patio area and piazza. Improvements, he said, may continue for years.

“It’s going to take time, but with a little vision and a little will, I’m going for it.”