Pleasing Palettes

Pleasing Palettes

NNY Business, April 2012

Pleasing palates for 15 years Cavallario’s marks anniversary with renewed focus on fine dining

NNY Business

There comes a time in the life of a business to take a step back in order to step toward its future.

Peter G. and Brenda T. Cavallario, husband-and-wife owners of Cavallario’s Cucina, 133 N. Massey St., Watertown, did just that when they closed their restaurant for two and a half weeks in March to realign the business with a fresh vision.

“You lose perspective when you are working continually day and night. We felt we had to stop looking at the short term and look at the long term again,” Mr. Cavallario said, explaining that they were too caught up in running the business and had lost focus on the artistry of fine dining.

After a brief hiatus, the team has renewed its approach to the latter. Mrs. Cavallario has created more than a dozen new recipes aimed at enhancing established favorites on the menu. Customers who crave the comfort of eggplant parmesan during colder months can return in the summer for a lighter version that is grilled, and pair it with a glass of wine poured from a vintner exclusively found in a small region of Italy. The restaurant boasts a new wine selection that the owners hope will exceed expectations.

“We did not make such changes by slashing prices, but by taking every step necessary to ensure that all menu items are approachable by the customer,” Mrs. Cavallario said.

A meal at the Cucina is meant to be savored. Staff pours over a seasonally fresh menu of Italian signature dishes like wild mushroom fettuccine, prime cuts of beef or fresh fish. Time with friends and family is meant to be appreciated as much as the food itself.

But over nearly 15 years, the Cavallarios have noticed that customers see them as a place to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or other milestone, and not necessarily as a place to enjoy fine dining. They looked at their competition and, while there aren’t many fine-dining restaurants to compete with, they took note of how families are busier than ever before.

“Watertown is not what it was 15 years ago. It’s a new town,” Mr. Cavallario said.

Restaurants are located downtown and on nearby Coffeen Street. Families tend to choose places where they can catch a quick meal before a child’s soccer game and groups gather to watch a sporting event on a television screen.

“What they’ve forgotten is the art of fine dining,” Mrs. Cavallario said.

This moment of introspection comes as the restaurant marks 15 years of doing business in Jefferson County on April 17.

The Cucina has been at its present Massey Street location since 2003, but for six years prior the Cavallarios operated Cavallario’s Bayside Pizza in Alexandria Bay. The transition from pizza to fine dining came at the request of customers.

Besides pizza, Bayside served pasta dishes. Customers liked it and asked for more. Never afraid of hard work or risk, the Cavallarios developed the Cucina and took their passion for food to the next level.

During the hiatus, Mr. and Mrs. Cavallario looked at their beginnings to build a new vision; beginnings that included a reputation for quality food, high standards and great customer service. Then they compared it to reality — a difficult economy and fast-paced living for many. They came up with an idea that doesn’t compromise their standards.

“We are aware of the competitors, but they are not our compass,” Mr. Cavallario said.

Instead, Mrs. Cavallario has used her culinary talents and developed creative recipes that are more competitively priced for today’s economy.

Mrs. Cavallario is a self-taught chef whose love of food started at a very young age. Her parents were “foodies” and loved to entertain. Being allowed in the kitchen gave her an opportunity to experience the dining experience as an art form.

In 2007, her appreciation for “food as art” paid off when her creation, veal roulade al verde, won awards at the Beef Council’s Veal Platinum Plate contest, an “iron chef”-type event at Ontario County’s New York Wine & Culinary Center.

Meeting Peter seemed serendipitous. His family was in the restaurant business. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Cavallario have worked together in the restaurant industry for 32 years and will celebrate 27 years of marriage in November.

“We will always have a passion for food. And that passion drives us to attract customers who enjoy the art of fine dining,” Mrs. Cavallario said.

The Cavallarios want people to know they can still celebrate a special moment at the restaurant but they are now giving them reasons to return every month, not just once or twice a year.

The Cucina reopened March 22 and the added details of new window treatments and new menu items already have caught the attention of returning customers.

“The steak was cooked to perfection, the staff was cordial and the atmosphere was as pleasant as always,” said Jennifer Cross-Hodge, Dexter, who was there with her husband, David, for an evening of good food and a good time.

ANDREA C. PEDRICK is a freelance writer who lives in Dexter with her family. She is an award-winning broadcast journalist with a journalism degree from Ohio State University. Contact her at

This article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of NNY Business magazine. Copyright 2010-2012, Northern New York Newspaper Corp., all rights reserved. Used with permission.